Bombay Talkies, released in 2013 to mark the centennial of Indian feature filmmaking, is not just another film about the film industry. This anthology project keeps its focus on the power of cinema for audiences. The four contributing directors represent different vibes, maybe even genres, within the current mainstream of Hindi cinema. Karan Johar is the reigning king of frothy, emotion-soaked stories about the love lives of extremely pretty and rich urban Indians, often shot in flower-filled foreign locations. Dibakar Banerjee’s (my personal favorite currently working in Hindi cinema) five feature films are all quite different from one another but tend to be empathetic stories about the adventures and bad decisions of more everyday people. Zoya Akhtar’s first film, Luck by Chance, is one of the best Indian movies about Indian movies, and her other work focuses on people as rich as Karan Johar’s characters but who are less overwrought in their expressions. Anurag Kashyap typically makes more violent films about poor and/or rural characters.
The component films are strongest when they stick to that mission of celebrating the magic, both light and dark, of movies. Imagination, passion, talent, family, promises, dreams—and, I think very significantly, the decision to act on those things—are all depicted thoughtfully and compassionately. There is empathy for small-scale individuals, which is an unusual offering from an industry known for bombast and family or community values. People make difficult decisions that we suspect will have un-filmi outcomes, some of which are even depicted bluntly. A streak of resignation runs throughout the four stories, with characters realizing and largely accepting that life is not always like the movies.
There is wonderful variety within the telling of the four stories: humor and fluff are used in various purposeful ways, the details in sets and locations create instant richness in the lives of people with whom we will spend no more than 45 minutes. There are significant characters of different ages, backgrounds, and identities. For a project that might be assumed to have such a glamorous purpose, Bombay Talkies‘ stories feel contextualized in a remarkably normal world (or at least are meant to evoke it), without expecting the audience to accept as real any infusion of glamour or escapism. Maybe this ordinary setting is an affectionate tribute to the billions (yep, that’s a B) of everyday people who have filled cinema halls for Indian films over the last century.
The anthology opens with the most stereotypically Bollywood-ish piece: beautiful people in a love triangle. Karan Johar’s “Ajeeb Dastaan Hai Yeh” (“It’s a Strange Story”) is cruel and bleak in its own sort of soapy and oversimplified way, which is not what I expected this director to do if given less than an hour to play with. Johar creates a moving story out of three characters who according to mainstream Bollywood traditions—of which he is the standard bearer among these contributors—should be unappealing and unsympathetic or even outright demonized. A gay man (quite unusual to see in a central role) who disobeys his father, a woman who acknowledges marriage cannot solve or subsume everything and refuses to stand by a husband who cannot make her happy and whom she can never please, and a head of household who finally braves a moment of letting the facade crack and the pieces of it fall.
“Ajeeb Dastaan Hai Yeh” uses the ever-important concept of the film song to inspire its characters and also to build a protective retreat. It’s so easy to imagine the husband with his record collection and earphones tightly on, losing himself in old film albums instead of facing his problems. Movie music is just as much a part of a little girl who busks at a train station. She uses it to reach out to the world and demand attention.
Dibakar Banerjee’s “Star,” based on two stories by Bengali director/author Satyajit Ray, is the only of the four shorts that I wish could be a feature film on its own, and that is due not only to an outstanding performance by Nawazuddin Siddiqui (you may know him as the chattering friend in The Lunchbox) but also to the story and its almost otherworldly treatment. There’s an emu whose presence bothers nobody and an imaginary Obi-Wan type figure who dispenses important life lessons from a dumpster on a gaping, eerily quiet film set for the movie within the movie.
The irony of “Star” is that the brightest glow, the most shiny shining, is unscripted at the central family’s home, well out of the range of cameras and crew of its fictional Bollywood film. The power of cinema and, more importantly, the pull of telling and hearing stories stay with us long after we leave the theater or the set. It’s lovely.
“Sheila Ki Jawaani” (this title comes from a wildly popular song from another film about the sex appeal of a character named Sheila) by Zoya Akhtar too shows a not-quite-real figure of inspiration. A little boy is obsessed with the actor who plays Sheila in that other film and imagines her as a floating fairy as he dreams of being a dancer, practicing to her songs. Mainstream Bollywood has no place for characters who hop between gender-prescribed behaviors, and it’s impossible not to worry for him as he ages into teenage years, when hiding his dreams from his oppressive father will get harder (maybe leading eventually to the tragic beginning in “Ajeeb Dastaan Hai Yeh”). When this film leaves children in a self-created performance, happy among their friends and working together to achieve their wishes, it’s probably the most escapist moment in Bombay Talkies.
Anurag Kashyap’s funny tale of duty and faith, ”Murabba” (a fruit preserve) takes on hero-worship, a thread that is essential to any study of Indian film culture. Our protagonist’s film-obsessed father is ill and is convinced that if a certain film star tastes a jar of his murabba, such a blessing will make him recover. The star chosen for this veneration (and responsibility) is Amitabh Bachchan, the actor most people would name as Hindi cinema’s most significant movie star of all time. (He was last seen on The Gutter in Ajooba and perhaps by you in cinemas as Meyer Wolfsheim in Baz Lurman’s The Great Gatsby. And if you remember Slumdog Millionaire, the little kid who is desperate for an autograph is trying to reach him, and he really did host that game show in India.)
I can’t decide if “Murabba” is tongue in cheek or not. Maybe its main character’s desperate attempts to reach Bachchan’s house are staggering toadyism and a self-aware critique of the same? To me, the visuals, body language, facial expressions, and even the story can support both readings. And either way, this piece recognizes the absurd: the longer it takes our seeker to achieve the mission he thought he could accomplish in a day, the more frantic and invested in it he becomes. The person who started as a phlegmatic young man turns into as much of a loon as the obsessed look-alikes and prophets he meets outside Bachchan’s gates. “Murabba” follows this fevered pitch with a funny and unexpected de-escalation of the drama, and in an appropriately filmi way it re-establishes the distance between fan and celebrity, the balance of telling stories with being part of them.
Of the four components, “Sheila” links most significantly to the others. In it we see several echoes of “Ajeeb”: the confidence and assertiveness of children even when they are at the mercy of uncaring, unseeing adults and the ritual of adornment at the dressing table and the meaning of what we choose to look like.
As in “Star,” there’s an expert who comments on dreams and dedication and work. The celebrities in “Sheila” and “Murabba” receive our absolute faith and our bizarre behavior in their presence. Akhtar is also the only filmmaker who lets her characters actually go to the cinema, reminding us of the locus of all this power.
Five years after its release, I’m also not sure if the magical figure of “Sheila” is meant in earnest: Sheila herself is played by Katrina Kaif, a performer who has worked very hard but accomplished very little as an actor. If I were the author of “Sheila,” having a kid obsessed with Kaif would be a statement on how the movies can make us believe anything, as well as a critique of the significance of sex appeal to a woman’s career and the enduring racist baggage of paleness as a beauty standard (Kaif’s mother is white). Akhtar might be kinder; she had cast Kaif in her film before this one.
Right before Bombay Talkies released, India’s most prominent film magazine, Filmfare, celebrated the centennial with a cover featuring three male (and relatively pale) Hindi actors on its cover in an ignoring, maybe even a negation, of female and Indian regional contributions or even presence. Taken as a whole, Bombay Talkies behaves similarly regarding gender. It consistently assumes that the male experience and point(s) of view are the universal and the default. There are some significant females in the stories here, but if you measure the importance given to each character’s thread, the overwhelming majority of emphasis is on males. Mothers are less prominent and effectual than fathers, and sons are more important than daughters. Each of the four fails the Bechdel Test quite spectacularly and only one does well by Mako Mori standards, even when women of different ages or states of being imaginary are included.
“Ajeeb” is the best on this front. The character of the wife feels whole to me; while her marriage is certainly a central focus of the film, we also see her making decisions voicing her own thoughts about her own desires and needs. She makes a close new friend on her own and she clearly cares about her career. The little girl at the train station, who should by demographics be utterly powerless, is an important figure, though mostly for what she tells us about or sparks in the male leads. The fairy in “Sheila” is a puzzle. On the one hand, real-life Katrina Kaif is an ambitious woman succeeding mostly through her own drive and over some horrendous odds (and again, the focus of Bombay Talkies on the power of cinema comes to the fore); on the other, she’s a massively idealized figure whom the characters in the film do not actually know. Actual-Katrina does not get to speak to the characters in the story the way actual-Amitabh does in “Murabba,” in which no women speak at all, leaving me likewise speechless.
I’m describing Bombay Talkies as a whole made of four pieces, but you could argue there are actually five.
The title song that plays at the end of the film is full of archival clips and current stars singing about the film industry, as musical cues relate to their famous songs sequences. It is probably the most odious to me because the only “real person” in it is a (young) man. A whole theater full of seats, all empty except for one reserved for the chosen male child. Why not a theater full of people with the camera spending a little bit of time with several different people, both individuals and groups? And what about the power of cinema to bring us together, to create to and reinforce shared culture (something that Bollywood cinema is extremely good at)? Transporting and amazing individuals with cinema is a grand idea explored lovingly in the other pieces; eliminating all but one civilian face and implying that the 25-year-old man is a surrogate for us all is lazy and short-sighted, not worthy of the creativity of Indian cinema being celebrated.
Bombay Talkies is currently streaming on Netflix. There are more Indian films about Indian films also available there:
- Om Shanti Om, an extremely affectionate embrace and parody of the world of mainstream Bollywood filmmaking. I’m told it makes an excellent gateway drug into Bollywood movies, should you be in the market.
- The Dirty Picture, a fictionalized account of the real life of film dancer and sex symbol Silk Smitha, with a knockout lead performance by Vidya Balan.
- Dhanak, a movie with a more art-film vibe about two siblings who go looking for the sister’s favorite film star to ask him to help restore the brother’s vision.
Anurag Kashyap’s films Ugly, Black Friday, and Ram Raghav 2.0 (featuring the lead actor of the “Star” segment) are also on Netflix. If you don’t mind a terrible Youtube upload, you can also easily watch Satyajit Ray’s 1966 Bengali film Nayak, my favorite of this category.
Screen Editor Beth Watkins’ life might or might not be very much like a movie that stars both Rekha and Helen.