Dir. Karan Johar, Dibakar Banerjee, Zoya Akhtar, Anurag Kashyap
I would like to write a review of Bombay Talkies that is more than a concatenation of four mini-reviews. But that presumes that Bombay Talkies is more than a concatenation of four mini-movies. The minds behind this cluster of stories surely intended it to be more than the sum of its parts, to be a synergistic assemblage that would resonate across a century of Indian cinema. But it is not. The stories are loosely basted together by a very broad theme – the ways in which cinema touches lives. But this connection is too facile and self-indulgent to add anything beyond what the stories themselves offer. There is no substrate, no connective tissue of any substance.
Contrast another recent multi-story film, Love, Sex aur Dhoka, by Dibakar Banerjee – auteur of the strongest segment of Bombay Talkies. That film examines a narrower theme, cinematic voyeurism, and its three stories are far more tightly bound thematically. They are also stitched together by intersections in narrative space; events in each of the three vignettes touch events in the others. The result is a taut, compelling unity. In Bombay Talkies, though, each story sits in a hermetically sealed silo, narratively and thematically disjoint from the others. It's a shame, because linking them by more than their broad and, to be truthful, fairly limp theme would have elevated Bombay Talkies into something truly memorable.
Read across the four shorts, Bombay Talkies takes an encouragingly broad view of who the movies touch, and how. The dour, closeted, and self-loathing Dev (Randeep Hooda) of Karan Johar's segment doesn't seem to care much for modern cinema at all – he openly disparages his wife Gayatri's (Rani Mukherjee) work at a popular film magazine – but evergreen movie songs from cinema's golden age are his escape, his transport out of the stultifying misery of the life he's boxed himself into. For a young beggar girl whom Dev encounters at a railway station, the same classic songs are a livelihood.
That alone spans a wide space – movies as solace for a wealthy, privileged man, and subsistence for a poor little girl. Other shorts examine other branches in cinema's reach – middle-class children inspired by its sparkle and chime, working poor moved by its stories and worshipful of its stars, dreamers, people nursing hopes and anxieties, relationships across generations.
How frustrating then to have all of this glorious expansive scope forgotten in the film's dreadful closing song sequence. There, the wide lens of Bombay Talkies tightens its focus, reducing the entire magic of the movies to a singular pleasure for the solitary young male. Gone are the poor fathers and professional women, the dreaming boys and the neglected girls whose existence was acknowledged, to varying degrees, in the previous segments. In this song, all the stars of Bombay cinema line up to serenade a well-fed, backpack-clutching educated urban young man, occupying an entire cinema hall all by himself. The world is his, and this world is too, the magical world of cinema. (See Beth's analysis of the same song – she said it all very well.)
Perhaps this would all be less frustrating if Bombay Talkies were not marketed as a tribute to a century of Indian cinema. That set-up burdens the film with a big responsibility, and it falls a little short. Bombay Talkies is just four short films that happen to be packaged together. They are pretty good short films, and deserve credit for being that, but they don't make each other more than that.
The strongest of them is Dibakar Bannerjee's piece, which looks at cinema as storytelling and at storytelling as a driver for life itself, with a lovely touch of magical realism. Its hero Purandar (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a working class everyman, has a close encounter with the moviemaking process, as an extra on a set, that both inspires his own life choices and allows him to connect with his sick daughter. After the shoot, Purandar flees the set without even waiting for his pay, and as he hurries home you understand that acquiring a way to make his little girl smile is worth more to him than wages for a day's work. The last few minutes of this story, in which Purandar spins the story of his extraordinary day into a fable for the girl, are transcendent; rendered silently, the narration is a special moment for the two of them, not for us. But we are treated to his animation, his expression, which are pure joy.
Karan Johar's contribution is a hard look at relationships and concealment; it is also the only tale of the four that has a female human being among its main characters or even an adult woman of any significance to the story. (Again we see who the history of cinema has been about and for.) In this story, a manic and aggressive young gay man, Avinash (Saqib Saleem), lobs a bomb into the gangrenous marriage of the closeted Dev and the magazine-editor Gayatri I mentioned above. Of the four segments of Bombay Talkies this is the one that could have been twice as long. Much of it is rushed, shorthanded, backstory blanks left for us to fill in by assumption. In particular, I wanted more of the broken Gayatri-Dev relationship, to know whether it is truly as affectionless as it is sexless, to know whether Dev's outrageous surliness when Avinash is at the dinner table is typical of his discourse with Gayatri, or peculiar to the discomfort his attraction to Avinash engenders. But that fact that I care about these questions at all is evidence that Johar has in his hands the skeleton of a good story, well-told. It continues to be a pleasure to see Rani Mukherjee in grown-up roles; she is that good.
Anurag Kashyap's piece explores the tendency of movie fans to grant apotheosis to their stars. Its tale of a family's exaltation of Amitabh Bachchan – to the point where his bite on a piece of murabba is invested with life-saving potency – resonates with my recent viewing of Coolie, and that film's unique breaking of the fourth wall to acknowledge Bachchan's God-like status. The story ends with a nice grounding, a reminder that it is possible to worship the brilliance of the movies and simultaneously keep one's feet on the ground, rooted in rational reality.
Zoya Akhtar investigates the power of cinema to embolden dreams and self-expression, in a touching story about a young boy (Naman Jain) who longs to cut loose and dance like Katrina Kaif. Much more telling in Akhtar's piece is the boy's older sister, whose interests and desires are as irrelevant to their father (Ranveer Shorey) as his son's comformance to strongly gendered ideals are paramount. This father is a dreadful man. Having dropped a couple thousand bucks on football practice which his son doesn't want, he refuses a much smaller amount for a history-class trip that would make his daughter's year. The critique of this father is perhaps the stealth message of this film, which is superficially masked by the sparkle of the little boy's costume and the chime of “Sheila ki Jawaani” when he dances his heart out to it. There is nothing particularly exicting about a boy performing an oversexualized caricature of femininity. The father's obsession with acceptable gender performance, which he places above any expression of personality by his daughter (he only pays attention to her interests when he thinks she likes Katrina Kaif), speaks to a vast overvaluing of sons relative to daughters. This is the key point of Akhtar's piece, and it highlights the absence of this theme in the rest of Bombay Talkies. If not for the boy's spirited defiance, the sister would be all but forgotten, like most of the women in Bombay Talkies's supposed tribute to a century of Indian cinema.