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Saturday, April 26, 2008

Bombay Talkie (1970)

I read about the movie at Merchant-Ivory Productions' website and couldnt wait to see it. The cast included my favorite Shashi Kapoor, playing the role that he was born to play - a successful, womanising, film star. Shashi in a negative role - that was something I had never seen before! Consequently my expectations were rather high when I began watching and it might be argued that I was doomed to disappointment!
The movie began very promisingly with Helen dancing on a giant typewriter. A song was being shot for a Hindi movie starring the successful actor Vikram (Shashi Kapoor). Come to watch the shooting was Lucia Lane (Jennifer Kendall) a famous American writer. Now, Lucia is the archetypal American writer - she is much married, middle aged, hungry for romance and utterly shallow, selfish and self-centred. (Did she have to be such a stereotype?) She also has a British accent that puzzled me until it was explained away later in the movie - she was actually English but settled down in USA.

Lucia is introduced to the script-writer of the movie Hari (Zia Mohyeddin) but has eyes only for Vikram - an interest Vikram reciprocates. The two of them start an open affair, much to the distress of Vikram's wife Mala (Aparna Sen) and Hari, who has fallen for Lucia. The affair has its ups and downs with Lucia trying to break free at one point. She enters an ashram to attain mental peace and lands up role-playing for the ashram's head honcho (Pinchoo Kapoor). Giving up on spirituality, she returns to Vikram and normal life. Hari is her faithful shadow throughout and she uses him shamelessly.
Vikram's career, in the meanwhile, is on a downward spiral and so is his marriage. His long-suffering wife finally rouses herself to utter an ultimatum - Lucia or her. Undaunted, Vikram takes Lucia and Hari on a midnight shopping spree. The three of them get drunk and have a wonderful time in a scene straight out of Breakfast at Tiffany's! The revels end with Vikram breaking up with Lucia, and then comes the abrupt and brutal end.
The principle characters are well sketched and fairly well acted. Shashi Kapoor is basically playing himself and does so very well. Its a pity he didnt do more negative roles - he would have made a classy villain. Jennifer Kendall is Lucia to the hilt - very superficial, utterly selfish and completely besotted with Vikram - to the point that you almost dislike her. But then she skillfully rouses your sympathy by portraying Lucia's loneliness and desperate search for happiness. The other characters get the short shrift, though. There is the spineless Hari and the colorless Mala who are there just as accessories to Vikram and Lucia. In all fairness, I must admit that Hari and Mala do redeem themselves somewhat, toward the end.
The little touches showing Bollywood moviedom were very well done and gave the movie its authentic-Bollywood-insider flavor. Here are some examples: The gigantic typewriter-set with dozens of extras dancing on the keyboard for a song picturisation - winking at the bizarre splendor of sets for hindi songs. Vikram, acting the big star on the set, changing dance steps to suit himself. The story of a yesteryear star Nadira (played by Nadira herself) who spends her days reliving her glorious past with young men. We are told that Vikram caught his first break through her good offices - shades of Meena Kumari and Dharmendra? Utpal Dutt playing the lechy producer/director of B-grade films.
With all this going for it, I cant say I enjoyed the movie at all! I found it somewhat pretentious, slow moving and highly unsatisfying. I was left with the impression that I had watched a "good", "artistic" movie and ought to be mentally uplifted! I ask you, must a good movie also be a boring one? Surely one can expect a movie about Bollywood to be more entertaining than this! I cant help but compare this to Bollywood Calling (2001) - another movie that visited the same subject. The comparison is perhaps unfair as Bollywood Calling is an out-and-out comedy and a spoof on Bollywood, to boot. Sigh! One cant help but wish for something more from Bombay Talkie, though. This little peek into the world of Bombay cinema fails to live up to the early Merchant Ivory promise of The Householder or even some of their later work like A Room With A View and Surviving Picasso. I would only recommended it for die-hard fans with low expectations!


  1. I liked Shashiji a lot and have seen him in many movies,paired with Amitsab and those movies got enormous success but i never seen him in a negative role and only for this reason i will watch this movie.

  2. "...pretentious, slow moving and highly unsatisfying" describes pretty much every Merchant-Ivory film I've ever seen! :-)

    This one was just as you describe it, sordid and depressing and...boring. At least the Helen documentary that comes on the DVD almost makes it worth buying!

  3. @Crazy on bollywood: This is not exactly a Shashi-fan movie, but as long as you have low expectations you wont be disappointed!

    @memsaab: Glad to know I'm not alone in disliking Merchant-Ivory. I thought some of their movies werent bad, but still cant get over how consciously "artistic" they are!

    Thanks for reminding me of the Helen documentary. That was the best part of the DVD.

  4. Thanks- the typewriter song features on the soundtrack of "Darjeeling Limited,"- from your review I now know its true origins :)

    I rather like some Merchant ivory- the guru, heat and dust, in custody etc.

  5. You are welcome Shweta. :-)

    The typewriter song was great. Its too bad Merchant-Ivory went to all the trouble of getting the set built (according to Ismail Merchant it was one of the most elaborate sets they ever attempted) and a dance choregraphed and then didnt shoot a complete song!

    I do plan to watch In Custody (inspite of decayed Shashi) when I find it. Watched Heat and Dust long ago and didnt somehow take to it... I think some of their non-Indian stuff is a lot better - Remains of the day, A Room With a View, Surviving Picasso are some that I've seen and liked.

  6. Shashi playing himself?! But surely he is a kinder, gentler celebrity than the way you guys describe this Vikram character?!

    I'm still not over the teeth thing. How are his teeth in this?!

    I'm very unsure whether to watch this or not. Points in favor:
    1. Shash is fine in it. SO FINE.
    2. The typewriter song is excellent.
    3. I actually quite like really cynical satires that just eviscerate their topic. (e.g. Pasqualino Settebellezze, to be PPCCed very soon)

    Points not in favor:
    1. Merchant-Ivory always felt like pretentious Orientalism to me, and the PPCC cannot support that stuff.
    2. In true schoolgirl crush style, I get jealous when I watch things with Jennifer Kendall.


    Bollyviewer, all that said, I thought In Custody was quite nice. Sorry for the list thing, but points in favor of In Custody were:
    1. Om Puri was fab.
    2. Tinnu Anand is in it, and I love Tinnu Anand.
    3. Lovely Urdu poetry, some great ghazals are sung too.
    4. Lovely setting.

    Points not in favor:
    1. Shashi is unrecognizable, and I recall finding his character quite unlikable as well.
    2. Though he does puke all over Om, which is quite funny.
    3. OK, so we're immature.
    4. There is no fourth point.

  7. PPCC - when I said Shashi is playing himself I meant that he is playing a successful, handsome Bollywood star. And yes, his teeth are fine in this! :-) (Gosh I am sorry for ever having brought that up!!!) He looks super fab in this and I dont think you'd care much one way or the other about Jennifer-Shashi. Its not the kind of movie that gets you interested in anything but the visuals.

    You're so right about "Merchant-Ivory in India" being "pretentious Orientalism". The only one of those movies I liked was The Householder which is slow-moving and a bit boring but still has something of substance to talk about. Re In Custody, doesnt Shashi recite some poetry there? I remember reading that he had to work on his Urdu diction for it. Shashi reciting poetry alone should make that movie worth watching. ;-) Plus, I have seen a scene from it on youtube that looked quite promising. So, even though its "Merchant-Ivory in India" I will watch it - just havent got hold of it yet.

  8. LOL, worry not, the teeth thing is great. Such charming imperfections makes me love the Shash even more. Sigh! Mere Shash! Shaayad main apni fanletter ke saath kuch floss bhejaaungi. (Theek sentence hai?)

    Re: In Custody. Yeah, he does recite some poetry - which, in retrospect, is pretty impressive given it's fancy Mirza Ghalib-style Urdu. Times like these, I wish I could actually hear the differences (e.g. like how does Naseer speak Urdu in that miniseries about Ghalib?) Though I recall feeling as frustrated as Om Puri does, because while we're waiting for Shashi to recite the poetry, he spends a lot of time falling over himself and slurring and behaving belligerently. I seem to recall my favorite moment in the film being Shabana's ghazal, actually, which is very pretty.

  9. Great! So, the Shashi-fest is still on at the post-punk cinema club? ;-) Cant wait to see which movie you're going to come out with next!

  10. And yes PPCC-rep, your sentence is ekdum theek....

  11. I've been warned against this movie by several people - some Shashi fans, some not, some Merchant Iveroy fans, some not, some well versed in Indian cinema, some not. But I'm sure I'll watch it anyway: the Shashi pull is strong (and especially his 60s things, which I'm really enjoying these days), but after having watched Junoon I will happily gobble up the chance to see Jennifer Kendal again. She's so good!

    I also really like the two early Merchant Ivory movies I've seen - The Householder, which you mention, and also Shakespeare-Wallah, which has shot to the top 10 of my favorite movies ever.

  12. I liked Jennifer better in Junoon. Her role there required more subtle acting while here she is playing more of a stereotype with mostly bland expressions.

    After watching The Decievers and Heat and Dust, I really shouldnt have had high expectations of this one, but hope does spring eternal! I still have to watch Shakespeare-Wallah, which will hopefully restore my faith in Merchant-Ivory.

  13. This is a favorite movie of mine, but not for the story, which I've had a hard time remembering over at least five viewings.

    For me it is priceless for its many many charmingly observed and recorded moments of a time and place, the Bombay film world ca 1969:

    --those first shots of a dawn-washed Bombay, with men carrying painted film posters through the streets

    --the typewriter song and the playback music whining to a halt

    --a real studio at Film City (or the equivalent) with playback music being recorded

    --the gathering of Nadira's aging movie star and her boys

    --the vignettes at the ashram run by the celebrity guru, with his home movies of devotee/contributors in LA

    --a young Usha Iyer/Utup singing in a club


  14. Virginia, thanks for stopping by. You're so right about those little vignettes - it gives one the feeling of looking right into 60s/70s Bollywood. They really are well done, and the only things that makes the movie worth watching! And I really really wish Merchant-Ivory had gone ahead and shot the typewriter song as a full length song - it would've been awesome.

  15. Another movie wehere you can spot a young Usha Uthup (Iyer) performing as a singer in the background is the Mehmood production Bombay To Goa staring Amitabh Bachchan and Aruna Irani