Bombay Talkie

I HATE YOU, LUCIA LANE. You are a selfish, ignorant, heartless, horrible person who refuses to learn anything. You make hurtful messes everywhere you go. You are my worst nightmare of a person to become or to be anywhere near. Hate. Okay, now that that's out of my system, maybe I can discuss this movie without going ballistic. Oh wait, one more: I think my fascination with Shashi Kapoor and Jennifer Kendal, both as individual actors and as a couple/film world institution, got in the way of being able to watch this movie objectively and discern its overall effect. I think I was too busy looking for documentary-type clues. They're either fantastic actors or madly happy together - or both! I've been warned against Bombay Talkie movie by several people - some knowledgeable about Indian cinema, some not, some Merchant Ivory fans, some not, some Shashi fans, some not. To quote the most humorous of them:
[I] watched Shakespeare Wallah last night and after about 1/2 hour of it decided that I liked it velly velly velly much [....] This comes after totally giving up on Bombay Talkie (yeech), which was torture to even fast forward through! You probably could have warned me about that.
I think this was probably the first time I'd heard anything about the film at all; subsequently I read blogs with interesting, varying reactions. (And I should note here that I probably don't have anything to say that they haven't already commented on.) But really, there was no escaping the film's pull. Regular readers know I'm not picky when it comes to trying Shashi films, but almost as strong is the lure of Jennifer Kendal, whom I thought was brilliant in Junoon, as well as in her little parts in Shakespeare-Wallah, Heat and Dust, and Ghare-Baire (haven't seen 36 Chowringhee Lane yet). I also really like self-referential works and stories that have affectionate winking at interesting conventions and stereotypes. The idea of seeing Shashi Kapoor play a weary Bombay filmi hero who gets entangled with a British woman? Irresistible. Additionally, Post-Punk Cinema Club and I talk a lot about our favorite eras of Shashi, and the late 60s and early 70s are a very fine vintage. On the other hand, my experience with India-based Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala movies is trending downward, very inauspiciously for Bombay Talkie - everyone knows how blown away I was by Shakespeare-Wallah, The Householder was rich and sweet, and Heat and Dust was interesting but not overwhelming. Stylistically, this film worked just fine as a MI project. It's pretty, it comments on the cultural relationships between India and the west (and the meeting ground in between), and it keeps the reins on emotion, just as you'd expect. But story-wise...dear god, what happened? Why did anyone want to tell this story? The central figure, Lucia Lane (Jennifer Kendal), is one of those mysterious people who has an electric effect on others despite being a train wreck herself. She's dangerous - but because she's thoughtless, not because she takes interesting risks that may lead to great things. She burns people repeatedly, yet they come back for more. She's a crappy parent. She's dim. She's unwilling to think about anyone but herself. She's all id. Caught up in orbit around Lucia are self-loathing writer Hari (Zia Mohyeddin), floundering, childish movie star Vikram (Shashi), and, by extension, his wife Mala (Aparna Sen). Both men are instantly smitten with Lucia, even though she is careless with their emotions (Hari) or ignores any aspect of their life and needs that do not directly benefit her (Vikram). I was struck by how much misery there is in this film. Nobody is happy, and everyone is being used by somebody else. In this gloomy world, everybody owes someone, too, which only increases their bitterness: Vikram and Mala need each other in the fairly conventional ways demanded by social pressure and economics; Hari hates that nobody seems interested in his poetry and he is forced to pen stupid films for idiots like Vikram; Lucia depends on men to distract her from actually doing the hard work that would be required to fix her life; and Vikram thrives on the ego-feed of Lucia's conspicuous, blatant attraction. Iftekhar! He doesn't have any lines, but he's there. Unlike Amitabh, whose little part was cut. Interestingly, Vikram is also endebted to an older female star, in a neat flip of the casting couch. The treatment of Anjana Devi (Nadira) is surprisingly unjudgemental. She reminded me of Samantha from Sex and the City, thriving by trading in sexual and social power as easily as others use money. She seemed much more comfortable with and in control of her decisions and their consequences than the other characters do. Anjana also got funny lines like this. Her stable of hopefuls also have some fun moments improvising impressions and songs, entertaining each other but also showing off abilities and looking to climb the ladder of Anjana's affections. By the time Bombay Taklie ends, I don't think there's a glimmer of love or hope left anywhere. Even Mala seems to be more interested in the stability and respect of a family life than in romance or partnership with Vikram; maybe she had given up on that long before the movie picks up her narrative. For all their subservience to her demands, neither Vikram nor Hari really loves Lucia, I don't think. They talk about her like property, like a resource. Ugh. Beyond its story, Bombay Talkie has two somewhat redeeming features: many scenes are beautifully designed, and the performances are interesting. The opening titles, for example, are such a rich, affectionate treat! Immediately on their tail, we get the very clever and fun "Typewriter Tip Tip Tip." There is so much crammed into this ten-minute sequence, most notably Shashi's effortless morphing from aloof ego He looks just like Brando! to ingratiating host to flailing performer. As Jabberwock noted, this role seems perfect for Shashi, who probably lived the best balancing act Bollywood has ever seen, often involving the co-star in and makers of this movie. There are many beautiful shots that comment or nod to the life of a 70s hero, like overacting even when he's off camera, silently looking on while a huge team of musicians creates "his" sound, and walking off into the sunset at the Gateway. It's clearly very difficult to be a movie star attending premieres for your films. Vikram fluctuates between short-tempered and smooth at a party, lighting up only when people interest him or the spotlight turns his way. Momentary detour about the character of Vikram: he actually comes across as pragmatic sometimes, as in the scene above. He leaves a snuggle with a distraught Lucia when he's needed on the film set, he signs on to films he dislikes because he needs the money, he visits Anjana despite Lucia's disapproval, he tries to manage his rivalry with Hari over Lucia enough that Hari will still act as their go-between, etc. He's very childish in some ways, getting involved with Lucia just because he feels like it ("I want to," he says repeatedly - I wonder if his relaitonship with Lucia is something he starts because he thinks he has control, unlike his professional life and marriage, which seem to be dictated by other people?), but he also seems to know what is absolutely required of him at the base level for his survival in the world he finds himself in. Some scenes captured the whole movie perfectly. Early in the movie, this shot, with Lucia running out of a family party that she has very rudely crashed, Vikram chasing her, and Mala chasing him, foreshadows the whole movie so well. Lucia is only present in Vikram's life because she's a thoughtless idiot, but Vikram responds. Later, the ephemera of Vikram's life is carelessly spilled across the floor, the result of a Lucia-commanded party. Ooof. I'm running out of steam for this wearisome movie, but I wanted to mention the actors. This was not my favorite performance by Jennifer Kendal. She came across as a little too stagey for my taste, especially when opposite her easy-breezy husband, but maybe that's how director Ivory wanted her to be, highlighting Lucia's ignorance, grasping, and tendency to create ridiculous amounts of drama. Still, she wasn't painful to watch, and her lovely face effectively showed Lucia's frustrations and fears. The other three major characters were done very well, I thought, and I can only imagine how insufferable (or more insufferable, depending whom you ask) this movie would have been with less careful actors who couldn't find any nuances in their characters. Short appearances by Helen and Uptal Dutt, in addition to Nadira, also added a lot to the movie-world context in the film. My friend Wendy sometimes sums up novels or movies by saying "I wouldn't want to be friends with any of those people," and that certainly applied here, and sadly I didn't get much more from the movie than that. Hari, Vikram, and Lucia are bad, selfish people. I didn't even pity them - I just wanted them to stop and think and leave each other alone. The one sympathetic figure, Mala, doesn't get much screen time and her motivations are hardly explored beyond the general "long-suffering wife" character that the movie assumes we'll grant her. I really don't know the point of telling Lucia's story. It's sad and futile and bleak and offers no real reward for your (or the characters') suffering. I don't understand what the filmmakers were thinking when they embarked on this - maybe it's a warning never to be like her and never to do anything like the people in this film do, a sort of extended "life don't"? I hope the extra features on the DVD (read about them here - apparently MIJ wanted kitsch, which I didn't pick up on at all) might have contained answers to this question, but I ran out of time to watch any of them. Even if I hadn't, I don't think I would have bothered - I just wanted out of this world the second the movie ended. As the other writers above have mentioned, Bombay Talkie squanders a great opportunity to poke some informed, loving fun at Bollywood - which is what its first 15 minutes promise to do. There are moments of references to or commentary on the Bombay film world scattered throughout the rest of the movie, but nowhere else is the examination as strong. The name alone made me assume that the film world was the subject of the story, and it simply was not. So not only is the choice of focus in the story completely mystifying, the name doesn't even lead the viewer to it. Alternate titles that sprung to mind include Women on the Verge of Getting a Tight Slap from This Viewer and, to paraphrase Mad TV, Pretty White Ladies with Problems. What a downer! So let's end with something more fun. First of all, why is Mala stroking a pink wig? This thing appears at least twice, and I could not figure out what it was or why it was there. Second, the Shashi Pradesh State Museum and Archives, Costume and Textiles Division, is proud to present its newest acquisition: Shashi in brightly patterned shirts, unbuttoned halfway, with a gold chain. I've been on a huge Project Runway kick lately, so let's discuss. This look: a) is in. b) is out. c) does not bore Nina, but not in a good way. d) makes Michael wonder if maybe the black t-shirt he wears every single episode might be a bit dull and played out. d) pleases guest judge Uli Herzner (season 3) because of its playful use of color, pattern, and plunging neckline. e) inspires guest judge Santino Rice (season 2) to sing "Bom chicka wah-wah!"


OOh I love that Nadira- Shut his buttons indeed :D
also love your "Shashi Pradesh State Museum and Archives, Costume and Textiles Division"- I could volunteer work there forever and ever- but then, most of us would.
The scene of Nadira with her fleet of boys was so good! And so unexpected!

As for the SPSM&A: as I have had to warn PPCC, I have called lifelong dibs on any activity, project, and/or event involving both Shashi Kapoor and a museum. It's only fair.
Temple said…
Hi Beth - I haven't just started stalking you, I have actually been as loyal reader for some time :)
I didn't HATE this movie, but it wasn't likeable. I thought it was really about Lucia and her inability to engage with the world on any terms other than her own self centred way. The scenes that summed it all up for me were at the ashram, when she had run from Vikram. She was so fidgety and uncomfortable, had no clue what was going on, had no interest in learning - just wanted to look and judge and complain or laugh at what she saw (but was not a part of). I saw this as analysis of the "go to India and find yourself" syndrome. She was living in a bubble, a sort of parallel existence - and so were the actors. I thought her character and Vikram had that in common - they lived in India but in a separate, artificial, society. That was why it all seemed quite airless and dead to me - there just wasn't enough random real life going on, which is very MI to me. So the tragedy was that with every opportunity and every resource available to her, she would never be happy and fulfilled. Hari kept Vikram a bit more connected but Vikram as you noted was a pragmatist and did what he needed to as well as what he wanted to. I wasn't as offended by the "you can have her when I am done" comment as I thought that just underlined how clueless Lucia was - there were rules for wives and rules for mistresses and she either had no idea or just ignored them. So the relationship between Vikram and Mala probably ticked along as long as he maintained the proprieties and she didn't have to know - again, Lucia's selfishness broke down that pretence. No I wouldn't want to be friends with any of them, except the lovely Helen, and I don't feel the need to watch this again in the near future. But the opening titles and music are beautiful. My DVD came with the "Helen, Queen of the Nauthc Girls" doco which made the purchase worthwhile.
gebruss said…
Ho Hum; that doesn't sound too great. Or rather, it sounds like the kind of movie that would me have engaged in heated debate with the screen a lot. As I have yet to see an MI-movie, at least now I know which not to pick as the first one.
Bollyviewer said…
I think M-I did a good balancing act between Orientalism and whatever its Indian counterpart would be (Occidentalism?). Lucia is such a stereotype - the *easy* white woman that all Indian men *know* about! And you dont need to look far for the Orientalism either. But my primary reaction after watching it was - yawn - intense boredom! Considering that this was apparently the first M-I film to get noticed, you'd have expected a more entertaining/engrossing narrative.

On a more frivolous note - I am sure SPSM&A's costume and textile section must have got a lot more material for exhibits than your post lets on. I went absolutely mad screen-capping and have nearly 90 of them! How many did you get?
Temple - I'm so glad you're commenting! You always have good stuff to say.

Yes, "not likable" is a good summing up.

I also really like your point about the lack of the everyday in this film - and that's one of the things that makes the title sequence so great! Not only do we see the beautiful hoarding paintings, but we also get very real settings and street life going on in the background.

Your analysis of Lucia seems perfect to me - it's her selfishness that causes this already flawed and hurting group of people to collapse. They were bad or wounded to start with, and she makes everything worse.

I wish I had had time to watch the Helen documentary!

Gebruss - No, it's not great. Start with Shakespeare-Wallah - it may raise your hopes for all others, but it is just so very good.

Bollyviewer - I agree with you that their balancing act is good - and personally, and based on the four of their set-in-India movies I've seeen, I think they're usually more interested in examining those trends rather than indulging in them - and in pointing out the ridiculousness of those people who do indulge in those ideas.

I too found it hard to engage with this movie much - everyone is so off-putting and obviously stupid. You know it's going to end badly.

I forgot to comment on the orientalism/occidentalism thing. I think that foolish people from both east and west are the target here, but the emphasis is on the individuals, not particularly the cultures they come from.

YES. The SPSM&A is an ever-growing institution. I have at least 300 screen captures from this movie alone (not all of Shashi, but certainly at least half!). For all its flaws, Bombay Talkie is an excellent source of Shashi drooling. :)
Rum said…
shashi told my mum once that "Vikram was played a bit like my Raj" But it sort makes sense affairs, but it also sounds a lot like Shashi who did do films he hated for the money. Jennifer Kendal was soo frustrating in this movie,I wanted to throw a plate at the tv after her every scene. As a faithful citizen of the Shashi-Pradesh i find his funky shirts to be very much in!
Bollyviewer said…
OMG 300 screencaps!!!! That makes me feel so restrained by comparison. lol Agree that this one is the best source of Shashi-drooling outside of Sharmeelee.

PS: you can watch the Helen documentary on youtube or in my post on it.
rum - Ahhhh. I haven't read the Raj chapter in the Kapoor bio yet, but I'll keep an eye out for that. I agree that Vikram is Shashi-esque (or seems to be, based on what I know about Shashi) in the types of roles he's doing and the selection process he uses. Now I'm wondering if the other movie-world characters were supposed to be nods to any specific rumors or personalities in the actual Hindi film world? I can't imagine the filmmakers would ever admit it if so - everyone in the film is so...icky.

This film is definitely dangerous for one's china cabinet!

bollyviewer - 348. Ack. My Sharmilee folder has a mere 111. I blame this partly on using VLC to watch this one - it's soooo easy to do screen captures with it.

Thanks for the Helen documentary link - I had forgotten you wrote that up!
mayank said…
Seems like you like shashi kapoor very much..
well he has acted in one english movie named Siddhartha based on nobel prize winner herman hesse's novel siddhartha!
Anonymous said…
It's funny, I didn't hate this movie but there were definitely times when I was all meh about it. Mostly when it focused on Lucia's problems because at least Shashi was eye candy. It's been a while since I saw it but I think I did feel bad for Lucia - she was such a lost soul. Have you ever read Gita Mehta's Karma Cola about westerners who come to India in search of answers and end up in horrible messes? (You absolutely should if you haven't) She reminded me of that in a way. It was like she was creating her own fantasy and it kept crashing down on her, while the Indians around her made a definite demarcation between reality and fantasy by working in the movies.

And frankly I was irritated by Aparna. I kept waiting for her to give Shashi a good beatdown.
Anonymous said…
Um, just saw Temple's comment - yeah, what he said :)
mayank - Yes indeed! :) Siddhartha is next on my non-masala list...I just need to be in the right mood.

indiequill - I haven't come around to feeling bad for Lucia yet. You're right, she's definitely lost. I just wasn't moved by her at all (except to throw things at the screen, like rum said). I haven't read Karma Cola though it's been recommended to me several times. The whole "spiritual quest" idea does not resonate with me at all, and I wonder if I'd read along with a big question mark hanging over my head. I think you're right about Lucuia, though - she expends a lot of energy trying to avoid her actual problems, but her efforts never work. GREAT POINT about the demarcation of fantasy.... Though poor Hari struggles along with the illusion that he'll get to have Lucia, and he never does (that we see). Interesting that the character most embroiled in moviedom (Vikram) is in some way the most level-headed.

And yeah, Aparna was a bit of a doormat.
Before I forget: yes, Karma Cola is fab and eviscerating. I second Indie's rec.

Argh. This movie seems like the car accident that I can't turn away from. I still haven't seen it, and even though it seems to inspire unanimously meh/gross reactions, I still need to feed the need.

Also: Beth, if you like Jennifer, you MUST see 36 Chowringhee Lane. It's really great, and there's SO MUCH meta in it that I need to discuss with you.

You get Shashi and museums? Now I can't remember what I get to do with him. I call dibs on baking cookies with him.
PPCC - Kamla Bhatt has recommended it to me as well, so it's definitely on the list.

BT is a train wreck. Yes. Chugga chugga chugga BAM. I couldn't resist it either, and I can't tell you why you should not watch it. I don't want those hours of my life back or anything. It just could have been a lot more...pleasant, pleasing, insightful, touching, I don't know...BETTER.

36 is on the list too. I gotta mix in some masala though, or I'll get too somber for my own good.

Yes yes yes I do get Shashi and museums. You get cookies. And economic theory. And maybe you claimed Italian film viewings? Filmi Girl gets libraries (if she wants them, otherwise I'll take them). But it is only fair that everybody gets tea; whether in group settings or more intimate gatherings is up to Shashi.
hey there ia a new movie comin directed by aparna sen. MY JAPANESE WIFE.well its stil in post production stage. but seems like an interesting movie. its in bengali or english. i dont know. may be english
I'll look for it! I haven't seen much of her work (either as director or actor) yet.
Hans Meier said…
Hey, nice write-up of a truly underwhelming movie that didn't move much, including me. I didn't "hate" it (and remember, a famous lady writer was part of the writing team). But unlike you, i didn't even think that Mala (Aparna Sen) was "sympathetic"; maybe pitiable, but not sympathetic. In 36 Chowringhee Lane, Aparna Sen directs Jennifer Kendal; the movie is worlds apart from Bombay Talkie - and that includes Kendals looks.
Thanks Hans! I am dying to see 36 Chowringhee Lane! I have a copy but every time I pick it up to watch it, I'm not sure my brain is up to it.
Hans Meier said…
Sorry if that has been discussed before. Bombay Talkies made me think about the movies I know that deal with Bollywood at least part-time. These are the ones I've seen, in chronological order:

Luck by Chance - 2009 - dir Zoya Akhtar - Konkona Sen Sharma, Rishi Kapoor etc. - very good
Chintuji - 2009 - dir Ranjit Kapoor - Rishi Kapoor - partly very good
My Bollywood Bride - 2006 - dir Rajeev Virani - Jason Lewis, Kashmira Shah - disappointment
Om Shanti Om - 2007 - dir Farah Khan - Shah Rukh Khan - partly excellent
Page 3 - 2005 - dir Madhur Bhandarkar - Konkona Sen Sharma, Boman Irani - ok
Arth - 1982 - dir Mahesh Bhatt - Shabana Azmi - quite ok
Guddi - 1971 - dir Hrishikesh Mukherjee - D Jaya Badhuri, Dharmendra - passable
Bombay Talkie - 1970 - dir James Ivory - Shashi Kapoor, Jennifer Kendal - not convincing

Other movies about desi entertainment and glamour I've seen: Singers big or small are in Loins of Punjab Presents, Morning Raga, Tehzeeb (all three starring Shabana Azmi), Abhimaan (Amitabh Bachchan) and Rock on (Farhan Akhtar); fashion models in Fashion (Priyanka Chopra).

Which other meta-filmi movies would you recommend or warn against?
Wow! Excellent list. Here are others I can think of (and I'll put a * by the ones I recommend):

* Bhumika (1977) - really fabulous story of an actress played by Smita Patil and directed by Shyam Benegal
I Hate Luv Stories (2010) - the major characters work behind the scenes on films
Tees Maar Khan (2010) - using the filmmaking process as a cover for a robbery
* Kandoukondain Kandoukondain (2000) - Tamil setting of Sense & Sensibility in which one of the characters is an aspiring director
* Naach (2004) - Antara Mali as an aspiring choreographer and Abhishek Bacchan as a struggling actor
* Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon! (2003) - Antara Mali again, this time as an aspiring film heroine.
* Billu Barber (2009) - SRK playing a superstar
Salaam-e-Ishq (2007) - one of the ten or so leads is a film actress
Rangeela (1995)

And other films about entertainers:
Chance Pe Dance (2010) - Shahid Kapoor as a dancer
Pyaar Karke Dekho (1987) - Govinda as a singer
Karz (1980) - Rishi is a singer
Abhinetri (1970) - Hema Malini as a dancer
Aaja Nachle (2007) - the lead character is a dancer and the story talks about the importance of arts to community
* Rafoo Chakkar (1975) - Rishi and Neetu as performers in a traveling band (remake of Some Like It Hot)
* Delhi-6 (2009) - Sonam Kapoor's character wants to be a contestant on Indian Idol
* Shakespeare-Wallah (1965) - features both a stage actress and a film actress, with lots of emphasis on the contrasts between them
Dil To Pagal Hai (1997)
* Taal (1998) - Aishwarya as a singer and Anil Kapoor as her creepy producer/manager
* Disco Dancer (1983)
* and of course Khoon Bhari Maang, with Rekha as a model and featuring an INSANE dance-off!
Hans Meier said…
Beth, thanks, interesting; i'll sure look into Bhumika and Kandoukondain (that's Mani Ratnam, right, with ARR?). Some others look intriguing too, like Taal and Khoon Bhari Maang (whoa, i adore Rekha) and actually, Karz is on the shelf waiting for its turn.

I'd say that films about famous actors should be lighthearted. Nothing worse than serious movies about self-pitying rich artists in a crisis (like AB in Abhimaan) (or novels about self-pitying writers with a writer's block). But i admire Bollywood stars' ability to make big fun of themselves in Om Shanti Om or Chintuji.

Actually thanks for bringing back to memory through your list some films i've seen but forgotten in my own list: i found Rangeela quite ok and Salaam-e-Ishq much less so. I also know Delhi-6, Aaja Nachle and Dil To Pagal Hai from your list. Another one i forgot is Chachi 420, a lovable and maybe underrated enterprise of Kamal Hassan.

As you mention Billu Barber, i never dared to view it because the promos looked so bombastic. But i know the Malayalam original, Kadha Parayumbol, which is a nice honest well-lensed village story as you get so many from "God's Own Country". There is a barber too and the superstar in that movie is Kerala hero Mammooty.

To get back on topic: A good number of those are clearly better than Bombay Talkie – for stardom insight and for sheer entertainment.
Anonymous said…
I just watched this again for the maybe fourth time. I agree it is not good, but I regard it as a treasure and I love it. Apologies for writing this here, don't mean to hijack your pages, Beth!

To start with the love part - for me there are so many precious documentary factors here from Bombay in ? 1969? something like that -- starting with the wonderful credits in early-morning Bombay and those wonderful painted posters, faithful to film-poster style. Then -- scenes filmed inside the Taj Mahal Palace; a 60s nightclub scene with Usha Utup; the studio where songs for playback are being recorded, with a beautiful phalanx of Indian violinists.

Great too to see Shashi the fine naturalistic actor and Shashi the excellent masala actor, all together -- that alone to me is brilliant.

And that ashram, with guru-ji showing flicker-y home movies of his Hollywood followers, and telling Jennifer he will call her Maa. It is (and is meant to be) a great presentation of the charlatan-guru, in just the style of the era.

When I watch the extras, with a conversation among Ivory, Ishmael, and Ruth Jhabwala, I always think she's responsible for it being less good -- Ishmael, producer, clearly loves Bollywood, he grew up with it. Ivory gets it to a degree (only); Jhabwala is to me narcissistically hell-bent on making sure we now she knows it is beneath her. Bad team, and it shows. Too bad.

Okay - bye now!! Virginia Kelley NYC
Virginia - These are all GREAT comments and I'm so glad you shared them here. I would like to see this film again someday just to look for at it as a documentary or historical record, the way you're talking about. I think I was so stunned by the vile people in it the first time that I could hardly see much else, but whenever I flip through my screen shots I think "Well it LOOKS great - too bad everyone in it is determined to be miserable!"
Anonymous said…
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