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BOMBAY TALKIE

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Shashi Kapoor, Jennifer Kendal, Zia Mohyeddin, Aparna Sen, Utpal Dutt
Director: James Ivory
Audio: English monaural
Subtitles: English
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 1.78:1
Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
Features: Documentary, interview with the filmmakers, trailers
Length: 111 minutes
Release Date: November 11, 2003

"If you love me, you'll do as I want.  That's what loving someone means, doing everything that they want."

Film **

The collaborative team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory is most recognized for a succession of commercially successful film adaptations - A Room with a View, Howard's End, and The Remains of the Day.  What few people realize, however, is that this famous partnership (with Ivory as director and Merchant as producer) has existed for well over a quarter-century, dating back to 1961.  In fact, many of the earliest Merchant-Ivory collaborations, dealing with issues of East-West cultural differences and race relationships, were set and produced in India.  It was not until 1979, with a film adaptation of the Henry James novel The Europeans, that the Merchant Ivory team gradually became synonymous with quality cinematic translations of English literary classics. 

During the early years of their collaboration, Merchant and Ivory were frequently joined by novelist Ruth Prawler Jhabvala.  Starting with 1963's The Householder, she would write many of their screenplays for the next thirty years, including that for Bombay Talkie (1970), a film set in Bollywood.

What is Bollywood, you might wonder?  It is the Indian film industry's answer to Hollywood.  Many such films were created in Bombay, hence the name Bollywood.  These films were often campy, escapist fantasies, commonly running for hours and hours in length.  Most were (and still are) a kitschy hodgepodge of melodrama, comedy, action, martial arts, traditional and contemporary songs and dances - you name it, it was probably in there somewhere.  However, the heart and soul of many Bollywood productions laid in their musical numbers.  While the relative merits of the vast majority of these films is dubious at best, one thing is certain - Bob Fosse musicals notwithstanding, the musical genre may be dead and buried in Hollywood, but it remains alive and very healthy in Bollywood.

The reason for the continuing popularity of the Bollywood musicals is very similar to that for the success of the Hollywood musicals of the 1930-40's.  Even in this day and age, a significant percentage of the Indian population lives in villages or small towns, not uncommonly without access to televisions or the popular theater.  As such, Bollywood musicals provide an escapist medium, a window into the idealized world of the big city, with a glitz and glamour that many of these people will never experience in real life.  Frequently, the musical numbers also express the passion and eroticism that is otherwise taboo in India's traditionally puritanical films.  While Bollywood has become more contemporary and westernized over the years, many of its modern films still retain the early films' whimsical musicality and light-hearted spirit.

Bombay Talkie is set in this world of Bollywood.  After an inventive sequence that flashes the opening credits on a series of billboards and paintings about town, the film even starts off in the midst of rehearsals for a musical number.  However, we do not actually get to see the completed number, only a brief glimpse.  It is a tease, which unfortunately foreshadows larger problems once the actual story begins.  As Bombay Talkie unfolds, it slowly but surely encompasses many of the flaws of the typical Bollywood films with few of their strengths.

An American novelist, Lucia Land (Kendal), arrives on the set of a film to watch the proceedings.  She is the author of "Consenting Adults," a racy American novel described at one time as a "dirty sex book."  Lucia has come to India apparently to learn about its culture and to seek inspiration for a new novel.  While on the set of this film, she is introduced to Hari (Mohyeddin), the film's screenwriter, and to Vikram (Kapoor), the film's star.  At this stage, had Bombay Talkie remained with the premise of a bemused backstage look at the Bollywood film industry, perhaps complete with musical numbers, it would have made for an interesting film.

Instead, the film chooses to explore a love triangle that develops between Hari, Lucia, and Vikram.  Hari falls in love with Lucia, while Lucia falls in love with Vikram but is not above exploiting Hari's feelings for her in her efforts to win Vikram's affections.  The result is a melodrama with jealousy-infused stand-offs, a few fight scenes, and essentially no musical interludes (the few semi-present ones being uniformly mediocre).  Oh yes, and throw in a pointless sequence involving a spiritual guru sprouting a lot of ridiculous mumbo-jumbo, and the formula is complete for potential disaster.  Bombay Talkie is, in essence, a Bollywood movie without any of the campy Bollywood fun or music.  All that remains is a soap opera with characters who are ultimately not particularly likable. 

Lucia, for instance, is a shallow and somewhat selfish woman.  She actively seduces Vikram, even though he is married.  She throws a tantrum during a ceremony when Mala, Vikram's wife, politely explains that it is improper for him to accept a gift from her.  At one point, Lucia even holds up production of Vikram's current film to have a picnic with him, and when Hari strolls over to persuade Vikram to return to the set to finish the day's shoot, Lucia throws another tantrum.  Later in the film, she sulks no one remembers her birthday and insists on dragging Hari out of bed in the middle of the night to celebrate with Vikram and her.  The drunken debauchery culminates at Vikram's house, wherein Lucia even drapes on Mala's wedding sari, not bothering to apologize when Mala unexpectedly walks in on Vikram and her.

In short, these gestures do not paint Lucia's personality in a positive light.  She displays little remorse or regret over how her relationship with Vikram may be affecting his family or professional life.  Furthermore, since these scenes are played fairly straight and not as parody or for comic effect, Ivory offers the audience little moral grounds on which to empathize with Lucia.  In one scene, Lucia has her palm read; her fortunes reveal a personality destined to hurt other people.  Lucia displays some distress at this revelation and even acknowledges that it may contain truth, but she nevertheless does essentially little to change.  There is a half-hearted effort to acquire spiritual guidance, but it is a debacle that resolves nothing.  As the film progresses, Lucia becomes less and less appealing to the point where sooner or later, she loses the audience.  That is a fatal flaw for any film, especially when it concerns the film's central character.

Part of the problem is Jhabvala's conventional and occasionally clumsy script.  She has written some wonderful screenplays for many Merchant Ivory films, but not here.  The premise of an American woman traveling abroad and discovering love in an exotic locale has been done before and done better - David Lean's mesmerizing Summertime with Katherine Hepburn, for starters.  Jennifer Kendal is not Katherine Hepburn.

A large part of the problem with Bombay Talkie, then, lies in Kendal's performance as Lucia.  Bluntly stated, she is just not a very strong actress.  She simply is neither accomplished enough nor skilled enough to play her scenes in a manner that will garner audience sympathy.  She frequently delivers her lines without conviction and with a strange sameness in tone throughout the film, regardless of whether Lucia is supposedly happy or sad.  Furthermore, if the film had not initially informed us that Lucia was a novelist searching for inspiration, we would never have known from Kendal's performance alone.  Lucia does little in the way of soul-searching or exploration.  We sense that deep inside, she is desperately unhappy, and that perhaps her actions are an external manifestations of those feelings; Lucia is a woman who is frightened of growing old alone and longs for passion and structure to her life.  Had she been portrayed by the right actress, Lucia could have been a wonderfully tragic character for the film.  However, Jennifer Kendal does not sufficiently convey Lucia's inner turmoil, and Lucia instead comes across as superficial and self-serving.

Kapoor's performance is better, but his character, Vikram, is hardly more sympathetic than Lucia.  Knowing his wife's feelings for him and her strong desire to bear him a son, Vikram still runs around with Lucia.  He shuns his duties not only as a husband but as an actor, missing shooting dates and causing numerous delays on the sets.  Vikram shows the impatience and pampering of a typical movie star who somehow believes that he is above consideration for other people.  As Hari states, Vikram is "like all our Bombay actors; all they want is to be popular at the box office....there's no pleasure in writing for people like that."

Hari is, of course, the final variable in the film's love triangle.  He is a man with a decent heart but a weak will.  He repetitively surrenders to Lucia's demands, even when they benefit solely Vikram and herself.  Hari's love for Lucia clouds his judgment, leaving him somewhat impotent and hesitant to act until it is too late.

Truthfully, the only character we really pity is Vikram's wife Mala.  She honestly loves her husband, but Vikram offers her little in return.  As Mala, Sen actually delivers the film's best, most understated performance, but she is sadly underutilized.

It is difficult to discern the overall tone for which James Ivory was aiming in this film.  Bombay Talkie is inconsistent, at times almost a comic parody and at other times a straight drama.  But, the awkwardness of its lighter scenes and the overly melodramatic tones of its serious moments make Bombay Talkie a hard film to accept honestly as either a comedy or a drama.  Perhaps, in this sense, it is a true reflection of the typical Bollywood film which it seeks to emulate.

Bombay Talkie is ultimately a soap opera about a destructive relationship between two fundamentally self-centered people.  Had this been a musical or screwball comedy, the film could have worked well, but as melodrama, it is unmemorable.

Video **

Bombay Talkie is presented in a new widescreen 1.78:1 transfer created from the original 35mm interpositive.  The movie has a generally very soft appearance and looks rather grainy in any scene without daylight or optimal lighting.  The transfer itself suffers slightly from traces of shimmer but is otherwise fair and cleaned of dust or debris.

Audio **

Bombay Talkie's soundtrack was created from a new 35mm optical soundtrack print.  It is presented here in a 1-channel English/Hindi monaural format.  Subtitles are available but only for the English dialogue.

Regrettably, the soundtrack either has not aged very well over the years or was not well recorded in the first place (keeping in mind that the film's entire budget was about $200,000).  Much of the sound is quite shallow, and the dynamic range is extremely limited.  Anything too high in pitch becomes distorted, and there is no bass to speak of in this film.  This becomes particularly noticeable during the few, incidental musical excerpts.  Sometimes, the dialogue does not even sound as though it were emanating from the lips of the speaking actor but instead seems to be floating abstractly in the air.  These limitations probably reflect the state of sound recording technology in the Indian film industry at the time.

Features ***

Bombay Talkie is part of Home Vision's Merchant Ivory Collection.  The other three films in the collection to date are The Bostonians, The Europeans, and Heat and Dust.  Trailers for these three films are provided on this DVD, though oddly enough, no trailer for Bombay Talkie is included.

Conversation with the filmmakers, a new 12-minute interview segment, features Ismail Merchant, James Ivory, and Ruth Prawler Jhabvala as they discuss various aspects of Bombay Talkie, including its Bollywood influences and some of the cultural aspects of the film itself.  Ivory also comments at one point about film's opening, which used a giant red typewriter; it was apparently his favorite set of all his films.

Rounding out the extra features is the true highlight of the entire disc - Helen, Queen of the Nautch Girls.  This highly entertaining, 31-minute documentary was produced by Merchant Ivory back in 1973.  It is a showcase for numerous film clips of Helen, the legendary Bollywood dancer who, by her early thirties, had appeared in well over 500 feature films!  She is also the principal dancer in Bombay Talkie's all-too-brief opening musical segment, which is wondrously presented here in a much more completed form; why wasn't this in the actual film?  Interlaced with the documentary's other film clips is an interview with Helen in her dressing room while she applies the finishing touches to her makeup and costume.  She is quite an attractive woman with a vibrant, energetic style of dance, and this documentary easily demonstrates why Helen was one of the most famous icons in all of Bollywood.  It is a shame that Bombay Talkie does not utilize Helen's talents and has no musical sequences that remotely approaches the excitement and joy of the numbers presented in this imminently re-watchable documentary.

On an unusual but related note, something is surely amiss when the image that appears on the DVD's main menu screen does not come from Bombay Talkie at all but instead arises from the Helen documentary!  Likewise, the picture adorning the front cover of the DVD case comes from Helen's extremely brief dance sequence in Bombay Talkie, which again has nothing to do with the actual story in the film.

Lastly, inside the DVD case is a foldout that contains two articles by Robert Emmet Long, an author of various books about the Merchant Ivory films.  Long's first article talks about Bombay Talkie, while the second article discusses the documentary included on this DVD about Helen.

Summary:

As one of the India-themed entries in the filmography of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, Bombay Talkie is today a bit dated but does reveal early traces of the visual and intellectual wit that would soon become a hallmark in their films of English society and lore.