Review by Ed Nguyen
Shashi Kapoor, Jennifer Kendal, Zia Mohyeddin, Aparna Sen, Utpal Dutt
Director: James Ivory
Audio: English monaural
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
you love me, you'll do as I want. That's
what loving someone means, doing everything that they want."
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.