Bombay Talkies: 100 Years Well Worth Celebrating & Watching

If you’re a cricket-agnostic in India, then IPL season is slow torture. Every television in the world is hogged by cricket fanatics. Restaurants, malls, even shops are playing matches and everybody’s looking over your head to catch the score. Even the bloody internet bandwidth is clogged by those in office, desperate to know Sachin’s stats. And if you do manage to get online, Twitter is waiting for you, hashtags bared. A movie would be a nice place to lose oneself from this mania but the multiplexes and theatres all throw up their collective hands and screen the bottom-of-barrel movies only. I guess somebody up there took pity on the minority that is me and tossed me a tasty titbit in the form of Bombay Talkies.

Released as a centennial tribute to the 100 years of cinema, Bombay Talkies is Bombay_Talkies_2013_Filma collection of four short films, one each by a prominent Bollywood director. The shorts-format has always intrigued me and I wonder why Bollywood doesn’t do more of these. The only short film collections I’ve seen Bollywood release into mainstream are Darna Mana Hain, Darna Zaroori Hain and Dus Kahaniyan. Considering the burgeoning costs and risks in making a film, might it not be a better idea businesswise and creatively speaking, to spread that across multiple smaller buckets? I do hope the powers-that-be are considering this and that the brilliance of Bombay Talkies paves the way for more.

The first story, directed by Karan Johar, brings the expected star value by way of Rani Mukherjee and Randeep Hooda. This film is really more about gay angst than about cinema. It’s not too bad, all things considered. Unfortunately, as part of a bouquet that has the other offerings, this one is the weakest, both in terms of interpretation of the theme and the story delivery. Randeep Hooda is his versatile self but Rani (doing a Vidya Balan a la The Dirty Picture, if Silk were an affluent South Bombayite) come through the way HD made the raving beauties of the last decade look – plastic and grotesque. The one and only sweet note in this film – and it’s a beauty at that – is the street urchin’s rendition of Ajeeb daastan hain yeh. The child’s voice brings all the mood and has that component of art that reaches out from its canvas/celluloid/paper and wrings the audience’s heart.

Story two, by Dibakar Banerjee, takes us through the mundane day of a chawl-dweller and the one special event of his day. Nawazuddin Siddiqui is nothing short of superlative in his depiction of a nondescript everyday man turned magician, full of wonder and glory and big dreams, if only in his own mind. This one showed real class in such subtleties as Purandhar’s monologue with his alter ego and a surreal emu walking around in disparate scenes.

Post interval, the film didn’t disappoint either. The next story, by Zoya Akhtar dips into the LGBT bucket again, but this time with finer strokes and the rawer talent of a child. A little boy dreams of shiny baubles and dancing, instead of football and cricket. Mostly alone in a world of ambitious and gender-role rigid parents, he takes comfort and inspiration from Katrina Kaif. The climax of this film made me want to stand up and clap and just keep on clapping. Naman Jain shows talent beyond his years as he manages to depict a cross-dressing child without parody. He makes you want to laugh with him, rush to protect him from judgements that will destroy his innocence and applaud him for the star he is. This was my favorite film in the entire movie.

The last story is by Anurag Kashyap and to my surprise, not dark or gritty. It’s a fairly standard story of the God-level idolization of filmstars across India. A young man comes to Mumbai with just one burning purpose – to meet Amitabh Bachchan and ask him to bite into his mother’s homemade murabba so his ailing father can eat the other half, having felt like he shared a meal with the superstar. But the story carries you through Vijay (Vineet Kumar Singh)’s adventures and right through the twist in the end. Maybe I’d have enjoyed this film more if it had been number two or three. Placed last, it felt slightly predictable, probably because the two preceding it were so unexpected and diverse. At the start, I also had a The Terminal flashback with Tom Hanks soldiering on to get an autograph of his father’s favorite jazz player. Still, this was a very good film with the unmistakably Kashyap style of extreme highs and lows.

The movie ends with a song that fails to impress in any way. The medley through the years has been done so often in Bollywood recently, you already know how the music and even the backup dancers hips will swing. And it closes in a tacky family-photograph style ensemble of all the current actors. I was glad to walk out by this time.

In all, I’d have thought this would be a ‘festival’ kind of film, meant only for niche audiences that lived and breathed the technical language of cinema. What I found instead was a damn fine movie, that even I, a regular member of the audience, could relate to and enjoy.

MOVIE: I AM – Sensitive And Raw

I first heard of I AM from Harish Iyer (on whose life one of the stories is part-based). After that, I’ve watched this project grow from an idea into a social media venture into an honest-to-goodness film. One of (and it’s only one) I AM claims to fame is the fact that it is an entirely crowd-sourced film. The movie has over 500 producers from all over the world, people who caught the idea on their social fora/networks and decided to add their support to it.

(Please note this review has spoilers)

Another way I AM stands out is that it adds to the multiple story genre (only sporadically experimented with, by Bollywood with Dus Kahaniyan and Darna Mana Hain/Zaroori Hain). It’s not just comprised of four stories. These stories also have links to each other, no matter how tenuous in the vein of LSD (Love, Sex Aur Dhoka). The key characters in each story appear briefly in the other stories, as support characters. The format is an unusual one and itself bold, considering how the aforementioned films fared at the box office.

Which brings us to the question of whether the movie manages to retain any of that bold attitude when it comes to the subjects. That’s tricky to say, since there are after all four stories to be judged (each by a different director), not to mention a glittering star cast. Each of the four stories deals with a shift, even a crisis of identity through stories of child abuse, single motherhood, homosexuality and war refugees. As diverse as these situations may seem, they are held together by the human condition of dealing with love, loss, betrayal, death and rebirth.

The first story, I AM Afia features Nandita Das in the role of a recently deserted woman who decides to bring meaning back into her life on her own, through motherhood. While the acting was competent, I thought the story’s sensitivity came from the way the situation was laid out. Purab Kohli as the eager but awkward student donor was a refreshing surprise, being as one is used to seeing him in relatively superficial roles.

The second story, I AM Megha was what really caught my attention. After all, what’s a story about Kashmiri Pandits doing in a film about human relationship issues? To my pleasant surprise, it turned out to be the best story in the quartet. I was already impressed by Juhi Chawla’s second actress avatar in Teen Deewarein. I AM only cements my belief that a talented actress was wasted because she arrived in Bollywood about two decades too early for a role that showcased her talent. Juhi superbly brought out the tightly controlled angst, the suppressed anger of a war-displaced civilian as well as the awkward joy of an adult coming home to the place she knew as a child. Contrary to the style of her days in Bollywood, there were no histrionics, no OTT expressions or exclamations. All of this done with a tightened pair of lips and tearless, crying eyes. Manisha Koirala, (perhaps a little luckier with the roles she had a chance to essay in Bollywood) also held her own as the Muslim girl who stayed back in Kashmir even through the atrocities meted out to her family. This story underlined the idea that serious film-making need not be heavy or sluggish.

The third story, I AM Abhimanyu was the one that I really went to watch the movie for, based as it was partly on Harish’s life. I have to say I was rather disappointed. This time, it wasn’t the acting that fell short. Indeed Sanjay Suri as the tormented victim and Anurag Kashyap as his step-father portrayed their respective roles as best as could be expected. But I thought the story itself set out ambitiously, then got scared, tiptoed around the issue without ever facing it and withdrew rather ungracefully. The ending of the story was wrapped up a little too tidily, too quickly for it to seem real. Victims of child abuse struggle to face what has happened to them. Talking about it does not come easily, least of all to a parent on whom rests the expectation of protection. A death brings its own share of emotional upheaval, unwanted baggage and an entire layer of new, hard-to-deal-with feelings. Tying off that story with an emotional outburst in such a situation just seemed like a bad hat-tip to Bollywood at its worst. Possibly because of my high expectations riding on this one, I felt almost angry at the thought that I AM Abhimanyu seemed to parody rather than embody a very tangible, very horrific reality of families. In this one story, the actors saved the story from sinking into a seedy, dark mess. My most vivid memory is Sanjay Suri saying,

“He was looking for a widow. One with a small child.”

Maybe because of the emotional roller-coaster of the past three stories, I was worn out by the time we got to I AM Omar. In all fairness, I did not give it as much attention or patience as the other stories. I AM Omar must face the brunt of its placement at the very end of the movie which magnifies even the slightest of slips. Rahul Bose was probably the only one who could keep this story from bombing. My only real grouse with this story is that it was more about betrayal than gay rights. The narrative was more in the vein of a confidence trickster plot than a human interest story. Still, I guess the film-makers tried to depict something other than the standard familial opposition/ straight marriage/ childhood bullying aspects of homosexuality in India. Full marks for innovation then.

I saw the movie over two months before its release in the theater, courtesy their marketing team. At that time, I was told that some of the feedback could be used to make alterations. I haven’t seen the film in the theater after that so I don’t know if much has been changed. But I would think there wouldn’t be any modifications in major elements like plot and acting. One of the recommendations was to tone down the background music, since its volume and pace completely shattered the sensitivity and subtleness of the stories’ portrayal. I’ll hope that suggestion has been heeded since sound can really kill or create the right mood with the audience.

All in all, I’d say I AM is worth a watch, if only for how many restrictive norms it breaks. It’s hard to speak objectively about something that’s so close (based on a friend’s life), that at least tries to tackle issues most film-makers wouldn’t even talk about and does these by telling a genuine story instead of guilt-tripping the audience into watching because ‘it is about an important issue’. I’d say go watch it and judge for yourself.

I AM elsewhere on the social media: Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Wikipedia

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