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.
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.
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!"