Can’t recall the last time I’ve been so enchanted by the opening-credits sequence of a film as I was while watching Merchant-Ivory’s 1970 feature Bombay Talkie a couple of days ago. As a whole, the film – starring real-life couple Shashi Kapoor and Jennifer Kendal as a Hindi-movie star and an English romance novelist respectively – is an interesting but uneven work. Though it attempts to be a “meta-film” – a commentary on the Bombay film industry and more specifically on the melodrama in mainstream Hindi movies of the period – the tone is slightly forced. But there's nothing to fault in the first 10-15 minutes, beginning with the credits sequence.
The opening shot is a view of (I think) a façade of the old Taj Mahal hotel in Bombay, seen from a skyscraper. The camera then slowly moves in on the activity in the streets below until we see a group of men carrying a large billboard, painted on which is the film’s title. The rest of the sequence features similar billboards and posters with delicately drawn group portraits of every member of the cast and crew (including spot boys and junior artistes) along with their names; I especially liked the portrait of the sound recordist, Narendra Singh, who is depicted in side-profile with earphones. It's a moving tribute (a showier modern equivalent is Farha Khan’s nod to her crew in the closing credits of Om Shanti Om, which is another meta-film of sorts) and it’s enhanced by the lovely, plaintive music score by Shanker-Jaikishan. I can’t get the tune out of my head – it’s mostly sitar-based with violin interludes and it sounds very unlike anything else the composers did.
I should add that the billboards and posters don’t appear in isolation, they are placed against the background of various Bombay vistas – Marine Drive, the Nariman Point skyline, streets with double-decker buses – and Subrata Mitra’s camerawork is superb. Offhand, the only other credits sequence I can think of that combines music and visuals to such beautiful effect is the opening scene of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, with Jean Constantin’s gorgeous score complementing the poetry of the visuals (the fleeting, worm’s eye views of the Eiffel Tower and Paris’s avenues).
The first scene proper in Bombay Talkie has novelist Lucia Lane (Kendal, luminous as always) being shown around a studio, introduced first to a sardonic scriptwriter, Hari (Zia Mohyeddin), and then to the dashing star Vikram (Kapoor, in a role that can be seen as mirroring his own real-life stardom). In the background, dancers – including Helen in a small appearance – rehearse their moves on the keys of a giant red typewriter, while one of the film’s crewmembers earnestly explains to Lucia that this is a “fate machine”; that by pressing down on the keys as they dance, they are “typing out their own life story”. Lucia responds to this gobbledygook with a polite smile and a “It’s very symbolic!”, which greatly pleases her guide.
There follows a wonderfully fluid and economical shot where, in the space of just a couple of seconds, Vikram goes from being a suave man about town, posing for photographs and speaking to Lucia in clipped English, to performing a clownish jig on the typewriter keys. It’s startling to see the change in Shashi Kapoor’s personality here as he magically transforms into a Bollywood hero, calling out for word cues (for the song he has to lip-synch to), leaping about maniacally as if he’s just received a hormone dose from his elder brother, and mouthing lyrics that go “Hum zindagi ki typewriter pe tip tip tip karte hain”. But then, Kapoor is exactly the right actor to play this role, given how adeptly he was balancing two contrasting careers throughout the 1970s: acting in dozens of hurriedly made commercial films on the one hand (sometimes playing nothing more substantial than Amitabh Bachchan’s sidekick) while simultaneously producing and starring in more austere projects with the likes of Shyam Benegal, and also remaining active in Prithvi Theatres.
If it sounds like I’m going overboard about Bombay Talkie, let me say that the rest of the film doesn’t quite live up to this stirring introduction: it soon turns into a long-winded love triangle that suffers from its own restrained tone. The idea of Ismail Merchant, James Ivory and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala collaborating on a movie that mimics the average Bollywood potboiler is undoubtedly interesting, but Bombay Talkie never really goes all out, not even in the climactic scene where one of the protagonists is dramatically stabbed by the other. There is little attempt to milk the humorous possibilities of the subplot where Lucia tries to discover her spiritual side by joining an ashram (headed by a verbose, table tennis-playing guru). Consequently, a movie that was intended as an affectionate parody-tribute to the excesses of Hindi cinema itself plays out like a typically mannered Merchant-Ivory film.
I still liked it for a variety of reasons, including my nostalgic interest in the films and personalities of the time. For starters, this is a very rare opportunity to see Kapoor and Kendal in a romantic pairing onscreen, and they make a fine couple. (In some of their scenes together, one wonders about parallels to their real-life story: “How am I expected to know about your bloody customs?” Lucia snaps at one point, and it got me thinking about the possible trials of being a bahu in the conservative Kapoor khandaan.) And of course there’s the always fascinating dichotomy of Shashi Kapoor’s career. Watching the no-fuss kissing scenes in Bombay Talkie (in addition to Kendal, Kapoor gets to nuzzle with Aparna Sen, who plays his wife here, and with Nadira, playing a has-been actress) is a reminder that in the same year that he made this film, Kapoor probably appeared in at least 5-6 mainstream Hindi movies where the camera would cut to a shot of birds or flowers each time his face got anywhere close to the heroine’s.
I also enjoyed an early scene that provides a glimpse of the very young Usha Uthup (then known as Usha Iyer) singing at a party. But the vignette I liked best was the one with the aging Nadira surrounded by three admirers (one of whom is played by the young Jalal Agha), who perform a hilarious, jugalbandi-style rendition of “Baa Baa Black Sheep”. Incidentally I also learnt from this scene that the song “Mere Angne Mein”, made famous by Amitabh in Laawaris, wasn’t original to that film. It was probably a folk song that gave rise to different variants over the years, for a version of it appears here, more than a decade before Laawaris was made.
Bombay Talkie is a frequently wordy and self-conscious film, and as such difficult to recommend to a viewer who isn’t interested in Kapoor and Kendal, or in 1960s/70s Bollywood (or "Mere Angne Mein" for that matter), but little moments like the ones I mentioned here made it more than worthwhile for me. It’s part of a new set of Merchant-Ivory DVDs that are are retailing at reasonable prices (Rs 150 per disc) at local Musiclands and Planet M’s. Other titles from the 1960s and 1970s include Shakespeare Wallah, The Householder, The Europeans and Roseland.