Saturday, April 06, 2013

Our films, our selves: thoughts on the upcoming Bombay Talkies

[From my new cinema column for DNA newspaper. The e-paper version is here]

The enthusiastic if somewhat diffused celebrations around the 100th anniversary of Indian cinema found a new focal point last month, with the unveiling of the trailer for Bombay Talkies. This is an anthology film made up of short movies – each around 25 minutes in length – by four of our best-known directors; Karan Johar, Zoya Akhtar, Anurag Kashyap and Dibakar Banerjee were each given choice of subject and treatment, as long as it had something to do with cinema. So Kashyap’s film, for instance, is about a man from Allahabad on a mission to meet his hero Amitabh Bachchan.

While a celebratory project can be expected to run along such lines, it is worth noting that much of modern cinema is about cinema anyway. It feels like we have been living in an age of meta-film for a while, where movies constantly reference other movies (and in some cases are impossible to properly appreciate unless you are familiar with those reference points). Even remakes, while updating a story, miss no opportunity to make nudge-wink allusions to our cinematic past. I haven’t seen the new Himmatwala yet, but I wasn’t surprised to hear the dialogue where the hero tells the heroine how to bandage his wound: “Yeh 1983 hai, yaar. Pallu phaado aur baandh do.” The patronising tone is almost enough to make one feel defensive about the terrible 1980s.

As it happens, two of the four directors in the Bombay Talkies project have already made feature-length films that can be viewed as tributes to cinema. Anurag Kashyap’s epic from last year, Gangs of Wasseypur, was – to me at least – less noteworthy as a straight-faced depiction of gang wars in Dhanbad, and more stimulating as a commentary on how people interact with their popular culture, even modelling their own personalities and relationships on what they see in movies. (In one of that film’s many witty little touches, the sole character who is uninterested in cinema is played by a real-life director, Tigmanshu Dhulia. Naturally, this grinch is also the story’s primary villain.) Zoya Akhtar’s excellent Luck by Chance, on the other hand, was explicitly about the workings of the movie industry – a sympathetic yet hard-edged tale about the fortunes of two aspiring actors, neither of whom are to the manor of a filmi khandaan born. The multiple cameos in that film by real-life actors and directors might easily have become tiresome, but they were marvellously done. Two of the most delightful, in fact, were by Akhtar’s Bombay Talkies co-directors: Karan Johar played himself as someone darker and more intriguing than you’d ever think from watching his actual movies, while Kashyap played a writer whose artistic cravings are rudely snuffed out by money-minded producers. Such are the ways in which an industry comments on its own underpinnings.

Of the four short films, the one I’m most looking forward to is Dibakar Banerjee’s updating of Satyajit Ray’s story “Patol Babu, Film Star”, about a small-time actor and dreamer who is hired to play a tiny part in a film. (It is a pleasing coincidence that Ray’s story was first published in 1963, Indian cinema’s half-centenary year, though I doubt he had that in mind while writing it.) I met Banerjee last year during one of the script sessions, and learnt that his alterations included making the protagonist younger (the original Patol is 52), putting in a little subplot about emu-farming, and shifting the setting to contemporary Mumbai. But what I thought most interesting was his stated intention to bring elements of non-fiction filmmaking into fiction, to “explore the method of serendipity of documentaries within the format of a pre-written story”. 

Part of the idea was to work with an actor who might relate to Patol Babu’s struggles – someone whose own emotional trajectory resembled that of the character. It seems appropriate then that the role is being played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, a short, dark-complexioned, “non-hero type” who has gone from being a bit-part player to one of our most respected performers, and a poster boy for the heart-warming (if illusory) idea that if you have talent, you can make it big no matter what. The last I heard, Banerjee and his collaborators were plumbing Siddiqui’s own background for cues to the updated Patol, though I don’t know how much of this has made it into the final film.

What Banerjee probably realised was that the line between fiction and non-fiction can become very blurred in a context where cinema is commenting on cinema. Two of the best
documentaries I have recently seen are not part of the 100-year celebrations, but they could easily have been. Faiza Khan’s affectionate Supermen of Malegaon chronicles the struggles of small-town filmmakers as they make a superhero movie on a tiny budget with basic computer technology; this is a story about people fighting the odds (the plural “supermen” in the title refers to director Nasir Shaikh and his team in Malegaon), trying to highlight their daily problems – poverty, pollution, apathy – while also indulging their passion for filmmaking.

Even more compelling is Jagannathan Krishnan’s Videokaaran, about the world of underground video parlours. The lead character here – he is a real person, but one instinctively thinks of him as a “character” – is a colourful young man named Sagai, and as he addresses the camera, holding forth about his life, analysing his own personality, we see that (like the people in Gangs of Wasseypur) he is partly a construct of the movies he loves. As he and his friends argue passionately about the relative merits of Rajinikanth, Amitabh Bachchan and other heroes, it is obvious that they are already performers themselves – the cockiness, the braggadocio, the smart one-liners come easily to them. If they watch Bombay Talkies, they are likely to see their own movie-obsessions mirrored in it.


  1. Sorry for the unrelated comment . Just read that Roger Ebert passed away :( and I am feeling so terrible . I can't imagine movies without him in there . Such a great loss .

    Sorry again , you can reject this comment. But I really needed to write to someone who could understand this . RIP Roger Ebert.

  2. Totally off topic. Roger Ebert dies. Sniff! Makes me sad.

  3. Prashila, Anon: I was just writing a (very small) post about Ebert. Anyone else who wants to comment here: please stay on-topic.

  4. Now that I am reading about this approach to "Patol Babu, Film Star", I am looking forward to that story more. Though I must admit I hardly know anything about the original.

    I was more interested in Zoya Akhtar's initially. Luck By Chance is one of my favorite Hindi films from last 5 years and arguably the best. So criminally underrated. Thanks for mentioning the cameos, I too thought the cameos and the people who played them had an uncanny connect. Two of the best I thought were Anurag Kashyap and Shahrukh Khan. Anurag for his role, and that moment when he says, "Main bas loud thinking kar raha tha, sir"! And Shahrukh for possibly playing himself, being an utter natural when he doles out that advice to the rookie. What a film, really.

  5. Gradwolf: I wrote about the Patol Babu-documentary thing in the Caravan Dibakar profile too (though I don't remember now how much of it went into the final published version, and I'm not going back to check).

    And yes, as I think I mentioned in my Luck by Chance post, I have never found Karan Johar or Kareena as interesting as in their tiny parts in that film.

  6. This might be slightly off-topic, but wasn't there a full-length post you wrote about 'Supermen of Malegaon'? I can't seem to find it using the search feature.

  7. Marvin: no, I didn't. I did do a tiny profile of Faiza Khan for my "screen savers" article for Vogue India though.

  8. "As it happens, two of the four directors in the Bombay Talkies project have already made feature-length films that can be viewed as tributes to cinema."

    Hmm... While Dibakar Banerjee's Love Sex aur Dhokha wasn't a tribute to cinema, it was obsessed with the camera, wasn't it. And the first part, there was some major life (in cinema) imitating cinema there.

  9. BV: yes that's true, but I meant "tributes to cinema" in a more specific sense than that. (In one sense, any really high-quality film can be seen as being a tribute to cinema.)

  10. You make a great point about the age of the meta-film. Amusing at one point, it has become quite tiresome these days, especially in the hands of film-kids like Sajid Khan who seem to be treating creative endeavours as a chance to play-act childhood fantasies (or so it seems). GoW had a more interesting take on this notion of pop-culture directly affecting the lives of people, but for most of the rest, the mandatory in-jokes to Sholay and other films from the 70s and 80s are just hit-and-giggles.

    Worse, it's a very narrow slice of pop-culture, usually the 70s/80s masala flicks. There was so much more even to that period.

    That said, I'm looking forward to Bombay Talkies :)

  11. Thanks, Ramanand. Yes, it's the sort of thing that can become tiresome quickly, even in cases where it is reasonably well-executed. And when done merely for its own sake, it really is tedious.