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.
Great to know that there is someone else out there who watched this movie. Good post, I was also mesmerized by the opening sequence. The tune, the setting, the camera - it's very poetic. I am trying to remember, that SJ tune from the opening sequence was used recently in some other movie. Aargh...I am not going to bed until I find out.ReplyDelete
YES.....it was used in Wes Anderson's "The Darjeeling Limited". Ohh what would we do w/o Google!! I can sleep peacefully now.ReplyDelete
Yours is the least negative review I've ever read about this movie, yet I still can't wait to see it (just watched Heat and Dust over the weekend) - though perhaps things do not bode well, as each subsequent Merchant/Ivory/Shashi Kapoor movie I watch has less impact than the one before it.ReplyDelete
Watching Jennifer Kendal is a rare treat. I thought she was super in Junoon and more than held her own against people with a lot more screen experience.
Not trying to be anything else but curious..is ''side-profile'' correct? I have always thought ''profile'' includes ''side'', which makes the ''side'' redundant.ReplyDelete
I remember watching it with my movie crazy mom when I was in early 10s and later in late 10s when my father was in charge of cinema hall at Air Force Station Palam.ReplyDelete
I used to enact Shashi (the only one I liked apart from Rishi) in the whole Kapoor clan till Kareena came and made me her bhakt for life.
Btw, Whats 'meta-film'?
And I'm not sure you want to say ''the likes of Shyam Benegal''..''the likes of'' is dedidedly derogatory..I think :PReplyDelete
Oops..sorry for flooding your comments box!ReplyDelete
Rathchakra: the closing titles had the same tune, but played to an English song - the lyrics went "Good times/We had good times..." or something such. I wondered if it was an older tune. Sounded like one of those Vera-Lynn numbers from the Second World War.ReplyDelete
Beth: yes, am a big fan of Kendal too - very natural screen actress, given that she learnt her trade with a theatrical troupe.
Oxymoronic: a film that comments on the movie-making process, at least partially breaking down the fourth wall between the viewer and the onscreen action. With a few self-referential touches.
Radhika: I don't think the phrase is decidedly derogatory. Either way, I didn't mean it that way.
I havent seen the film, but since you mentioned the lawaris song.. just bringing this to your attn.ReplyDelete
AB recently wrote in his blog about how the song came about.
As Beth mentioned, your review is much more forgiving than the ones I've read so far - Old is Gold's and FilmiGeek's - though they seem to be in agreement that the opening credits are lovely. For this, and for the Shashi-Jennifer meta, industry meta, and possible La Dolce Vita vibe, I figure I'll give this a shot sooner or later.ReplyDelete
Apropos of meta Shashi films, just watched Vijeta which had some striking moments in it, such as when a pater familias Shashi rages that he makes "low-grade films" to feed his family, and he doesn't want his son (played by real-life son Kunal) to starve on the footpath.
Hi, I enjoy your reviews immensely! Keep them coming. By the way, Farah Khan dedicated a whole song "Ye Fizaen" in "Main Hoon Na" to closing credits. I thought it was nice.ReplyDelete
dear jabberwock,continue your good work.i think this is one of the best blogs in india.wish you all the bestReplyDelete
When I saw th emovie I was surprised seeing Usha Uthup, Aparna Sen and Nadira as the few small characters in the movie. Shashi Kapoor is awesome, almost living the character, one would think.ReplyDelete
The english is pretty good too, very English, fewer slangs etc. as compared to the Indian english movies today. Probably more american than british?
For a minute there I thought I had found the one person (apart from its makers) who loved the movie! Looks like your liking isnt totally unconditional, though. As ppcc points out, my review of the movie was a lot harsher than yours. I blame it entirely on the opening few minutes of the movie. It raised my expectations and things moved downhill pretty fast from there. I am interested in 1960s/70s Bollywood, in Kapoor + Kendal, Mere Angne Mein and the numerous glimpses of Bollywood that the movie has to offer but it still didnt work for me.ReplyDelete
I read your blog. your review about movies are very informative and interesting. plese carry on your review. your blog is wnderful.
scribina: thanks for the link. Yes, I figured it was a UP folksong.ReplyDelete
pooja: you mean the English in today's Indian films tends to be more American than British? Yes, quite likely. Though our childhood and adolescent reading (at least till my generation) was very British (from Blyton to Wodehouse via Christie), and of course our textbooks still have the colonial hangover, you can't underestimate the impact of American pop culture - movies, TV - on Indian English today.
For a minute there I thought I had found the one person (apart from its makers) who loved the movie! Looks like your liking isnt totally unconditional, though.
bollyviewer: my liking isn't unconditional at all; in fact, I didn't think too highly of the film overall. This wasn't a review in any case, it was merely a collection of the little things that appealed to me.
One film I must see is Shakespearewallah. I must have heard the soundtrack a million times as a kid as my father had recorded it, and the troupe used to visit our school.ReplyDelete
I still remember them doing some of The Merchant of Venice- long long time ago, in the sixties!
Sashi was a treat to watch in that movie.ReplyDelete
dipali, I do hope you'll watch Shakespeare-Wallah. I was blown away by it and have since become a somewhat obnoxious evangelist for it, trying to get everyone I know to watch it :)ReplyDelete
hey jabberwocky,im a fan.pratibha ray is the author of yajnaseni.ReplyDelete
Farah Khan has visuals of her entire crew in both her films - Main Hoon Na and OSO.ReplyDelete
Th title theme from the movie is beautiful. Love the beginning with the "tudu"'s. Have heard it many times on repeat since getting the OST for Darjeeling Ltd.
Bombay Talkie is a favorite movie of mine, so I am very happy to find your review (someone on the forum at Bollywhat.com posted a link).ReplyDelete
As many times as I've seen it I forget the plot as a rule, and remember the breathtaking opening, the scenes with Nadira, and Shashi's yellow shoes in the typewriter dance.
The dvd extra convo among Merchant, Ivory, and Jhabwala (not an Indian), I think, give you a clue as to what kept it from being better - Merchant loves Bollywood, Ivory's enjoyment is too outsider-ish, and Jhabwala doesn't want to touch it with a stick.
Nice review, thanks.ReplyDelete