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Bombay Talkies

March 27, 2010

as i have mentioned previously, i am not a film buff per se. yes i like movies, but i don’t have refined taste in them. so when in class our professors say something like “ah, the pathos employed by haneke through the mis-en-scene” i am sometimes compelled to say “yes, but what about the mis-en-scene in the sex scene in the titanic?

the few occasions that i do know about a film, i tend to argue quite passionately, to make up for the intellectual shame felt otherwise. one such argument was about whether the film Amelie was exploitative or not. we both ended up arguing that the director had exoticized paris. he felt i liked that because the subject was paris, i replied that i believe films need to exoticize, because they need to be fantasies, they need to be wondrous.

there is one particular filmmaker who, among many, does this to such a unique, signatory, marvelous manner. and one of his films has come under criticism for exoticsing a country quite used to it. here is wes anderson’s take on an indian funeral. (if the link is not working, try here)

the entire time, everything is in shades of white – flowers, clothes, smoke, rickshaws… now i love this film, and i love what some call it its exoticism of india. the politically correct part of me may concede that, but you have to watch a film. it mocks the western habit of coming to india to find ‘themselves’ and it presents india in a quirky, fantastical way that is true to those three americans’ naive yet earnest take on india.

but a far better defense for this artistic liberty by the director was provided by an indian, who said that the fantastic mr. fox exoticises the forest, because animals don’t talk, and they don’t dress in clothes, and wes anderson was totally exploiting the forest and being all oriental about it. so i guess we can accept that exoticism is ok.

of course the liberal arts education section of our audience will ruffle their bob marley hair, and rub their che guevara beards, and log out of jstor and protest – no, it’s dehumanizing, and like haven’t you read Said? ok forget it then.

the beauty about wes anderson films is that even if you come across one randomly, you know its his. the look, the feel, the scale, the intricacy and the music. even though he never repeats, you hear a song and you think damn, this song is meant to be in a wes anderson film. i heard one such song in darjeeling limited, the movie posted above, and it was a completely desi song. and i thought ‘wtf? how did the bastard get a song made that’s totally desi and yet perfect for him?’

(if this link is not working, try here)

after some investigations, i discovered that it was from a film whose credit sequence was wes anderson’s favorite sequence, evuh! without further ado,

now people will tell you that this film, bombay talkies by ismail merchant, is a ‘realistic’ movie, completely different from normal hindi movies – it even has kissing scenes! but in fact, this film retains the elements of melodrama, song and dance, bizarre sequences, action comedy romance etc in equal measures. the only thing done differently here is that while the elements of the content remain same, the form with which they are shown is either improved, satirized or both. it is a bollywood film made in a different cinematic language perhaps, but it tells the same story. IMP: this review contains spoilers. there is a link to a site where you can stream the film for free near the end of this post. so if you haven’t seen it yet it might be a good idea to do so before you read on. but even if you don’t it doesn’t give too much away and you can still enjoy it whenever you do see.

but don’t be fooled into thinking that the language is that of western cinema. in 1970, the new york times had reviewed this film, the review article adorned with the sarcastic by-line: ‘Famous, Rich … Nice Looking’ the NYT enjoyed the film’s whimsical scenes, but cringed at its drama. The reviewer wrote

“Bombay Talkie,” however, persists in switching back and forth between this quite cheerful satire and the quite seriously intended, awkwardly defined emotional conflicts involving the novelist, the actor, the actor’s unhappy wife and his best friend. I assume that this conflict between comedy and melodrama is meant to be its own metaphor, for contemporary India, for Indian movies, even for love. Though tactful, the metaphor is mixed.

Almost 40 years later, a renowned indian critic, filmi geek panned the movie as well. the complaint was its attitude, which

seemed to treat India (and Indian films) with a certain condescension that I found both offensive and inappropriate.

Filmi Geek was upset that the foreign audiences would look at the film’s depiction of indian spirituality with mirth, with pity, writing that the female lead’s Lucia’s unease towards the religious scene is displayed not as “Look at Lucia, too inflexible to adapt to a different culture,” but “look at this adorable weird little Indian spirituality, too primitive for a civilized person like Lucia.”

those fears were confirmed before they were written, as the NYT felt the scene involving Lucia with the spiritual guru displayed Lucia becoming “restless, however, with the swami’s little lectures about his social successes in Los Angeles, and her idea of recreation is something more than being allowed to fetch the swami’s lost Ping-Pong balls”

of course, what both reviews betray are their writers political, intellectual and aesthetic bends. moreover, the tragedy is that such a gorgeous film is dissected only at the level of story and characters.

but even there, the two have missed out on something vital. if this film plays any politics, it is to denounce all strands of it. every character, every ideology is savaged in this film with equal determination. both Lucia and the swami she goes to are mocked, one for her naive assumption that somehow india would provide them some ready made spiritual answers, the other for having commercialized spiritual beliefs for misfit tourists like Lucia. and as for Filmi Geek’s concerns about the attitude, here is what i have to argue – yes they are poking fun, but its not the oriental attitude of a foreigner finding the natives crude and pitiful but rather the insiders who are intimate with their own arts and culture, poking fun at what they know well. to prove my point, have a look at this

more importantly, the film retains the element of the bollywood film. there are several scenes where music being played within the scene, such as on a radio, is used to score the characters dancing and driving the story forward. stylistically, its worlds apart from the pantomime of the traditional musical, but it is serving the same purpose. and when the time does arrive for the blow-out bollywood song-and-dance, the number that comes on screen is far ahead of anything else that has ever been conceived. look at it yourself.

the film has some absolutely brilliantly shot scenes – in particular is a staircase shot that is repeated twice in the film. once its comic, the other time its tragic and both are done in such a magnificent way. what triumphs in each of these scenes, as well as the rest of the film, is the sound design. desi films rarely have such an accomplished use of sound. perhaps one of the best examples is when Lucia meets Vikram, the hero, and both of them hit it off. their eager conversation is heard as the camera shows us the face of Vikram’s wife – its a superb scene, and it works because of the use of sound. another great part is the last shot, where the camera is too far to make out the actions of the servant, yet the sound of his tray shaking with his shivers conveys to us all that we need to know.

but from a pakistani perspective, the height of enjoyment is a chance to watch zia moheyuddin on screen. probably one of the most famous names in pakistan, few people under 30 have actually seen him do the thing he is famed for – acting. the word in the theater circle is that moheyuddin is an extremely demanding task-master – in french, he is an a**hole. well in this film, he is the ultimate bitch. i have rarely seen such a snide, bitter, witty character as Moheyuddin here. his looks and gait go form resentful brooding to cynical whimsy. and his obvious contrast with the pin-up looks of shashi kapoor accentuates his character even further.

*since i wrote this, my wife and i have had an almighty debate over Zia Moheyuddin’s character in this film. for her, his obsessiveness and passion represents the most human characteristics of love. i argued that his love was ‘fake’ as his final act of vengeance was based on vikram’s taunts, suggesting that his envy of vikram was greater than his love for Lucia. in response, she argued that it is illogical to separate the two feelings, or to ascribe ideals of truth and fake to love. i think we can safely say that the film’s characters are great, and its tragedy is of a greek or shakespearian level. which means that people like the NYT columnist can find that to be melodramatic, but anyone well versed in the arts of the desi might not.*

you can watch the darjeeling limited online, and you can do the same for bombay talkies as well.

but before we leave, here is something i call conspiracy critiques. despite my disavowal for politics, i am pakistani and i can’t run away from how i think. take a look at the following scenes (especially part two), and then ask yourself if this is not a metaphor for both india and pakistan’s political history with western alliances, and how the fallout from those have affected pakistan’s behaviour. remember also, that the jasmine is our national flower.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. March 27, 2010 20:00

    Nice writing style. I look forward to reading more in the future.

  2. March 29, 2010 17:38

    I just saw Bombay talkies after watching that credit sequence, it was very interesting indeed. I’d never seen Zia Moiyuddin act either. He played such an awesome antihero which I wasn’t expecting that at all, much less a movie that circulated around THREE antiheroes.

    It was also an interesting insight into Indian cimena. It seemed to be inspired by movies like Sunset Blvd and La Dolce Vita, because of the same cynical treatment… except he painted a bright veneer onto the whole thing and flattened his characters in interesting places. I think that gave the movie a layer of irony that made it more… ‘Indian’? In addition to the shots the sets were very cool too, like the set-within-a-set typewriter.

    Enlightening stuff!

    • March 29, 2010 17:42

      many thanks nadir 🙂

      i haven’t seen La Dolce in its totality – have always failed to make it through that marathon. but i am intrigued by your mention of flattened characters – something i had missed but which makes a lot of sense now that you say it. also, i think that bright veneer you mention is very important, because it is an integral part of storytelling, and by extension filmmaking, in our part of the world.

  3. April 1, 2010 03:04

    Oh man! I think I might not totally get on with the film-students-type at all! I might never consider watching something like this if I’m let on my own devices. (And I consider “Speed” to be a piece of good cinema.. They flew a whole boeing jahaaz yaar).

    The Zia and the West angle is intriguing (especially when Zia is wearing a green and white shalwar qameez, no less). This weekend viewing, it is, i suppose…

    • April 1, 2010 11:31

      hahaha

      unless you are referring to me as the film student type, i totally get what you mean. bachpan say speed aur jurrasic park jaisay classics dekhnay kay baad yahan aa ker sahih embarassment hoti hai

      that said, do let me know what you thought of bombay talkies once you get done watching it (if you do) i promise you that the zia angle would keep popping up in your head 🙂

  4. April 4, 2010 05:28

    I would tend to agree with the wife here. I was quite unsure about how Hari and Vikram’s characters got along with each other: Whether they are friends (which I only realised later on in the film, that they might be), or were they just colleagues who reveled in the differences between them (Hari passing snide remarks on dumb old Vicky, while Vicky enjoyed his ability to give cigars to Hari which he couldn’t afford). Perhaps it was a mixture of both these things. However, it seemed to me that it was Lucia that made him hang around Hari, and most of his motivation has been Lucia. Though, he seemed to be snide and bitter to the core in the first half of the movie, it seemed vengeance might be at play, but his character seemed so, SO different during the whole Birthday Night. His empathy for Mala was a tell tale sign of that. His emotions were strong enough to be vengeful all of a sudden, which can justify his actions at the end. Also, his demeanor at the end didn’t seem to reflect triumph, as one would imagine someone after an action full of vengeance…… but i can be wrong…

    buhat hogaya! but i liked the movie very much! such a bitch that lucia was! (She just made my list of most sinister bitches.. Shabbo of Veer Zara is up there as well)

    And, Zia! Wah! He could be a bloody awesome psycopath in any film industry!

    Also, (and now im stretching this analogy, and surely it was not intended as it was in 1970s) lucia comes to hari for spiritual guidance, and he refers her to an ashram.. west needed help in the region and came to pakistan, and they find their solution in religion (mujahideen and afghanistan)…. what would have been freakier, if the last scene was about someone from the ashram who went to the taj and stabbed ms. lucia-bitch-lane… that would have caused a million heads to explode.

  5. April 4, 2010 05:36

    Delete my last comment! (*should be reading the darned thing before posting*)

    I would tend to agree with the wife here. I was quite unsure about how Hari and Vikram’s characters got along with each other: Whether they are friends (which I only realised later on in the film, that they might be), or were they just colleagues who reveled in the differences between them (Hari passing snide remarks on dumb old Vicky, while Vicky enjoyed his ability to give cigars to Hari which he couldn’t afford). Perhaps it was a mixture of both these things. However, it seemed to me that it was Lucia that made Hari hang around Vicky (when he didn’t need to), and most of his actions were motivated somehow by Lucia. Though, he seemed to be snide and bitter to the core in the first half of the movie, it seemed vengeance might be at play, but his character seemed so, SO different during the whole Birthday Night. His empathy for Mala was a tell tale sign of that. His emotions were too strong enough to be vengeful all of a sudden, which can justify his actions at the end. Also, his demeanor at the end didn’t seem to reflect triumph, as one would imagine someone after an action full of vengeance…… but i can be wrong…

    buhat hogaya! but i liked the movie very much! such a bitch that lucia was! (She just made my list of most sinister bitches.. Shabbo of Veer Zara is up there as well)

    And, Zia! Wah! He could play such bloody awesome psycopath in any film industry!

    Also, (and now im stretching this analogy, and surely it was not intended as it was in 1970s) lucia comes to hari for spiritual guidance, and he refers her to an ashram.. west needed help in the region and came to pakistan, and they find their solution in religion (mujahideen and afghanistan)…. what would have been freakier, if the last scene was about someone from the ashram who went to the taj and stabbed ms. lucia-bitch-lane… that would have caused a million heads to explode.

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