“Bombay Talkies”… Calling the shorts

Posted on May 4, 2013


The quartet of shorts that make up Bombay Talkies train a zoom lens on cinema, starting on the outside and slowly drawing us in. In the first story, cinema is on the periphery, visible only as a contributor to the gossip-magazine industry and in a Hindi film music collector’s posters and albums. In the second, a character from beyond a cordon steps into the charmed circle– he becomes a participant in cinema, an extra. The third story draws us in even closer, to the experience of being a star – if not in the cinema on the screens, then certainly in the cinema of one’s dreams. And the final story depicts the efforts to come in contact with a star outside the cinema hall, in his home. You could make a solid case that cinema, today, is the opium of the masses, a new kind of religion, and this final short deposits us in the sanctum sanctorum of a Bombay god. At least in this country, you cannot get any closer to cinema.

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In the first short, Karan Johar pays tribute to one of Hindi cinema’s most popular tropes: the love triangle. But with a twist. Avinash (Saqib Saleem) is gay. In the opening scene that’s a universe removed from the filial pieties of Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, a furious Avinash storms into his father’s room and roughs him up for not accepting his sexuality. Later, he finds a friend in Gayatri (an excellent Rani Mukerji), who’s married to Dev (Randeep Hooda). The first time he sets eyes on her, he takes in her sexy blouse and the sexily draped sari and remarks, “Gale mein mangalsutra, aankhon mein Kamasutra.” This seems somewhat forward, especially for an intern, but Avinash’s bluster is a façade for lost little boy who may just have found a daddy-substitute in Dev. (If straight men are said to look for partners to replace their mothers, it stands to reason that a gay man would look for someone to replace the father who threw him out; and Dev is suitably grey at the temples.)

On his birthday, Gayatri invites Avinash home and introduces him to Dev, who, after some reluctance, opens up when he realises that his guest is a fan of old Hindi film music too. He takes him to his shrine, which has stacks of golden-era LPs. There’s also one of Ilzaam. (That’s when we know he’s a genuine music lover. You cannot claim to really love music unless you have your guilty pleasures.) Avinash’s gaydar picks up signals and soon, standing outside Dev’s door when Gayatri isn’t home, he asks, “Do you want to come out?” This is clever dialogue, but more suited to farce. The conversations don’t ring true, and Johar makes the mistake of trying to fit in too much story. The entire arc of the triangle is material for a feature, not a short – and knowing Johar’s strengths, that would be a movie worth waiting for. Try watching parts of Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna with an open mind – you’ll see what I mean.

In a short, he needed to cover smaller ground, but with more detail – like the circumstance surrounding the moment where Avinash grazes Dev’s neck in public. It seems a rash dramatic contrivance, until we realise that Avinash isn’t quite in a stable state of mind, having just learnt that Dev and Gayatri have had great sex a while ago. These beats need to be lingered on. And the marital strife between Dev and Gayatri is rendered as a series of clichés, beginning with the visual of them sleeping with their backs to each other. But I liked the streak of selfishness that makes Avinash reveal things to Gayatri, and Johar stages some good moments – like a kiss that begins as a light peck on the lips and quickly progresses to one face smooshed into another, as if compensating for a lifetime of repression, and some scenes with a little girl, a beggar with the voice of an angel who sings old film songs and soothes troubled souls. It’s fitting that Dev ends up with her, far away from his ivory-tower shrine. This music is for everyone.

Dibakar Banerjee opts for a more linear tale – an episode, really – adapted from Satyajit Ray’s short story Patol Babu Filmstar, and given this filmmaker’s skills in extracting performances and creating atmosphere (a newspaper being read over someone’s shoulder; an unseen filmmaker’s voice), it’s no surprise that this installment works so well. Purandar (Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who’s just tailor-made for these parts) is a face in the crowd gathered around the shooting of a Ranbir Kapoor film, and he’s chosen to enact the part of the passer-by who collides with the hero. After being explained this scene, a concerned Purandar asks the assistant director, “Hero ko dhakka maarna theek hoga?” You have to laugh at the sincerity behind this absurdity. But Purandar takes all this very seriously, and he takes off to a location described as being ekaant to loosen up and rehearse. (The quiet, faraway camera really makes us feel this ekaant.) Imagine his surprise when his dead father (Sadashiv Amrapurkar, in a cloth wig), pops up from inside a dustbin – or from Ray’s Nayak.

And we segue into a conversation between two generations, with the generally accusatory tone of this father reminding us of the disapproving parent in Johar’s film. Purandar, however, is a better father. He’d promised his daughter a bedtime story – a “Hrithik story,” he says – and now his experience has given him a real-life fairy tale, where a commoner became, if only for a few minutes, some sort of prince. The scene where he reenacts the day’s happenings, with appropriate exaggeration, is like a strange silent film. Banerjee’s choices are so unobtrusive that they don’t register until they fully pass by, like the fact that a young actor is called “Ranbir Sir” or that the women in Purandar’s crowded colony have just cracked a joke about his equipment. (He seems to be a general object of ridicule; even the director of the film calls him a joker.) And the opening stretch is a gem, beautifully capturing the unease of a man who doesn’t need an alarm to wake up. Like the city, he never sleeps.

The third short, by Zoya Akhtar, was for me the best. Akhtar’s talent for expressive vignettes serves her wonderfully in this story that opens with touching declarations from children about what they want to become when they grow up. (One kid says he wants to become Spider-Man; he’s perched on a refrigerator.) Vicky (the marvelous Naman Jain) dreams of becoming a dancer, but his stern father (Ranvir Shorey, whose magnificent eyebrows deserve their own billing) forces him to play football. He’s the kind of man’s man who, working with a tight budget, would rather pay for these football lessons than for his daughter’s excursion. Vicky’s mother is equally clueless. When he tells her he doesn’t want to play football, she replies, “Sab ladke khelte hain. You will also have fun.” (She barely looks up from her makeup mirror.) In lesser hands the possibility of these thwarted dreams could have become horribly sentimental, but Akhtar infuses her story with a cheerful strain of subversion. What if you work towards your dream without telling anyone about it?

When Vicky watches Tees Maar Khan with his family, he’s struck by Katrina Kaif shaking booty to Sheila ki jawani, and he knows exactly what he wants. (As Avinash remarks in Johar’s short, Bollywood has all the answers.) I’m usually horrified by children emulating these suggestive dance moves, but Akhtar’s touch is so sure that she makes us want to see Vicky perform these suggestive dance moves – because to him, these aren’t suggestive, merely liberating. The end is a rousing triumph. The short, mercifully, never gets into the question of Vicky’s sexuality, and his non-judgmental sister merely smiles when she sees him all dolled up in her clothes and their mother’s makeup. Their closeness is never in doubt (establishing such depth of mutual feeling in such a short duration is no mean task), and their conspiratorial conversations are pitch-perfect. When she tells him he’ll end up acting like a girl, he asks, “Kyon, ladkiyon mein kya buraai hoti hai?” His innocence is heartbreaking.

Akhtar questions a world where boys are boys only if they play football and where girls are automatically handed dolls, but she isn’t interested in leaving us with a message. Like the best short films, an idea is taken up and explored just enough to give us something to chew on. And she tells us that it’s okay not to be overly ambitious. Vicky asks his sister what she dreams of doing, and she says she wants to travel the world and tick places off a list. He assumes she wants to become an air-hostess. No, she says – just a passenger. The reply is so childlike, and we laugh, and yet, there’s a touching truth in it. Why, indeed, does everything have to do with work and career? The only misstep is the literalising of Katrina Kaif as an agent of empowerment. We already know the effect she’s had on Vicky. Her appearance in front of him is needless overstatement – but a mere blip in a generally blissed-out segment.

And finally we get to Anurag Kashyap’s contribution, where Vineet Kumar Singh plays Vijay, who travels from Allahabad to Mumbai to meet the actor who pretty much owned that name on screen. As always with Kashyap, the cast is excellent. Watching the scene where Vijay’s father narrates to him an incident involving Dilip Kumar – the yarn is spun with calculated relish – you may feel there’s no need for plot as long as more such moments lie in store. And they do – in the train where Vijay regales fellow passengers with his experiences. And then, things turn tragic. The big city has no time for wide-eyed small-towners, and Vijay becomes increasing desperate to wind up his mission and return home. But here too, Kashyap finds time for detours into the rhythms of daily life. Vijay runs into an omelette vendor who came to the city to meet… Sujit Kumar. Any kind of star can leave you struck.

Vijay meets an Amitabh Bachchan impersonator. He sees Amitabh Bachchan posters. He just cannot seem to meet the man, whose security guards seem more forbidding than those at Buckingham Palace. But when he does, Kashyap fills the soundtrack with lines of the actor that have become legendary, and this lovely bit of myth-making reminds us of what movies can mean to people, why they go to such lengths, undergo such trials, to forge connections with the actors and actresses they worship. (This short also uses songs like a regular Hindi film.) There’s a clever twist in the tale, and cleverer twist after that, in a scene that reunites Vijay and his father – and these folksy plot points may remind you of some of the episodes in Kathasagar, the Doordarshan series (directed by Shyam Benegal, among others) that showcased short stories from internationally renowned writers. Not all movies need to be novels, says Bombay Talkies. Walking out, I had no reason to disagree.

Copyright ©2013 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi