Nepal, June 4 -- In the tradition of projects like Paris, Je T'Aime and New York, I Love You comes Bombay Talkies, a film anthology that brings together works by four of Bollywood's more prominent directors, built similarly around a theme. But instead of collecting snippets of life and love in the titular city, as was the case with the two international examples mentioned above, Talkies is more of an ode to cinema itself, intended to commemorate the Hindi film industry's crossing of a 100-year milestone. Directors Karan Johar, Dibakar Bannerjee, Zoya Akhtar and Anurag Kashyap all contribute their distinctive storytelling sensibilities to the project, making for a collection of shorts that is relatively cohesive-if somewhat uneven in terms of effect-and that pays homage to the enormous power wielded by cinema over the Indian consciousness.
Johar kicks things off with a short revolving around the subject of homosexuality, and there is a refreshing boldness in his approach here, a contrast to the filmmaker's usual unwavering affection for the twee. But although dipping his toes into the waters of realism, Johar appears unwilling-or unable-to entirely immerse himself in it either, backtracking now and then into the kind of over-simplified character arcs and improbable dialogues that one would expect of his previous big screen works. Part of the problem also has to do with a weak, uncharismatic lead; although Randeep Hooda and Rani Mukerji are sufficiently convincing in their portrayal of the two halves of a troubled marriage, Saqib Saleem, who plays an irreverent gay man yearning to be accepted and loved, can't really hold up his end of the triangle, and brings everyone down with him.
A different set of flaws are evident in Akhtar's film, about a little boy (Naman Jain) with wholly unconventional inclinations, ones he doesn't yet possess the vocabulary to communicate. Built like a poor man's Billy Elliot, Akhtar has made visible effort here to address the fluidity and negotiation of gender identities, questioning the traditional constructs of masculinity and the pressures therein-not something too many Hindi films have broached thus far. And while effective to an extent thanks to Jain's considerable talents, the film unfortunately takes a sharp and irreversible turn into Sappy-land at one point, from where on conversations are reduced to homilies and kids act much wiser than their ages. In taking this route, Akhtar essentially squanders most of her initial good work, only redeeming herself somewhat with a touching, jubilant climax.
Amitabh Bachchan's practically god-like status in India is what drives events, meanwhile, in Kashyap's sequence, a funny, evocative tale that follows the attempts of one man from a humble background, played by Vineet Kumar, to meet the big guy, as per the dying wishes of his father. Out of the four, this is probably the film that takes the most direct crack at the theme, exposing the cult of the superstar in all its inane, torturous glory, laid against a quirky score. But although Kumar is an exceedingly likeable protagonist, Kashyap has stretched the poor guy's miseries to excessive lengths here, with the result that the piece feels overlong in the middle. Still, it is one of the more enjoyable inclusions in the anthology, and certainly one of the most surprising.
Surprises, though, don't get any bigger or more pleasant than what Bannerjee has in store for us in his share of Talkies. Adapted from a story by Satyajit Ray, Banerjee's short stars the incredibly chameleonic Nawazuddin Siddiqui as a husband and father looking for a job, and who gets roped unexpectedly into a film shooting as an extra. Siddhiqui is at his best here, right at home in tragicomic mode, fronting a film that is as unpredictable as it is believable, and very much complete. The humour is entirely organic, never forced, and there is a whimsical quality about the story-from the introduction to the family's pet ostrich, to the scene on an abandoned set where our man is rehearsing his 'lines'-that adds to its complexity; if there was only one reason to watch Talkies, this film would be it.
Although I could've done without nearly half of the anthology's elements, there is at least the novelty of getting to see Indian filmmakers collaborate in this way. After all, in an industry where egos reign supreme and big-name stars and directors clamour for the spotlight, camaraderie of the sort that a project like Bombay Talkies would demand has been rare, to say the least. Even if it might not collect the 'best' of what Indian cinema has to offer- barring Bannerjee's sublime little piece, that is-it still opens up a welcome space for innovation in terms of structures and ideas, and that can never be a bad thing.
Published by HT Syndication with permission from EKantipur.com.
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