The expectations were firmly set as soon as it was announced that a quartet of contemporary Mumbai directors was making four quickies to mark the centennial of the Hindi movie industry.
The primary point of interest was inevitably focussed on how each filmmaker would interpret the medium that has defined Indian popular culture for a hundred years.
Bombay Talkies serves its principal purpose quite well: each segment of this cinematic anthology underscores in bold relief the defining creative impulses of its maker.
To that extent, Bombay Talkies springs no surprises at all. You get more or less what you expect.
Karan Johar, in the opening segment, stays put in his comfort zone – in the world of a yuppie couple (Rani Mukherji, entertainment supplement editor; and Randeep Hooda, TV news anchor) and a spunky gay rebel (Saqib Saleem) who turns their married life on its head.
At the other end of the spectrum, in the fourth short film, Anurag Kashyap settles for a characteristically cheeky, earthy and breezy style in telling the story of an Allahabad man (Vineet Kumar Singh) who sets out on an improbable mission to meet his dad’s movie idol, Amitabh Bachchan, and give the superstar a taste of home-made murabba.
Similarly, while Zoya Akhtar cannot quite break free from the lure of a Bollywood diva (Katrina Kaif) even as she comes up with the unconventional tale of a boy (Naman Jain) who aspires to be a girl, Dibakar Banerjee gives full rein to what he is good at – capturing the joys and despairs of “that little man” in the crowd (Nawazuddin Siddiqui).
Each segment of Bombay Talkies has its moments, either in terms of the quality of the acting or in the little narrative sleights that hit home. What is disappointing is that, barring the Dibakar Banerjee segment, none of the films is an attempt to showcase cinema as a self-contained medium of expression. They only explore its external manifestations.
Two of the segments – Zoya Akhtar’s and Anurag Kashyap’s – are about the dynamics of movie stardom and how it exercises a hold on the lives of common people.
Karan Johar’s story, essentially a relationship drama bolstered by fine performances, establishes no more than a fleeting linkage with the movies through a pair of classic 1960s Lata Mangeshkar numbers (Ajeeb dastaan hai yeh kahaan shuru kahaan khatam and Lag jaa gale ki phir yeh haseen raat ho na ho) that a girl on a railway station footbridge sings for a few tokens of appreciation from passerby.
Despite the obvious stylistic divergences, all the four stories dwell upon lies and truths, and make-believe and struggles to escape the drudgery of real life. But is that all there is to this amazingly multifaceted medium?
The fact that cinema is the youngest and the most modern of art forms forever changing shape and constantly evolving is eloquently underlined by lyricist Swanand Kirkire in the film’s lively musical prelude, Lo aaya aaya aaya main hoon movie madaari. But that spirit isn’t wholly reflected in the films that follow.
To their credit, in the end credits or anywhere else, the filmmakers do not make the claim that Bombay Talkies is a tribute to one hundred years of Indian cinema as a whole.
As the title suggests, the film recognizes only a single strand of the vast diversity that the cinema of this vast subcontinent represents and stops at “celebrating 100 years of cinema in our lives”.
It is only Banerjee’s short film that seeks to penetrate the heart of the raconteur’s art through the dawn-to-nightfall story of an ordinary man who stumbles upon extraordinary magic in his life, if only for a brief moment, when he strays into a film shoot after a failed job hunt and is roped in for a bit part.
Loosely adapted from a short story by Satyajit Ray (Potol Babu, Film Star), the film is set in a soul-sapping Mumbai where a one-time folk actor from Sangli cannot even find the inspiration to create a simple story that can perk up his listless young daughter.
When the man does rediscover his inner self, Dibakar Banerjee and his lead actor, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, turn the last few minutes of the segment into an exhilarating exhibition of the pure joy of mime and music, extracting every ounce of energy from silent hand and body gestures as the father transmits the excitement of the moment to his entranced daughter.
The scene plays out to the accompaniment of a soulful instrumental rendition of a lilting Tagore song (Tobu mone rekho), which roughly translates as “even so, remember me if I stray far away; remember me even if old love is suppressed by the mesh of a new affection”.
Nostalgia, poignance and the depth of the human imagination all gently spring forth from this construct – it becomes a perfect summation of the magic of storytelling and instantly imprints itself on the mind. Nawazuddin is a marvel, a master of mimetic minimalism.
Such moments of epiphany are rare in Bombay Talkies. One is left with the feeling that a once-in-a-century cinematic experiment should have had more heart and heft.
But do not let that put you off. In encapsulating the dreams, disappointments, falsehoods, flashes of truth, elements of emotional artifice and inescapable realities of life, these four stories, each distinct in emotional timbre and visual feel, do present, within their limited ambit, a range of cinematic expressions that are in themselves laudable.