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The beauty of Bombay talkies

A tribute to our cinema that is more cinema than box office

We celebrate Vidya Balan’s nomination as a jury member in Cannes. We don’t take the elevator after watching Ek Thi Daayan. We remember Satyajit Ray on his birthday by visiting his Bishop Lefroy Road home. We hum Aashiqui 2 songs in the bathroom. A strange beast, we the Indian movie buff. And perhaps the only way our hunger could be satiated in this 100th year of Indian cinema was to have four of the best filmmakers of the country come together for one project. Bombay Talkies. Named after the legendary studio, which was founded by Himanshu Rai in the 1930s, became synonymous with Devika Rani and produced everything from Jeevan Naiyya to Mahal, this portmanteau film has four shorts, each lasting about half-an-hour and celebrating the magic of Indian cinema. So here goes… just like in the film… we split this up by the directors.

Karan Johar

It couldn’t have been an easy decision to open Bombay Talkies with this one. Of the four, it is the furthest from the world of movies. Yes, Gayatri (Rani Mukerji) does work as a film writer in a Mumbai daily but the core story is not cinema-centric. It’s about her stressful marriage to Dev (Randeep Hooda) and how a gay intern Avinash (Saqib Saleem) at her office disrupts the couple’s peaceful co-existence.

In his attempt to do something out of the box, do something unKJo, KJo brews this new blend, which complies with the ‘dharma’ of his baroque but also weaves in a few threads of reality. While lines like “Gay ho, terrorist nahin” or “I just hate lies” sound very fake and flashy in such a set-up, some of the moments hit the high note. Especially the way he uses the singing of the street child — Ajeeb dastaan hai yeh and Lag jaa gale haven’t sounded purer — as the prayer of passionate pining.

He has always been terrific with his actors and all three leads in his short are top notch. Rani’s effortlessly consummate but the men are so good that when they physically express their desire for each other, they look happy together. And that’s rare in Indian cinema.

Perhaps Karan needs to be a little careful with juxtaposition of images in a film like this. When you show a woman slapping on a thick layer of red lipstick in close-up right after she’s told her husband: “I am free!”, you are telling us something about her that you don’t want to tell.

Dibakar Banerjee

First of all, thank you Mr Banerjee for adapting a Satyajit Ray short story (Potol Babu Filmstar) and adapting a Rabindrasangeet (Tobu mone rekho) for your little big film. A film celebrating 100 years of Indian cinema would have been incomplete without those two names, especially the first one. But what Dibakar does so well is take the humour of the story and add his own heart to it. Just like Ray had done with stories of so many other writers.

Potol Babu here is a not-so-old man (Nawazuddin Siddiqui, a far cry from Ray’s sketch that came with the story) whose pangs of poverty have led him to buy an emu (calls her Anjali!) in the hope of selling her eggs to everyone in his chawl. His golden goose never hatched and he’s been looking for a job. But on that particular day what he’s really looking for is a new story that he can share with his ailing daughter. Not the Hrithik or Om Shanti Om story she’s heard so many times.

And then he suddenly gets asked to play the “dhakka man” on a film set where he has to bump into Ranbir (just a back, not him) and keep walking. Dibakar adds another backstory, that of his theatre actor father (Sadashiv Amrapurkar) and how the son could never be the natya samrat. All these beautiful details clump together in that brilliant crescendo — the father telling the daughter his story of the day — and just melt your heart.

Dibakar’s mastery over the medium multiplies with every movie. His frames, his use of silences, his shot lengths… it’s such a pure cinematic acumen at work here. And Nawaz is… Nawaz. Every twitch of the muscle is an actor in performance. Ray would have approved of this Potol Babu.

Zoya Akhtar

With a start that’s reminiscent of the opening credits of her first film Luck By Chance, Zoya cuts between the crazy, at times queer, dreams of little kids and then zooms in on 12-year-old Vicky who wants to be Sheila when he grows up. The Sheila of Sheila ki jawaani. His father (Ranvir Shorey) has just got him into football training and is not exactly a happy Daddy when he returns home to find his son wearing his daughter’s clothes replete with lipstick and kajal.

Then Katrina Kaif comes out of a TV interview as a fairy godmother (no, not the Cinderella size) and asks young Vicky to keep dreaming. But on his own. “Kabhi kabhi apne dream ko chhupaana padta hai...” And then all things align themselves towards a dream ending. Because, you know, dreams do come true.

The plot has an Iranian cinema whiff to it but is doused in a little too much Bollywood for comfort, especially the Katty intervention. There’s also a cathartic tone to the short, given that Zoya herself has made a huge splash in what is largely a man’s world, yes moviemaking is. The casting is perfect with young Naman Jain having the kind of face which can be made to belong to a boy or a girl with just a little change in accessories and attitude.

You may get really judgemental about this one. How comfortable can you truly get when your daughter wants to pull up bed sheets and gyrate like Katrina? And if your son wants to do the same, can you possibly nurture such a dream wholeheartedly? But then again he could have picked up a gun.

Anurag Kashyap

The short with the most brilliant idea. About an ailing father in Allahabad’s Mutthiganj who wants his son Vijay (Vineet Kumar) to go to Amitabh Bachchan’s bungalow in Mumbai with a piece of murabba made by Vijay’s mother. Bachchansaab would have to take a bite and leave the other half for him. Just like he had gone to Dilip Kumar for his father with a jar of honey for him to dip one finger; the father had lived for six more years!

Vijay travels to Mumbai with the big glass jar of a solitary murabba and then begins the prateeksha. Kashyap cuts to typical scenes of fans queuing up for Bachchan darshan and the kind of crazy antics fanatics do to reach out to the superstar. It is here that the short becomes a little loopy — “ek murabba ke liye samudra manthan ho gaya” — before a smart, even if a tad sad, finish.

Kashyap, who often resorts to songs in his films to create these spectacular moments that go on to define his movies, struggles to get into that zone in this short format. The two songs — Bachchan and Murabba — just drag things around and that germ of the idea gets a little diluted. And you want to scream at AB Sr: “Chak le murabba!

Before all the current stars come and ruin the closing credit song, there is a lovely little montage of shots from films featuring everyone from Prithviraj Kapoor to Govinda and the cockles of your heart are warmed just thinking of the journey we have travelled on the Indian big screen. Bombay Talkies is indeed a fitting tribute to this journey. A tribute which is more cinema than box office. A tribute which actually makes you look forward to the next Friday. For another first day, first show at the movies.


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