Dirs: Karan Johar, Dibakar Banerjee, Zoya Akhtar, Anurag Kashyap. India. 2013. 112mins
A consistent charmer, the Indian omnibus Bombay Talkies is vibrant and colourful, that rare portmanteau film where the whole is more than the sum of its likeable parts. Consisting of four short films meant to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Indian cinema, this collection lacks a clear standout, but it rolls along with confidence and good cheer.
Arguably, Bombay Talkies’ strongest international value will be in showing outsiders that contemporary Indian cinema doesn’t entirely consist of song-and-dance musicals.
This crowd-pleaser opened in its home country on May 3 and is now screening at Cannes in honour of India being this year’s “guest country” at the festival. The film could spark some interest in international markets thanks to its easy humour and omnibus novelty, but some of the big Indian stars who put in an appearance, like Amitabh Bachchan, don’t have as much clout overseas. More likely, this delightful movie could prove a calling card for its young directors.
The four films, which are all about the same length, run the gamut from romantic melodrama to coming-of-age comedy. Director Karan Johar’s short concerns a surprising love triangle between a journalist (Rani Mukerji), her gay male intern (Saqib Saleem), and her husband (Randeep Hooda), who may have feelings for him. In the second short, based on a story by legendary Indian auteur Satyajit Ray and directed by Dibakar Banerjee, a down-on-his-luck father (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) finds himself cast off the street to play an extra in a big movie, which stirs unexpected memories in the man.
Director Zoya Akhtar tells a touching story about a pre-teen boy named Vicky (Naman Jain) who decides that he’s sick of playing sports and instead focuses on his true love: dance. And Bombay Talkies ends with director Anurag Kashyap’s tale of a dutiful son (Vineet Kumar Singh) going on a quest to hunt down his ailing father’s favourite actor, Amitabh Bachchan.
Mixing celebrity cameos, euphoric Bollywood-style ballads and a genuine affection for its flawed but sincere characters, Bombay Talkies shouldn’t be looked at as a definitive overview of Indian cinema or some sort of cultural commentary on the country’s long infatuation with film. Such assumptions are too weighty for a shorts collection that’s best when it’s light on its feet. (Indeed, Johar’s soap opera-ish first short suffers from an overinflated sense of its own seriousness, a mistake none of the subsequent films commits.)
Averaging about 28 minutes per short, the Bombay Talkies films have enough room to develop a story in a satisfying way, finding touching or unexpected resolutions to their central dramas. The best of the group is probably Akhtar’s film, which sweetly explores Vicky’s interest in dressing up like popular star Katrina Kaif, refusing to exploit the scenario for cheap laughs. Instead, it becomes an elegant treatise on identity, acceptance and independence without becoming preachy or strident. (Quite the contrary: It’s probably the funniest short as well.)
Arguably, Bombay Talkies’ strongest international value will be in showing outsiders that contemporary Indian cinema doesn’t entirely consist of song-and-dance musicals. While there are fun pop tunes included on the soundtrack, only the first short feels overly dependent on music to enhance its story. (Akhtar’s short also incorporates music, but in a really fun way.) And there are several fine performances, especially Siddiqui as the father thrust into the spotlight and Jain as the boy longing to become a dancer. To be sure, Bombay Talkies is a breezy, unsubstantial work. But when a film is this effervescent, who needs all that stuffy substance?
Production companies: Viacom 18 Motion Pictures, Flying Unicorn Entertainment
Producer: Ashi Dua
Executive producers: Smriti Jain, Sahil Mehra, Meraj Shaikh, Shaan Vyas
Cinematography: Rajeev Ravi
Editors: Deepa Bhatia
Music: Amit Trivedi
Main cast: Randeep Hooda, Rani Mukerji, Saqib Saleem, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Naman Jain, Vineet Kumar Singh, Amitabh Bachchan, Katrina Kaif