Dir: Liz Mermin, UK/US 2007. 99mins.
Fact proves racier than fiction in Shot In Bombay, Liz Mermin's documentary on the filming of a Bollywood action movie based on true events. The film in question is Shootout At Lokhandwala, director Apoorva Lakhia's 2007 thriller inspired by a real-life Mumbai gun battle between police and criminals in 1991.
Mermin also sketches in the complex facts behind the case, as well as the legal troubles of Lakhia's star Sanjay Dutt, on trial since 1993 on charges of possessing firearms, Mermin's lively film captures both the excitement and the mundanity of a relatively unfamiliar area of Bollywood, suggesting that Indian mainstream film has much more in common with the American action-pic industry than is often realised.
Shot In Bombay, part-financed by the BBC's documentary strand Storyville, which will show an abridged version on an as yet announced date, opens theatrically in the UKon 18thJanuary. It's initial two week run on a single screen at the ICA in London will be supplemented by a limited roll-out across the UK supplemented by $10,000 of Film Council P&A funding. Unlikely to break out of a specialist independent/art-house circuit, it is likely to appeal both to students of Bollywood and to lovers of films about film. Beyond this niche, and no doubt a healthy festival life, Shot In Bombay is likely to be most at home in the TV slots that await it.
Mermin follows Lakhia's thriller from start of production to its successful release, and much of her film covers the faintly farcical circumstances of production, which in many ways seem to be simply the normal headaches encountered on any large shoot. Shootout At Lokhandwala has much riding on it, notably for its director, desperately in need of a hit, and for personable young actor Vivek Oberoi, whose flagging matinee-idol status stands to receive a boost from his featured bad-guy role. Meanwhile, star Sanjay Dutt is only intermittently on set because of his long-running trial in a case that theoretically links him to the so-called 'Bombay Blast', a series of bombings in Mumbai in 1993.
Mermin's film zigzags between the shooting of Lakhia's film and an exposition of its complex back story, involving figures suich as notorious elusive mobster Dawood Ibrahim (himself portrayed as a character in Shootout) and veteran policeman A.A. Khan (the original for Dutt's character), who headed the Anti-Terrorist Squad involved in the shootout. Khan, who also has a cameo role in Shooutout, proves one of the most engaging presences in Mermin's film: an authoritarian popular hero who prides himself on being considered 'Mumbai's Dirty Harry', and who favours an alarmingly no-nonsense, shoot-first attitude to policing.
During production at Mumbai's Film City and elsewhere, it's business as usual, much as on any action movie: expensive sets being built, fight sequences rehearsed, and body doubles standing in for the stars (Shooutout's other leading name, Amitabh Bachchan, is barely glimpsed). Meanwhile, director Lakhia's bullish tenacity - and enthusiastic catch-phrase 'Mind-blowing!'- help keep the shoot on track.
Vigorously edited and energetically shot, Mermin's film gradually runs out of steam, with too much repetitive on-set footage simply reiterating the message that film-making is a crazy business, in Mumbai or elsewhere. The shooting of Shootout never itself comprises a strong enough narrative thread to sustain the film, the on-set action eventually detracting from the more interesting behind-the-scenes stories, notably, the beleaguered latter career of Sanjay Dutt (who has managed to make over 50 films since his trial began in 1993).
And Mermin never quite manages satisfactorily to sketch out the (admittedly tangled) connections between Dutt, the Mumbai bombings, Dawood Ibrahim and A.A. Khan. What does emerge forcefully, however, is the considerable gap between real-life events and the bravura sensationalism in which director Apoorva Lakhia depicts them. Intertitles fill us on background events, sometimes to wrily humorous effect, as Dutt's legal troubles go on, and on, and on.
Little Bird (UK)
BBC Storyville (UK)
Sundance Channel (US)
T+ 44 207 380 3999
Samuel J. Paul