As an anthology of four films united by the thematic celebration of Bollywood, it is difficult to review this as a whole product. So let us begin by looking at each film’s merits individually.
Ajeeb Dastaan Hai Yeh by Karan Johar begins the anthology, exploring the friendship between an unhappily married Bollywood journalist and her homosexual assistant. When the latter discovers the husband of his boss may also be gay, he can’t decide whether he should tell her, as his feelings for her husband grow stronger.
As a story, Johar should be applauded on not only having the guts to explore uncharted homosexual themes, but to find a plot with such a great premise. Unfortunately, the execution of the story is far less desirable. To no fault of Saqib Saleem’s touching performance as the flamboyant assistant, it is sometimes very difficult to empathise with this character. Our first introduction to him shows him angrily holding his homophobic father by the scruff of his neck. Once his friendship with Rani Mukerjee’s boss character grows and he discovers that her husband might be gay, we wonder why he doesn’t immediately tell her rather than manipulate his way further into her husband’s life.
Another confusing element is that we never know whose story we are following. We begin with Rani Mukerjee, then we follow Saqib Saleem but we finally finish with husband Randeep Hooda’s point of view, and Saqib suddenly disappearing from the story all together. Nonetheless, the performances by all three principles are superb in this short, even if the execution of the story could have been stronger.
Dibaker Banerjee’s Star brings us to much lighter pastures with a loose adaptation of Potol Babu Film Star by Satyajit Ray, courting an everyman who suddenly finds himself with an acting part opposite Ranbir Kapoor on a huge film set.
If it wasn’t for the amazing acting talents of Nawazuddin Siddiqui, this short could have been a shambles. With a weak concept, the film was neither cinematic nor strong enough to keep the pace going for its thirty minute running time, taking far too long to really get going. However, of all four films, this one definitely had the most satisfying ending, likely to leave a warm glow in the bellies of even the most hardened viewers.
The best of the bunch is Zoya Akhtar’s Sheila Ki Jawani, tracing the desire of a small boy to be a dancer like Katrina Kaif, whilst his traditional father becomes evermore adamant his son takes more interest in sports. True to life, the story was actually sparked by Zoya’s memory of unexpectedly finding her brother Farhan Akhtar in her clothes one day when they were growing up!
What really stands out for this film is the sweet, heartwarming relationship between the young boy and his elder sister, excellently played by Naman Jain and Khushi Dubey. Unfortunately, the story ends rather abruptly, with the relationship between father and son being far from resolved. Both the strong concept and adorable characters make us want to spend more time with this story, and it would be a pleasure to see this adapted into a feature.
Finishing the film is Murabba by Anurag Kashyap, following a son whose dying father asks him to go to Amitabh Bachchan with an Indian sweet, and to come back with that same sweet half-eaten, so that it can nurse him back to health. A ludicrous concept, definitely, but perfect for a short madcap comedy.
Regrettably, director Kashyap decides to play this straight, and because of this decision, the film never really takes off. Some of the more desperate measures Vineet Kumar’s son character takes to fulfil his father’s wish often come across OTT. The uneven tone often switches between comedy and a more serious nature, and we don’t get an idea of who Vineet Kumar’s character is, so we never truly get sucked into the story emotionally. With a more extreme character, and more set pieces with a story played straight for laughs, this could have been more of a contender.
On the whole, it is new to see Indian Cinema release a portmanteau film, and young producer Ashi Dua should be commended for her efforts. However, for a portmanteau to work, it needs a unifying theme and it is difficult to identify what this would be for Bombay Talkies. If the theme is Bollywood, as suggested in the opening paragraph of this review, it would have served the film better to see more of this theme in Johar’s short – just having two characters work as Bollywood journalists doesn’t quite cut it when their careers have no impact on the story. As a film called ‘Bombay’ Talkies, it also feels like a lost opportunity that the film didn’t delve further into the different shades of India’s city of dreams.
Overall, a good show, but as a portmanteau of four of India’s greatest filmmakers, it’s difficult not to be a little disappointed.
Bombay Talkies closed the London Indian Film Festival, 18-25 July 2013. Information on the festival can be found at the LIFF website.