A tribute is hardly ever the truth. Maybe just a sliver of the truth. You simplify, romanticize and gloss over what’s unpalatable about your subject—distilling a kind of agreeable net worth. The romanticizing is perhaps bound to be more pronounced if the subject is one of your own.
Most of Bombay Talkies, four miniatures by directors Karan Johar, Dibakar Banerjee, Zoya Akhtar and Anurag Kashyap, meant to commemorate 100 years of Hindi cinema, is that stereotypical tribute. There is warm-hearted humour and a playful, anodyne gaze at Hindi cinema’s power and role in the life of India, largely Mumbai. They don’t question its workings or provoke strong reactions on its hyper-presence in our life. More disappointing, none of the stories have a personal stamp—in aesthetics or point of view.
Johar’s film is about a couple, a journalist who edits an entertainment tabloid (Rani Mukerji) and a television news anchor (Randeep Hooda) whose marriage is bereft of intimacy. A young intern at her office, who abruptly becomes her best friend, scratches the surface of this relationship, and secrets emerge. Johar’s confused and abrasive lead character is a connoissuer and collector of vintage Hindi film music and has a room in his house, stacked with LPs and memorabilia. Here, he misses an opportunity to discover new love. Two of Lata Mangeshkar’s most popular and exquisite songs, Ajeeb dastan hai yeh and Lag jaa gale, accentuate the narrative.
The lead performances lift the narrative above its predictable curve and earnest tone—both Mukerji and Hooda make the most of every scene they have without going overboard with the histrionics. This is Johar’s most mature, if sentimental, look at homosexuality. Hindi cinema is a tertiary flourish in his story.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays a thwarted actor with a troubled past with his mentor and a difficult present in Banerjee’s story—the most cinematic of all the films. Storytelling, cinematography, music, editing and acting are in meaningful synthesis. Siddiqui lives in a chawl in Mumbai with his wife and a bedridden, depressed daughter. He tells her stories about Bollywood and the Bollywood stars he meets while trying to find work in the film industry. In an absurdist twist, Banerjee introduces a gawky emu into this congested and loud chawl milieu. The emu is a reminder of one of his failed projects but has become his pet. One day, he is chosen randomly for an extra’s role on a film shoot. Within that span of a few minutes, he questions himself and his dreams. Sadashiv Amrapurkar has an engaging cameo.
Siddiqui is at his peak of acting prowess. In Banerjee’s direction and writing, pathos and humour intermingle, and Siddiqui brings out the character’s fine print without the crutch of lines. It is safe to say that Siddiqui is today’s most engrossing acting talent in Hindi films. Nikos Andritsakis’ cinematography produces some gems, including a surreal sequence in which the actor shakily rehearses his blink-and-miss role in an open space surrounded by glass high-rises. Under a scorching sun, he meets an old man and an emu. Indisputably, the best-executed story in Bombay Talkies.
Akhtar’s protagonist is a boy (Naman Jain) in love with jhatak-matak Bollywood. He wants to doll up and dance to film songs. Katrina Kaif worship leads him to a hallucinatory life lesson. His tyrannical father (Ranvir Shorey), of course, wants him to toughen up by playing football and cricket. Jain is adorable as the conflicted boy. The art direction is authentic and Akhtar’s forte, her ability to work with actors, and a charming climax somewhat make up for the thin story.
An Allahabad boy’s travails outside Prateeksha, the most famous Bollywood address, is the subject of Anurag Kashyap’s story. He looks at hero worship through a father-son duo in Allahabad. The ageing father’s (Sudhir Pandey) last wish is to share a murabba (pickled Indian gooseberry), a traditional UP kitchen staple, with his hero Amitabh Bachchan. The son (Vineet Kumar Singh) arrives in Mumbai with the bottle carrying the murabba and embarks on a mission. Kashyap’s writing crackles. The dialogues and the humour are sharp. The story is a full-throttle ode to Bachchan—with a song, a cameo by the superstar and a fairly convincing portrait of Bachchan-worship in Mumbai. The house, Prateeksha, is a metaphor for all that is desirable and daunting about Bollywood.
Bombay Talkies is set to excellent music by Amit Trivedi and while they unfold, the stories hold up in their half-hour individual length. But after you have left the theatre, it is not gratification you feel, but the short-lived aftertaste of a music video or a good commercial. It eulogizes Bollywood, sure, but in a Bollywood-crazy nation it is like preaching to the converted. Surely there is more to the desire, madness, ugliness and fantasy in Hindi cinema, and to the millions who work here. If you wait to watch the terrible promotional video at the end of the film, satrring all our stars, you will most likely forget the best of Bombay Talkies.
Bombay Talkies released in theatres on Friday