Some films tell the stories of extraordinary individuals, true heroes. Others show us very ordinary people tried by extraordinary circumstances, and the response of those ordinary people in rising - or in failing to rise - to the occasion is what makes the story compelling. Then there are films that expose the lives of vapid, shallow people, films in which in which nearly every character is a pathetic, even hateful person. Bombay Talkie, a relatively early product of the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabwala collaboration that produced so many of my favorite films in the 1980s and 1990s, is one such film. And if you like the genre, it is a pretty good exemplar.
Lucia Lane (Jennifer Kendal) is an insufferable, superficial best-selling author who has traveled to India in search of ideas for her next novel. Vikram (Shashi Kapoor) is a handsome Bombay movie star, a
spoiled child accustomed to having whatever he wants, whenever he
wants it. They meet, sparks fly, and Vikram and Lucia dive headlong into a volatile relationship, to the chagrin of both Vikram's wife Mala (Aparna Sen) and a bitter scriptwriter named Hari (Zia Mohyeddin), who also has fallen in love with Lucia. The film follows their on-again, off-again relationship, focusing primarily on Vikram's and Lucia's feeble attempts to figure out what they really want; somewhat less so on the toll their relationship takes on Mala and Hari.
In one of the film's more interesting arcs, poor Hari, who (along with the sad suppressed Mala) is one of the few somewhat sympathetic characters in the film, is manipulated and goaded and victimized by his inexplicable love for Lucia; he seems to know she's not worthy of his love, and he despises himself for loving her all the same. Even the relatively human Hari is not wholly likable, as he drips with open contempt for Vikram. Still, his final outburst - though broadly telegraphed - is heartbreakingly tragic.
Just as the film would have benefited from a closer look at Hari, it also spent too little time on the troubled Mala, doomed to be merely the movie star's wife. We are given a tiny hint of the strain that her inability to have children has placed on their marriage (a time-honored theme in Indian film). We also know that Lucia is hardly Vikram's first extra-curricular excursion. There is a lot to be said about why women sometimes feel duty-bound to maintain a strong public face around philandering, selfish husbands, and Bombay Talkie only scratched the surface of that, because it wasn't about Mala. And that's unfortunate, because she was much more interesting than the two petulant brats that the film actually was about.
Finally, what irked me most about Bombay Talkie was that it seemed to treat India (and Indian films) with a certain condescension that I found both offensive and inappropriate. The best example of this is in a sequence in the middle of the film in which Lucia, hoping to clear her head and put Vikram behind her, joins an ashram. The sequence was promising in the beginning; there is a wonderful scene in which Lucia, so clearly uncomfortable and out-of-place, ducks out of sight of the guru and his devotees to adjust her sari, tucking and retucking, draping and redraping, unable to get the hang of the unfamiliar garment. But instead of presenting Lucia's growing discomfort as an aspect of her own character, it is presented with a condescending wink and nod - not "Look at Lucia, too inflexible to adapt to a different culture," but "look at this adorable weird little Indian spirituality, too primitive for a civilized person like Lucia." The film's whole approach - to the Bombay film industry as well as to Indian spirituality - rather had this tone to me.
I have a friend who loves this film for the window it offers into a certain segment of Bombay society and the Bombay film industry of the late 1960s. I have trouble appreciating Bombay Talkie on these terms, especially given its condescending tone; I can't take much pleasure in a putative insider like Ismail Merchant offering to the English-speaking audience such a contemptuous look at the world in which he cut his teeth. Still, the film was compelling - rather the way a car wreck is compelling - and people who enjoy films that explore the weaknesses of the famous and powerful may similarly enjoy Bombay Talkie. And the film has its whimsical highlights - one is the "Fate
Machine," a giant typewriter upon which Vikram shoots a musical number with Hindi film's legendary item girl Helen. The Fate Machine gave me the feeling that I've been watching the wrong Hindi films, as I
have never seen a set that wild and surreal.