There is something about sectarian violence that pushes all my buttons. I am not Indian, and I am neither Hindu nor Muslim, but for some reason stories of communities torn apart along that particular axis simply breaks my heart. By the end of Mani Ratnam's Bombay I was in tears - not merely weeping, but crying huge, hot, racking sobs. I haven't bawled like that at the end of a film since 1947: Earth. As I said, there's something about sectarian violence. Bombay is very different from Earth in most ways - it's lot more hopeful, for one - but it's also less remote, covering events in recent memory. And like Earth, its characters are so lovable that their anguish sears that much more.
Shekhar (Arvind Swamy) has finished school and returns to his village to tell his family of his plans to take a job at a newspaper in Bombay and attend night classes in journalism. Before he returns to the city, Shekhar catches a glimpse of a young niqab-clad Muslim woman, Shaila Banu (Manisha Koirala) when her veil flutters off her face in a seaside breeze. Shekhar is instantly captivated; he sees her again at a village wedding and then contrives to meet her, learning that she returns his interest. Rebuffed by their furious fathers - his a respected orthodox Hindu pandit, hers a devout Muslim brick-maker - the couple elope to Bombay and marry in a civil ceremony at a municipal office. Disowned by their parents, they build life of modest contentment and are blessed with twin sons. Then internecine tensions spark the Bombay riots of winter 1992-1993 - Hindus and Muslims tear after one another with Molotov cocktails and machetes, upending Shekhar and Shaila Banu's peaceful little world.
Bombay is more a series of beautiful moments than a story. Some of these moments are warm and sweet, others harrowing, others unbearably sad. But they encapsulate the full range of the human experience, from exuberant joy to unbridled anguish. They also demonstrate the depth of tenderness that can exist within a family and that can develop even to bridge the widest gulf. The film offers these elements in a measured and balanced mixture, gently retreating just when the pain seems too much to bear. So, for example, as the sectarian hatred tears violently through the streets of the city, it is held in counterpoint by good-natured and humorous sparring between Shekhar's father and Shaila Banu's. And when the destruction of the riots reaches its apex, Shekhar's father risks his life to save the other man's Koran.
The first time I watched Bombay I felt it was perfect, an engaging story told beautifully with a solid-to-outstanding soundtrack by A.R. Rahman and stunning performances by its principals. Arvind Swamy brings an everyman sensibility to his role; pudgy and relatively ordinary-looking, he is nevertheless completely appealing, and his face registers every emotion perfectly. And Manisha Koirala is not only gorgeous; she is one of the most skilled and expressive actors I've seen. The film seemed utterly flawless.
On second viewing (the very next day) I had to acknowledge its imperfections. Like many a filmi romance, Shekhar's and Shaila Banu's is based on little more than a glance and developed, in shorthand, in a song. And the film offers their mixed-religion household as an idyllic haven, free from the tensions that plague the rest of the city - absent is any sign that compromise or adjustment is necessary to make a marriage work between two people raised so differently. Shaila Banu declares dreamily that Allah gave her children "two gods," but in real life one would expect some conflict between the life cycle rites and customs of the two religions. Bombay sweeps these details under the rug, establishing instead a simple dichotomy where home is pluralistic and safe while the outside world is full of hate and venom.
But on first viewing, critiques like these were beside the point; and on reflection, that dichotomy is part of the point, as Ratnam establishes sharp between the harmony inside their home and the communal violence outside. The movie engages through beautiful and symbolic moments, carefully crafted and perfectly rendered - like the moment in the gorgeous song "Tu hi re" where Shaila Banu's cloak, the last remnant of her niqab, catches on an anchor as she runs along the shore, and she must shed it to make her first secret meeting with Shekhar. Or the heartbreaking and terrifying moment when one of Shekhar and Shaila Banu's twin boys, riding on the shoulders of his Hindu grandfather, furiously wipes the tilak from the old man's forehead when the pair are confronted by a group of Muslim rioters. At its best, Bombay is a gripping succession of breath-stopping moments like these, and a simply unforgettable film.
(A note on language: Bombay was originally shot in Tamil and dubbed into Telugu and Hindi - the latter being the version that I saw - which is why I've included it in the "regional" category. I suspect it would have been even better in Tamil.)