There are the vaguest of similarities: they both deal with marital infidelity, and both cities their stories are based in look lovely (Bombay in this case, New York in Kabhi Alvida). But there the likeness ends.
Bombay Talkie launches with the coolest and most creative opening credits I’ve seen in a Merchant Ivory film: a series of painted filmi posters that would make Jonathan Torgovnik plotz with joy, bearing the images and names of cast and crew. What’s even neater is that we see the posters in motion being carried by people en route to where they will be displayed. The first one, bearing Shashi Kapoor and the late Jennifer Kendall’s names as the lead actors, is borne across the street in front of Victoria Terminus. (It occurs to me that this train station has appeared in more movies as an immediate placeholder for Bombay, even moreso than the Gateway of India.) Before the credits close, we’ve also seen the Taj Hotel at Gateway and the famous Bombay tetrapods in the water.
Jennifer Kendall is Lucia Lane, a British novelist in India to do research for a possible book, and she meets Vikram (Shashi Kapoor), the handsome, popular Bollywood leading man, as he is filming a dance sequence at a movie studio. While he rehearses, she’s spoken to by the instantly smitten and impoverished writer Hari (Zia Mohyeddin). As he describes – with contempt – the action they’re watching, the dapper, yellow-shirted and -socked Vikram cavorts on a giant typewriter with Helen (dazzling as always, here in a gold lamé swimsuit) and a group of girls. “We dance on the keys,” Lucia is told, “and the story typed is our fate.”
Vikram is married to the very beautiful Mala (Aparna Sen), who is distressed because she can’t conceive. She appears with him in one filmi picturization set in Venice of all places, a gorgeous referral back to Ivory’s first film, and foreshadowing of a later Merchant Ivory collaboration based in Italy like A Room with a View.
Before long, he and Lucia, who has a daughter in a boarding school in Geneva and who is rootless and needy, fall headlong into an affair, which they barely attempt to conceal. They cavort around Bombay, sometimes accompanied by Hari, forming the third side of an odd triangle, as he looks on enviously at Lucia throwing herself at Vikram. The relationship careers all over the place, leaving much distruction in its path.
Merchant Ivory have examined the clumsy meeting between firangis and Indians in several films before, and since, Bombay Talkie.
Here Lucia, like so many other visitors to India, admires the clothes (“I must get one of these,” she says as she strokes Hari’s green silk kurta) and brings with her set notions about the country. At a dinner one night she remarks “I’d love to see Indian village life. You must have colorful festivals; they do in Mexico.” On another occasion, she expresses the frequently misguided notion of India as a holier-than-us Ground Zero, telling Hari she needs to visit an ashram because “Isn’t that what India’s for, to make people feel peaceful? I need someone to guide me, some holy and wonderful person.” (Are you rolling your eyes and gagging too?)
For being so gullible, Lucia ends up at an ashram with a pudgy ping-pong playing guru who mouths incredible babble about universal love and shows home movies – like a hunter back from safari – of the rich ladies-who-lunch who are his followers in Los Angeles (of course).
Lucia is an unsettled mess, and Vikram is a spoiled misogynist. He tells Mala about taking Lucia on a shoot: “It’s an intellectual relationship; you’re too stupid to understand.” Later, he consoles the jealous Hari saying: “When I’m finished with her, you can have her. She’s damn good for her age.”
It’s a mildly uncomfortable film to watch, seeing so many unlikeable and flawed people making such a mess of their own lives and the people around them, but it’s interesting to see Merchant Ivory’s portrayal of this slice on Indian society at the end of the psychadelic, free love 1960s. If you feel a somewhat disagreeable taste in your mouth after watching it, the DVD also includes a 30-minute film called Helen: Queen of the Nautch Girls that serves as a lovely little palate cleanser.
See it or skip it?
See it, to see a young and handsome Shashi Kapoor in a movie that examines his industry, and to see him in such a negative role, working with the woman who was his real life wife.