Bombay Talkie


What a difference it is to watch this 1970 Merchant Ivory production after Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna.  

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.

12 thoughts on “Bombay Talkie

  1. thanks for the detailed description. i watched it last night. as you mentioned in your review it’s uncomfortable since the characters are so flawed and unlikable. it parodies the situation, but it does it so straight, you’re not sure if it’s supposed to be a parody which only adds to the uncomfort. definitely not a film for everyone.

  2. Whoo hoo, that’s great, Michael!

    I watched the 30-minute Helen documentary and the opening credits of the film itself and both are definitely worth it.


  3. thanks. i’d seen several ones at and nehaflix also some time ago. but cause i am living my south indian cinema phase right now never found time to. perhaps this month…. 🙂

  4. Michael, I don’t know how much they cost you over there, and if the difference in price (after postage is added) would be significant for you, but I did see it available on Used and New for $13.58…

    (I haven’t bought it; I was just watching a rented DVD.)

    Maja, the only caution I’d mention is that it’s different from their later films (like A Room with a View, or Howard’s End), a bit more tragic, though still compelling to see.

  5. *adds to list* (this list of mine is never-ending, it grows much faster than the list of movies I’ve seen!)

    Sounds wonderful, I usually love Merchant-Ivory productions.

  6. whohooo, merchant ivory i’d decided long time back to buy and watch – and never i’d the time and money for 😀 after your description i’d to make it soon 🙂 thanks a lot.

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