On the surface it sounded great. 4 branded directors making one short film each with a common thread of the role that cinema plays in our lives - and this coming in a year where we are celebrating a century of Indian cinema. That we use the term Indian cinema but ultimately focus largely, if not entirely, only on Hindi cinema is another matter altogether and I am not going into it in this review. However, if we keep the centenary bit out and look at Bombay Talkies as 4 films - celebrating Hindi cinema, one has to say it's heartening to see an effort like this put together. Without box office pressure of 100 crores, the filmmakers somewhere do cross boundaries trying to go beyond cliched Bollywood stereotypes and themes in their choice of stories but ultimately the final film ends up a mixed bag as inevitably in an effort like this, some of the films work better than the others and one is unable to avoid comparisons between them.
Karan Johar kick-starts the film and initially as Saqib Saleem walks out of his house on his father, who is unable to take in the fact that he is gay, you cringe at the tacky execution of the scene. Things don't get any better with the one a couple of scenes later where as an intern, he charms his boss, Rani Mukherji. And these are meant to be the two key scenes that set up the story. Thereafter, the film does settle down but in spite of an interesting enough story-line and some witty dialogue, it fails to go beyond the idea in terms of cinematic execution. A lot of people are raving of about how Karan Johar has gone beyond his comfort zone, but just an interesting or unusual idea does not necessary make a good film. And honestly, when a filmmaker has no commercial pressures on him and he does what he wants to, he is, in fact, in a strong comfort zone area even if it is different from his earlier work. As the saying goes (at least for writers and directors) - you don't expose film, film exposes you. Also somewhere I think this film needed a longer length to explore its concerns and characters properly. In its present running time, it often suffers from lack of proper build-up, credible character development through the story, and is also the most predictable in terms of narrative flow. The catalyst that old Hindi cinema plays between Saleem and Hooda is forced and the two songs used additionally as 'metaphors' - Ajeeb Dastan Hai Yeh and Lag Ja Gale - are too, too direct and obvious. The performances too are so-so with Rani, efficient though she is, strangely a little off-colour.
That the first film fails in terms of its cinematic story-telling gets even more highlighted right from the first shot of the next as we see vehicles on the road and the camera then moves on to a tight close up of Nawazuddin. This segment, helmed by Dipakar Banerjee, makes you immediately realize you are watching a director, sure of his craft and possessing a fine sense of the cinematic language - just see the shot where Nawazuddin is swabbing the floor in the foreground and his wife is hanging the washed clothes in the background. This is by far the best constructed and executed film of the four with a fine sense of how to stage a scene and some great use of the city and its sounds. Based loosely on a short story by the great Satyajit Ray - Patol Babu, Filmstar, the film looks at a loser and his 5 seconds of fame as he plays a bit part in a film. You delight in the director's attention to detail, its multi-layered narrative flow (involving even an emu in a Mumbai chawl!), and of course Nawazuddin's brilliant act, even if a couple of Marathi friends did tell me that his Marathi was god-awful. Several sequences stand out in this segment be it the actual execution of his 'shot' or his final story-telling bit to his daughter - done brilliantly without use of dialogue as we have just seen all that has happened. If at all, you do have a quibble with this one, the key sequence between Nawazuddin and his father, played by veteran Sadashiv Amrapurkar is clumsy. It is almost as if the maker was unsure of how to style this and just how surreal to make the entire sequence. Otherwise, a big thumbs up to this one.
And to the next one as well. Zoya Akhtar's instalment is the most charming one of the lot and beautifully captures a sense of mood and magic that only a sensible woman director can capture. She goes beyond the wafer thin plot of a young boy who is enamoured by Katrina Kaif and wants to dress and dance like 'Sheila' while having to play football and do other 'macho' things his father wants him to. The relationship between the brother and sister who look out for each other is wonderfully brought out and is heart-warming to say the least, with the film ending on a high that leaves a smile on your face. The innocence of the boy just wanting to live his dream to be like Katrina Kaif is beautifully brought out as he has no association or implication of his cross-dressing and is contrasted with the way his father sees it. The film, shot simply, subtly raises a pertinent point or two as it is due to the attitude of the father (and society) that the boy could likely to end up confused about his identity. The natural acting by both the youngsters lifts the film a notch or two as well.
The last segment also has the weakest story and this is surprising, considering it is Anurag Kashyap, no less, behind this one. The plot of a small town man coming to Bombay to meet the star has been done to death even if it is for a totally different reason here for his father. Incidentally, all four segments also somewhere examine the somewhat uneasy father-son relationship. Sure, Anurag side-steps some of the inherent traps of the story with some deft writing, his typical quirky characterisations but finally fails to balance laughter and pathos as all efforts to wring out the tears fall totally flat. This segment appears to be the most 'filmi' of the lot (a message from Kashyap about his upcoming work?) and everything is a little OTT (not in a good way) including the central act by Vineet Kumar Singh for whom you want to feel but can't. The guest appearance by Bachchan doesn't really lift the film and the final twist is also obvious.
And last but not the least, the ghastly, ghastly theme song that follows the four films. This is no celebration of 100 years of Indian cinema. If anything, it just highlights yet again how mediocre our mainstream cinema has become and leave alone the older lot of actors - the dead who must be turning over in their graves and the live ones be cringing out of sheer embarrassment at this 'tribute' given to them, even the current lot just look like total morons in the horrendously written and composed song that is totally devoid of any creativity or imagination. Coming at the very end, all it does is to leave a bitter, rancid taste in the mouth and undoes most, if not all, of the good work of the film till then.
Otherwise, Bombay Talkies is well worth a watch and a major relief from the usual junk we see in Hindi cinema week after week.