"It's my party!"—Lucia Lane
Bombay Talkie is often wrongly thought of as the earliest of the Merchant Ivory films. In fact, when it was released in 1970, producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory, and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala had been working together for nearly a decade. Still, Bombay Talkie was one their first collaborations to garner any sort of attention, and even if the movie itself is fatally flawed, there's a peculiar fascination in seeing the earliest signs of the style that would bring them mainstream and arthouse success in the 1980s and '90s.
This DVD is part of the second wave of the Merchant Ivory Collection, produced by Home Vision Entertainment in association with The Criterion Collection, and under the supervision of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory.
Facts of the Case
Lucia Lane (Jennifer Kendal, Heat and Dust), a British author of racy trash, arrives in Bombay to steep herself in the Bollywood film industry as research for her next novel. Soon she's the object of the affections of a hard-up and cynical screenwriter named Hari (Zia Mohyeddin, Lawrence of Arabia), and one of Bollywood's leading heartthrobs, Vikram (Shashi Kapoor—a true Bollywood superstar at the time, and Kendal's real-life husband).
Hari's love for Lucia goes unrequited while Vikram wins the girl despite his being married to Mala (Aparna Sen, The Guru), a faithful bride who's failed thus far to produce an heir. The affair complicated by Vikram's dual loyalties, Lucia runs away to an ashram, placing herself under the tutelage of a fraud guru. As Vikram's career wanes, he agrees to work on a film with a sleazy producer of smut despite Mala's objections.
Lucia returns to Bombay when her search for enlightenment comes up empty, her reunion with Vikram and Hari destined to change all of their lives.
Bombay Talkie tries as hard as it can to be part seriocomic melodrama, part warmhearted parody of Bollywood extravaganzas of the late '60s and early '70s. The problem is that the emotionally restrained tone we now recognize as a hallmark of the Merchant Ivory aesthetic stifles the melodrama, and the movie lacks the exuberance of the lightweight musical entertainments to which it pays homage. This is an odd thing to say of a Merchant Ivory film, but Bombay Talkie could have used more laughs as well as a few musical numbers. Actually, saying the film needs more laughs implies there are some to begin with. There aren't. Sure, there's humor, but it's dry and witty, never the laugh-aloud variety. And, yes, there's the famous typewriter song-and-dance routine at the beginning of the film, but it's only a portion of a number and it never breaks into the large-scale frenzy of color and movement typical of Bollywood numbers.
It's obvious the Merchant Ivory team have a deep fondness for Bollywood. It's not gross incompetence or a lack of understanding of those films that undermines Bombay Talkie. One can feel—in retrospect anyway—the filmmakers working against their own instincts for storytelling and their own strengths. The movies of Bollywood tend to be empty-headed, entertainment-for-entertainment's-sake pieces, their fluffy scenarios meant only to keep audiences occupied between the lavish musical numbers that are their true souls. Ismail Merchant and James Ivory may be wonderfully entertained by those movies, but such fare is not the sort they make themselves. As a result, the tone of Bombay Talkie is all wrong. I spent half the film thinking poor Jennifer Kendal was a lousy actress. Then I realized she was just fine, but the filmmakers had undermined her with an inappropriate lack of irony. Lucia Lane is a vacuous, shallow, egocentric Westerner on an endless quest for pleasure, even if achieving it means ruining or consuming other people. The filmmakers deal too earnestly with her, her histrionics nowhere near as funny as they need to be. They treat her as though she's a real person, a character with three dimensions, though the film itself begs to be a melodrama as vacuous as its heroine. Kendal's reads of Jhabvala's purposely overwrought dialogue sound forced and artificial as a result. It's not that the film should be entirely dumb but that it should be dumb on the surface, its intelligence (and deeper themes) a subtext obscured by irony. Then it may have been a film about Western existential restlessness that simultaneously pays homage and parodies the thin melodramas of the Bollywood film industry. As it is, the film doesn't quite manage to be either.
The biggest thing Bombay Talkie has going for it is Subrata Mitra's (The Apu Trilogy) sumptuous cinematography (not to mention the fact that Bombay circa 1970, and the Taj Mahal Hotel in particular, equal instantaneous big-time production value). Mitra's work here is rich, warm, and earthy, the sort of feast for the eyes we expect of Merchant Ivory films. The DVD presentation, unfortunately, isn't quite up to HVE's normally impeccable standards. Don't get me wrong, it's beautiful overall, the 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer rendering Mitra's bold colors with great accuracy. The source materials were also clean and free of damage, providing us with an image that is mostly sharp and that sports appropriate levels of grain. But fine vertical details in the image (there are many in India's ornate furniture, architecture, tapestries, and clothing) aren't entirely stable, often shimmering and breaking up. It's still a fine image for the most part, but that flaw is obvious and bothersome.
The mono audio is narrow with some source-based distortion in the score but very little in the dialogue, which is mostly discernible although there are a couple places where it suddenly drops out entirely. Like most of the early Merchant Ivory catalogue, much of the dialogue seems to have been looped in post-production with budget limitations preventing the crafting of a convincing ambient space. The result is that even Jennifer Kendal's lines have that sterile, artificial quality one associates with foreign-language dubs. The DVD presents the film's soundtrack, though, in the best fashion possible based on the limitations described.
As with the other titles in the Merchant Ivory Collection, there is a Conversation with the Filmmakers featurette included on the disc. This one runs nearly 13 minutes and brings Merchant, Ivory, and Jhabvala into the same room to discuss Bombay Talkie. They talk about how they crafted the film around Kapoor and Kendal, whom they were already familiar with, as well as their intent to load the film with kitsch and melodrama. While their fondness for the project is obvious, I wasn't convinced they believed their artistic intent was realized with complete success.
A 1973 short film called Helen, Queen of the Nautch Girls is also preserved on the disc. Produced by Merchant Ivory and directed by Anthony Korner, the 31-minute piece is a simple biography of Miss Helen, the premiere dancer in Bollywood films at the time of Bombay Talkie's production (at the time the documentary was made, she'd been in over 500 films). The best thing about the movie is that it's filled with clips of the sort of extravagant musical numbers that should have been included in Merchant Ivory's feature, but sadly weren't. The presentation of Helen is rough, the source riddled with scratches, faded colors, and other damage. It's still an entertaining little piece.
Robert Emmet Long, author of The Films of Merchant Ivory, provides two informative essays in the insert booklet, one on the feature and one on the short film. The extras are rounded out by trailers for the Merchant Ivory Collection titles The Bostonians, The Europeans, and Heat and Dust (none for Bombay Talkie itself, though).
Bombay Talkie is a valiant attempt that doesn't quite make it. As a result, I recommend no more than a rental for all but Merchant Ivory completists.
We're in recess.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
• Conversation with the Filmmakers Featurette
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