This docudrama gave Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger flashbacks to elementary school film strips.
The world's oldest profession like you've never seen it before—in slow mo!
There are two basic camps of film about India. The first emphasizes India's mystique, the centuries of misery and joy that have seeped into the rocks and the old architecture. This camp revels in India's inscrutable mask, her eccentric gods and labyrinthine social structure. Watching these films reminds you that India has had society for thousands of years, and makes you long to go there to discover its sophistication and charm.
The second camp reminds you of something else entirely—that India is a densely crowded place, with cities full of people desperate to make a living, and an infrastructure barely able to funnel people from point A to point B. These films supplant magic with grim reality.
The Courtesans of Bombay is in the second camp. If watching throngs of people sit around is your thing, The Courtesans of Bombay is for you. People sit and talk, or sit and watch ladies dancing, or sit in silence, or maybe lie down for a change of pace. Producer Ismail Merchant apparently thought that a static camera and a parade of close-ups was the recipe for success.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that The Courtesans of Bombay is boring. I got the Bombay thing, sure. There are some establishing shots of the city and the den of iniquity known as Pavan Pool. What I'm missing is the Courtesans. It is suggested that the myriad dancers in this film are courtesans, and that they probably have sex. You'd never know it. This is the most staid, proper docudrama on courtesans ever. I'm not saying there should be crane shots of wild orgies in piles of lotus flowers, but would a leer or stolen glance be too much to ask? Alternatively, actual commentary from the sex workers themselves? I can't even tell who is supposed to be having the sex.
As an exposé on the seedy underbelly of India's urban problems, The Courtesans of Bombay is like Han Solo: It has its moments—not many of them, but it does have them. Two or three times I was mildly jolted from my stupor and thought, "huh, that's interesting." Soon after, the parade of people sitting on the floor lulled me back into virtual slumber.
The Courtesans of Bombay looks and sounds like a filmstrip you might have watched in the library in an elementary school in the early eighties. Colors are lackluster, contrast low. The occasional scratch and dust blob reminds you that you're actually watching media of some sort. The sound is tinny, with a truncated dynamic range.
On the other hand, The Courtesans of Bombay feels like The Godfather when compared to the included documentary, Street Musicians of Bombay. Street Musicians of Bombay is one of those films where the narrator pipes up every 15 minutes or so like a gunshot, reminding you that there is a narrative thread you're supposed to be following. India is deeply intriguing to musicians, but if you aren't hardcore into the minor key and how holes in bamboo render certain pitches, you'll not find much of interest in this film.
I recommend that you not watch either of these films if you are operating heavy machinery, driving, or watching over children or prisoners. Take deep, steady breaths and carry emergency stimulants.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
• Street Musicians of Bombay Documentary
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