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Bombay Talkie

Bombay Talkie(1970)

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Recent years have seen a swell of interest displayed in the West regarding the voluminous output of the Bombay film industry, particularly the lavishly mounted, epic-length escapist musical fare that drove India's entertainment commerce. As such, Home Vision Entertainment picked a fortuitous time to bolster its ongoing series of Criterion Collection DVD releases from the portfolio of producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory with the release of Bombay Talkie (1970). A melodrama whose main thrust comes from the examination of clashing cultures, as so many Merchant/Ivory works do, the added trappings of backstage Bollywood give that much extra incentive to the curious viewer.

The narrative opens on the set of a musical to which best-selling trash novelist Lucia Lane (Jennifer Kendal) has wangled an invitation. The attractive author has come to India in seeming search of both inspiration and diversion, and she spends little effort in immediately charming the film's screenwriter, Hari (Zia Mohyeddin), and its married star, Vikram (Shashi Kapoor). Hari, who aspires to higher art than the fluff that he churns out for the masses, becomes deeply taken with Lucia, which quickly turns to a source for regret.

Lucia, as it develops, is monstrously insecure regarding the encroachment of early middle age, and very blithely exploits Hari's feelings in pursuit of her own obsession with Vikram. She cares little whose life she trammels along the way, as she drags the actor from his location shoots and offends the traditional notions of his dutiful wife (Aparna Sen). The vain and arrogant matinee idol, for his part, develops a compulsion in kind, and has only sporadic pangs of guilt for ignoring the entreaties of his spouse, as she begs him to stop undermining both his professional and personal lives in pursuit of the affair.

Kapoor, who first worked for Merchant and Ivory in The Householder (1963), received an opportunity to play off of his own image as one of Bollywood's most bankable leading men of the period. Real-life marrieds Kapoor and Kendal shared the screen in a trio of Merchant/Ivory films, starting with Shakespeare Wallah (1965) (which was inspired by the traveling Shakespeare company founded by Kendal's family) and ending with Heat And Dust (1983). Fortunately for the film, their rapport is such that it stokes audience interest in two characters with little inherent likeability. The film goes through too many shifts in tone as it ambitiously tries to cover all of its thematic concerns; it detours briefly into an opportunity to tweak Westerners and their fascination with spiritual enlightenment, as Lucia misdirects her need for help to a pompously fraudulent guru. Still, the project provides enough for Merchant/Ivory fans and/or Bollywood devotees to be worth investigating.

Criterion has presented Bombay Talkie in its original 1.78:1 theatrical aspect ratio, with a new digital transfer that complements the vibrancy of Subrata Mitra's cinematography. While the audio was taken from a new soundtrack print, it's far less crisp than the image, and this is probably reflective of budgetary and technological constraints at the time of the film's production. As with the other releases in the series, new interviews are included with the producer, director, and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Among various revelations is Ivory's concession that the Busby Berkeley-inspired giant typewriter from the story-within-a-story was his favorite set from all his films.

The extra that Bollywood fans will find most intriguing is undoubtedly the inclusion of Helen, Queen of the Naucht Girls (1973), a half-hour documentary made under Merchant/Ivory's auspices and directed by Anthony Korner. The documentary's subject, who plays herself in Bombay Talkie as the leading lady in the typewriter number, is a dancer of British and Burmese descent who began her screen career as a teenager in the '50s. By the time of the documentary's release, Helen had compiled an incredible 500 screen credits in Bollywood, and would go on to log many more. Korner intersperses footage of from many of these efforts with interview materials, and while the preservation of the source materials was lacking, it's a fascinating watch for anyone with even a passing interest in Indian film.

For more information about Bombay Talkie, visit Home Vision Entertainment. To order Bombay Talkie, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jay S. Steinberg