(Seriously though, is it just me or can we count on one hand the movies that have had any thought put into them this year? Don't answer that! I still have hope for the last 2 months of the year.)
Happily, Reel Asian Festival decided to expand its reach and bring in some South Asian flavour as of this year, so we got treated royally to Bombay Talkies on opening night! And what a treat this little film is! Four stories, four short films, each about an aspect of Bollywood that sets Indian cinema apart from everything else (it really is all about Bollywood, so I won't try to sell this as a tribute to Indian cinema, they didn't). Each director was given free hand provided they stuck to the theme: how is cinema a part of the common man's life? And a fitting theme because nowhere else in the world is cinema such a huge part of everyday life.
Karan Johar - Ajeeb Dastaan Hai Yeh
KJo showcases what he does best (and what Bollywood does best too): the big emotion. In his trademarked larger than life (and slightly over the top) style, he gives us a film about the struggle for identity, for acceptance, for companionship. And in between, music filling in the blanks of everything left unsaid. Because only in Bollywood can we find a song for every moment, no matter how big or small. Music, whose magic can break even the highest walls that people build around themselves without requiring an invitation.
Kudos to Karan for being all balls and tackling a topic that is clearly close to his heart: homophobia. And a topic that needs to be talked about more in Indian cinema in general. The right way, not that comic relief bullshit we often see in "comedies".
This segment means more for Indian cinema as a concept than the story itself. It shows how far they've come from the days when the father of the bride would punch the potential groom to keep him away from his precious daughter. And what makes this step even more powerful is that it wasn't one of the niche, hindie directors giving us this story, it was one of the most mainstream, most high-profile directors in Indian cinema these past couple of decades. Karan, sincerely, I am so proud of you!
Dibakar Banerjee - Star
It's hard to think about Dibakar Banerjee's movie without laughing out loud because in an otherwise very serious film about a man trying to find work to support his family in a big city, the thing that makes the most impacty is Anjali, the emu. I don't know how, or who, or why they put that emu into every shot of this film, but was that ever a stroke of genius!
Though, in all fairness to the director and the actors, when I'm done laughing I think about this segment fondly because it carries a simple message about family: stories are the glue that keeps people together. And what good are stories if there is no one to share them with?
The film itself is about a failed actor who gets a two-hour job as an extra in a Ranbir Kapoor movie. Sunken hopes, unmet potential and harsh life realities are indeed the director's staples, so we're not surprised to see these themes in his short, but what surprised me was the warmth that Nawazuddin Siddiqui brought into the film. I don't know if his antics were supposed to be funny or endearing but he sure managed to put a bitter-sweet smile on everyone's face. This segment got a huge round of applause from the audience when it ended and rightfully so.
Zoya Akhtar - Sheila Ki Jawaani
On the surface Zoya Akhtar's film is about following your dreams, about filmi idols inspiring us to venture on paths previously unexplored, driving us to fulfill our potential. And it's about Katrina Kaif dressed as a butterfly (coughWTF!!cough).
But when has Zoya Akhtar ever told a simple story?
It's astonishing how much social commentary Zoya can cram into a half hour short with each line driving another point home. Her film doesn't just talk about a boy choosing a career path. She talks about consumerism and how it's become such a part of the Indian culture; she talks about the differences between raising a girl and raising a boy, even for a middle class family; she talks about homophobia; she talks about making it in Bollywood; she talks about patriarchy; she talks about family dynamics.
And she does this while showing the power of dance, another staple of Indian cinema that I hope never goes away.
|Seriously, how fabulous was this kid? My jaw was on the floor when he started to dance|
And how much did I love that it wasn't some yesteryear actress doing complicated pirouettes, but Katrina Kaif shaking her bellybutton to Sheila Ki Jawani. Because yes, Zoya, even I have had enough of people lamenting the golden days long gone. This is Bollywood's present and it's about time we owned it. Good and bad, progressive and regressive. Own it, live it, love it! (Even though you'll find me on Twitter annoyed with various episodes of regression... What? I'm not perfect either!)
Anurag Kashyap - Murabba
This is Bollywood comedy at its best! I've been very disappointed this year with the amount of silly comedy (and I am being extremely kind with that adjective) coming into theatres. So much so that I started to doubt why I ever enjoyed any kind of comedy coming out of India. Thankfully Kashyap and Dibakar reminded me why I absolutely love a story that can weave in an intelligent amount of silliness without resorting to dumb gags.
Dibakar's emu and Kashyap's absurd quest for a star's acknowledgement, topped off with the delightful twist at the end, were some of the best elements in the movies. And they reminded me that, when it doesn't leave its brain at home, India can make some pretty fabulous comedy. Extra points for showing the absurdity of filmi fandom in a very subversive way.
This segment, like Dibakar's, was mostly about storytelling and family. But in true Anurag Kashyap style, it took the topic and showed us another side of it: storytelling brings all kinds of emotions out of people. And they're not all good emotions. I loved how this film was as much about keeping tradition alive through stories, as it was about navigating the present through them, sometimes to unexpected results.
But... since nothing can be perfect in Bollywood, this excellent collection of stories and thoughts ends on the most unforgivably bad note. This song!
I don't even know where to start. The choreography? Yeah, I know, don't say it: what choreography? The tacky gold costumes? The really REALLY bad lip syncing? The horrendous song? The cheesy dramatic turn that each star does as their "entrance"? The shower of gold? The slow motion grandpa SRK shots? No but really... Who put this together? It's atrocious! Not even Kareena rocking that sexy dress can save it for me! What a waste of all these stars!
Still... If I remember to turn off the film right before it in the future, Bombay Talkies makes for a delightful experience. A treat for the senses, for the brain, and for the Bollywood lover in all of us. Nothing makes me happier than a movie that gives me more than just a narrative. And Bombay Talkies is so much more than the four stories it so skillfully tells. It's a snapshot of the diversity, the creativity and why not, the pizzazz, that Bollywood has given us for the past 100 years. Here's to 100 more!