Before their company became synonymous with highbrow literary adaptations, producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory collaborated on a long series of projects set in India. Many of these early projects explored clashes between European values and Indian mores, and a good example is Bombay Talkie, a drama about an English novelist’s torrid affair with an Indian movie star. Whereas some Merchant-Ivory pictures are so reserved they barely have a cinematic pulse, Bombay Talkie is comparatively lusty, so even though the story loses momentum in the middle, it’s one of Merchant-Ivory’s most passionate films.
Things get off to an interesting start with the unusual title sequence (a group of people carries a sign bearing the movie’s name through a crowded city street), and with the visually exciting first scene. Novelist Lucia (Jennifer Kendal) gets a tour of a soundstage where heartthrob actor Vikram (Shashi Kapoor) is shooting a musical number set on a giant typewriter; watch closely for Merchant in a bit part as the producer who escorts Lucia into the room. Lucia swoons over the married Vikram, and she ignores the fact that the film’s screenwriter, Hari (Zia Mohyeddin), is smitten with her. Once Lucia and Vikram become lovers, poor Hari gets stuck in the emasculating role of conveying secret messages for them. Eventually, this three-way dynamic gets so intense that Lucia departs Bombay for a religious retreat, leading to an unconvincing sequence of Lucia seeking enlightenment. When the triangle reforms, Lucia’s capriciousness, Vikram’s machismo, and Hari’s volatility collide in tragedy.
The characters’ inner lives are crisply defined in the script by Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, which presents a thorny style of romantic intrigue. And while some viewers may lose patience with Kendal’s shallow performance as a self-centered twit, Kapoor’s smooth turn as a cocksure heel is oddly ingratiating—his character is an illiterate beauty so accustomed to getting what he wants that he seems childlike when faced with disappointment. (FYI, Kapoor and Kendal were married in real life from 1958 to the time of Kendal’s death in 1984.) Moheyddin is dark and nuanced, fleshing out the cliché of the tortured writer, and he’s perfectly cast as an everyman who can’t compete with Kapoor’s blinding handsomeness. With its fraught mix of gender conflict, jealousy, and sex—and with insightful grace notes like a subplot about Lucia’s strained relationship with her teenaged daughter—Bombay Talkie presents a rich tapestry of human experience. The picture also features a startling but highly appropriate ending, which the leading actors play beautifully.
Bombay Talkie: GROOVY