Bombay Talkie Review

Lucia Lane (Jennifer Kendal) arrives in India to watch the filming of one of her best-selling romantic novels. Lucia has had a couple of marriages and several unhappy relationships behind her, with a daughter in Switzerland. One of the company’s scriptwriters, Hari (Zia Mohyeddin) offers to show her around Bombay. However, Lucia soon has eyes only for Vikram (Shashi Kapoor), a rising star. She tries to lure him away from his wife Mala (Aparna Sen), with Hari acting as a hapless intermediary…

Bombay Talkie was Merchant Ivory’s fourth feature film, and the last for a while to be made in India. It followed the now rarely-shown The Guru (which is not in Odyssey’s Merchant Ivory Collection, presumably because it was made for 20th Century Fox and they own the rights) and came about because of Merchant and Ivory’s friendship with Shashi Kapoor (who had starred in their breakthrough film Shakespeare Wallah) and his wife Jennifer Kendal. Ivory and regular scriptwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala wrote Bombay Talkie, enabling them to set the film against the background of the Indian film industry. The film’s most famous sequence takes place in a studio and features a song-and-dance number on a giant typewriter.

The film is a particular favourite of Ivory’s though I suspect he will be in the minority. Bombay Talkie is one of Merchant Ivory’s minor works, overshadowed in particular amongst their early Indian features by Shakespeare Wallah. Jennifer Kendal was a very good actress who died too young (in 1984 of cancer) and it’s unfortunate that she tends to be overlooked in favour of her sister Felicity, twelve years her junior. It’s not her fault that Lucia is an unlikeable central character, coming off as self-absorbed, immature and needy, not to mention insensitive to cultural traditions not her own. Unsympathetic she may be, but more fatally she’s not especially interesting either, and what could have been a drama of heated passions is distinctly low-wattage. The long sequence during which Lucia, Vikram and Hari drunkenly celebrate Lucia’s birthday is well sustained but the ending is melodramatic.

Bombay Talkie was originally released on DVD by Odyssey in July 2003, but was deleted earlier this year to make way for its reissue as part of the distributor’s twenty-film Merchant Ivory Collection. As is usual for the previously-released DVDs, Bombay Talkie is encoded for all regions. (The new discs in the collection seem to be Region 2 only.) The DVD is available on its own, as part of the six-disc digipak Merchant Ivory in India (along with Shakespeare Wallah, Heat and Dust, The Courtesans of Bombay, The Deceivers and In Custody), and as part of the complete 20-film box set.

Bombay Talkie isn’t shown very often nowadays. (Before watching this DVD review copy I’d seen it once before, on BBC2 in 1983 as part of their Merchant Ivory twentieth-anniversary retrospective.) Looking at the DVD transfer, and comparing it with some of its generally very good collection-mates, I have to raise the question of how well preserved this film is. For one thing, it’s a transfer from a NTSC source, given away by the fact that the DVD running time has no PAL speed-up from the cinema running time. In fact, this video is slightly longer (105:54 as opposed to 105:14, according to the BBFC website). Contemporary reviews mention the kitschy bright colours in Subrata Mitra’s camerawork, but what you see on screen looks drab and faded in places and rather muddy-coloured. Even the brighter colours lack vibrancy. The transfer is anamorphic, in a ratio of 16:9 slightly windowboxed on all sides. Judging by the compositions this would seem to be the correct ratio (1.75:1 in the cinema).

The soundtrack is mono, as the film was originally made. As such it’s entirely serviceable without being outstanding. The music score is very trebly and light on bass, but that’s no doubt intentional. Lipsynch is off in some scenes, though I suspect that’s due to the original film being postdubbed rather than any fault with the DVD.

There are fourteen chapter stops. No subtitles though.

As usual for the Merchant Ivory Collection, there is a decent selection of extras. “About the Film”, “About Merchant Ivory” are text-based, as is a cast listing (redundant surely) and biographies of the three principal actors. There’s a trailer (non-anamorphic 1.78:1, running 1:40) that’s in even worse condition than the feature, as well as trailers for Quartet, The Bostonians and The Europeans.

The main extra is an interview with Ivory, Merchant and Jhabvala. It’s anamorphic 16:9 and runs 12:33. Jhabvala doesn’t say much but instead lets the two men talk about how the film came about. They talk about the film's influences and discuss the film's semi-satirical look at the Bollywood industry and how the writer is more valued in their films than she would be in Bollywood (or even Hollywood). The final estra is “Insight into Bombay Talkie” a short piece (4:53) from the 1983 documentary The Wandering Company, featuring interviews with Ivory and Merchant and footage behind the scenes at Merchant Ivory’s Indian office. It’s in 4:3 and of noticeably poorer quality, overly soft and washed out.

Bombay Talkie is a film likely to appeal more to completist Merchant Ivory fans, who may well buy this as part of one of the available box sets rather than on its own. Other people should approach with caution.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 11:52:59

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