Lucia Lane (Jennifer Kendal), an English novelist, comes to Bombay to research the Bollywood film scene for a book she is planning to write. She is introduced by a producer (none other than Ismail Merchant) to the dashing movie star Vikram (Shashi Kapoor) and the screenwriter Hari (Zia Mohyeddin). Vikram, who is married to the beautiful but barren young Mala (Aparna Sen), falls in love with Lucia and they begin an affair, evoking a fierce rivalry between Vikram and Hari, and a painful envy on the part of Vikram's wife. Lucia, seeking escape and enlightenment, flees to a guru (Pincho Kapoor) but cannot bring herself to abandon her worldly desires for a subservient life in the ashram. She returns to Vikram and the various love triangles collapse, bringing the characters to desperation and the entanglement to a startling resolution.
Shot entirely on location in and around the city of its title, Bombay Talkie is one of Merchant Ivory's most distinctive films, at once a psychological drama and a parodic hommage to the Indian film scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The eclectic dramatis personae include Uptal Dutt as Bose, a corrupt producer, Nadira as Anjana Devi, Vikram's confidante, and a full complement of women who enact a musical number on a giant typewriter (one of Ivory's favorite film sets to date), as the dancers' movements type out Fate ("It's very symbolic," Lucia compliments). Subatra Mitra, the master cameraman of Satyajit Ray, provides the photography, and it is to great effect that his unassuming lens is set upon the director's shrewdly observed scenes. At one moment in the film, an elderly Indian fan of Lucia's novel Consenting Adults arrives at her hotel to ask her for an autograph: as Lucia flees and the absurd exchange is played out, the camera pulls back and patiently watches the two descend the grand staircase of the Taj Mahal Hotel. It is one of the film's many moments in which the comedy of a situation is made more acute by the lyricism of the visuals.
Jennifer Kendal is magnificent as Lucia: her offhand candor and genuine sweetness make her all the more believable as a homewrecker who doesn't seem to grasp the consequences of her actions. She moves effortlessly from quiet despair, a middle-aged woman alone in a foreign hotel, to fish-out-of-water scenes at an ashram which put one in mind of Maria von Trapp in the convent, dreaming of the hills and the Captain. Shashi Kapoor brings to Vikram that star quality which attracts the legions of adoring women who seem always to surround him; and Aparna Sen paints a quietly affecting Mala. Like the goddess Devi, whose image appears on screen, Sen's Mala is part long-suffering wife, part Fury.
From the opening credits sequence (probably the most original of any Merchant Ivory film) to the films within the film (the musical, the Indian western), Bombay Talkie claims a unique place in Ivory's work for its elements of meta-film -- a film about film, in which the viewer is at once involved in what is on-screen and aware of the medium. Yet there are also those familiar elements of uprooted persons and cultural difference that characterize both the earliest and the most recent films of Merchant Ivory. Lucia, late in Bombay Talkie, tries on one of Mala's saris and Vikram explains to the uninformed Englishwoman that it is his wife's wedding sari. Just then, Mala enters to see her husband's lover dressed in her own wedding clothes: as in many of Merchant and Ivory's films, cultural misunderstanding leads to human drama of the most visceral and affecting kind.
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