Familiar movies set in Bombay/Mumbai include Merchant Ivory’s Bombay Talkie (1970), Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! (1988), Such a Long Journey (1998), and Slumdog Millionaire (2008). This is scant coverage, I know, but these are the films that have risen to the surface for me. Keep in mind that movies about times before 1947 will be found in the other four segments of this report on movies about India.

I’m pretty sure that the first movie about Bombay that I ever saw was Salaam Bombay! It’s about a young boy making his way in the notorious slums of the city and it stands today as a prototype for Slumdog Millionaire twenty years later.  Movies about violent gangsters in the Bombay slums can be found in abundance on Netflix, and so can Salaam Bombay!  Take your pick.

Salaam Bombay!  (1988)

This was Mira Nair’s first feature film. It is a beautifully shot portrait of  what is commonly called the underbelly of Bombay. The cast for this film was recruited from the streets of the city and given the necessary acting classes.  Without exception, they do a superb job. The story revolves around a young boy named Krishna who is working for a tent circus at the opening of the film. When the circus goes off and leaves him, he manages to buy a ticket to Bombay and take up a perilous life on the streets. Almost immediately, he becomes involved with the inhabitants of a brothel.  He is especially drawn to a 16-year-old girl brought from Nepal who is to be offered as a virgin. Krishna struggles to save enough money to get back to the mother who gave him up to the circus. At the end of the film, he is no closer to that goal.  The young boy in that role deserved an Academy Award. In 2013, Wikipedia said he was enjoying success as a rickshaw driver in Bangalore. The movie was nominated for Best Foreign Film.

Such a Long Journey  (1998)

This is a picture of life in Bombay on the eve of the 1971 war with Pakistan. The main characters are members of the Parsi sect of Zoroastrians. Gustad Noble works in the offices of a large bank and is having trouble at home with a rebellious son. His life takes a turn for the worse when he is contacted by an estranged friend and persuaded to help launder money to be directed to rebels in East Pakistan (Bangladesh). His life continues to unravel. His son leaves home and three men in his immediate circle die. There is a Zoroastrian funeral ceremony. The war with Pakistan begins. In the end, he is transformed by the death of his simpleminded neighbor, and reconciled with his son. There is a message here about not having expectations for permanence, which perhaps explains the inconclusive ending. This is a Canadian film with an international cast, all of Indian extraction. What I liked most was the attention given to ordinary events in the daily life of the city.

I couldn’t find a good trailer, but the whole movie is on YouTube, in English.

Bollywood

Sholay (1975)

Though it was not immediately embraced by the critics, today this film enjoys an outstanding reputation. I happened on it accidentally when I clicked on a Wikipedia link. There it says that Sholay is counted among the best Indian films ever made. It has been called the Gone With The Wind of India. There is more; it has been called an allegory of the nation of India. Surely, I thought, this was a drama of epic proportions, and I had missed it. Luckily, it was easily available on YouTube with English subtitles.

Immediately, as it unfolded on the screen, I realized this was not an occasion for deep thought, and that it was meant to be approached with a sense of humor. As it progressed, however, I came to the more profound conclusion that this movie could not be defined as only one thing. It is a masala, a stew with many ingredients all mixed together so that one blends into another. The action begins with trains, and rapidly moves to a railroad chase scene with plenty of work for stunt doubles. The two heroes, handsome as Bollywood stars, are smalltime thieves avoiding the relentless reach of the law. After the railway caper, they steal a motorcycle with sidecar and roar across the countryside singing a very catchy pop song, holding hands. This is a buddy movie, among other things. They end up in jail, where the warden is played for slapstick comedy inspired by Charlie Chaplin’s portrayal of Hitler. The clever thieves pull a fast one on their jailer and make an escape.

Now the undercurrents of the movie begin to rise to the surface. The fugitives are found by a wealthy landowner who requires their services. He wants them to capture a notorious bandit and bring him back alive. The landowner has a score to settle with this monster, known to all for his sadistic cruelty. The influence of spaghetti Westerns is clearly evident in the scenes that follow. There are several harsh encounters between the resourceful thieves and the despicable bandit. Happily, there are interludes with full musical production numbers to lighten the somber mood. Also, there are love interests that get some passing attention from the preoccupied thieves. It ends with a Peckinpah ballet of gun violence, followed by a sad but romantic resolution.

Wikipedia offers only a few insights into the perplexing questions raised by this three and a half hour movie. Debts to Akira Kurosawa’s historical parables are noted in the “conformation to feudal ethos,” and surprising layers of significance are uncovered in the homosocial bonding of the two stars. On the other hand, I could never get a handle on how it is that this movie is an allegory of the nation of India.

Baghban (2003)

 This was the first Bollywood movie that I saw. It played on our flight from New Delhi in 2005. The lively song and dance numbers that popped up repeatedly in the course of the drama were a surprise, but after a while I got the Bollywood idea. Set in the affluent suburbs in and around Mumbai, this is about the life of wealth and privilege. No street beggars were on view here. Most of the other Bollywood movies I have seen are historical and are covered in earlier posts.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Set in Mumbai in 2006, young Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) is a big winner on India’s version of “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?” The opening scenes are inter-cut with him being tortured in a police station by officials who think he must have cheated. There is no way a “slumdog” from Mumbai would have all that knowledge. As the police gradually begin to believe him, he relates how it happened by amazing coincidences that he knew all the answers. There are flashbacks, starting in his childhood, that follow his adventures with his older brother, Salim, and a young girl named Latika. Their life in the slums is unrelentingly nasty and dangerous. Apart from this reality, a significant element in the real historical background for this movie is the deadly series of Bombay Riots, pitting Muslims against Hindus in late 1992 and early 1993. The movie relates that in the course of these riots, a crowd intent on driving away the Muslims kills the mother of the two boys. The primary action of the movie follows the three lead characters in their efforts to overcome the poverty of their past. Jamal and Latika are ecstatically reunited at the end, and join in a Bollywood dance on a railway station platform.

There was anger in India about this unvarnished portrait of life in the slums but it is an important film for this reason. It stirred up a dust storm of resentments and identity issues, and lawsuits were filed alleging the sin of stereotyping. It is not a flawless work of art, but it won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and that was a good thing.

Black Friday (2004) – Docudrama / India

Highly acclaimed in India and Southeast Asia countries, this film re-enacts the investigations of the 1993 Bombay bombings. Running more than two hours, it details events before and after the deadly attacks. The violence is traced to the 1992 – 93 Bombay riots in which more than 1500 were killed. The film centers on a group of Muslim gangsters seeking retaliation. They detonated a series of bombs in Bombay on March 12, 1993. More than 300 people were killed and over 1500 were injured. The movie premier was delayed until after the trials were concluded. Black Friday opened to extravagant praise in the Indian press. It appears to have received little attention in the United States, though it is now available on Netflix. Filmmaker Danny Boyle has stated that this work was part of his inspiration for Slumdog Millionaire.

Trishna (2011)

Produced by a British company and directed by Michael Winterbottom, this film begins amateurishly but matures into an edgy story about two young people making their way in urban India. Freida Pinto (of Slumdog Millionaire and Immortals) stars as the girl who gets the worst of this relationship. Filmed primarily in Rajasthan and Mumbai, it is a portrait of contemporary life in these urban settings. In Rajasthan, she works at the beautiful Samode Hotel. In Mumbai, she is briefly involved with the filming of a Bollywood movie. The relationship between the two lovers is alternately romantic and abusive. It ends tragically.

Beyond Mumbai: Offshoots of Slumdog

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel  (2012)

This is a postcolonial British movie set in Jaipur, India.  It begins with a series of vignettes that might have been excerpted from English television dramas.  They concern the lives of a collection of elderly Brits who have read an ad for a hotel in India that caters to their age group.  Dev Patel plays the young and inexperienced proprietor of the establishment.  Maggie Smith stands out as a cranky and bigoted invalid.  Judi Dench is the center of gravity in this ensemble effort.

The Life of Pi  (2012)

There was a great deal of appreciation for this film when it premiered in November.  The praise centered on Ang Lee’s direction, the performance by young Suraj Sharma, and the spectacular cinematography.  Based on the 2001 novel by Yann Martel, the film gets off on the wrong foot by using the literary device of having the title character tell his remarkable story to a stand-in for the author.  It’s an obvious and unimaginative screenwriting choice.  The story opens in Pondicherry where Pi’s family decides to load their zoo animals onto a ship and depart for Canada.  While at sea, Pi’s mother is insulted by the slovenly ship’s cook (a surprising appearance by Gérard Depardieu).  Later the ship sinks and Pi is helped into a lifeboat by the cook, who then disappears.  Pi finds himself alone in the boat with a wounded zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and a tiger named Richard Parker.  Any of the shots involving the tiger are stunning.  The hyena kills the zebra and the orangutan, and the tiger kills the hyena.  Making their peace after many trials, Pi and the tiger embark on a long sea trek.  Finally, the boat bumps into a floating island inhabited by thousands of cute little meerkats.   This is the first indication that this may all be a hallucination.  The ending plays out the literary device in an unsatisfying resolution.  There is significance in the fact that the animals kill and eat one another.

The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014)

Produced by Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, directed by Sweden’s Lasse Hallström, with a screen adaptation by British writer, Steven Knight, this film, like Marigold Hotel, has the quality of a BBC show on PBS. Clearly it is meant to reflect new attitudes of Europeans toward the people of India. The plot follows the journey of a family in Mumbai that owns a popular restaurant. When the restaurant is firebombed in a riot, the family emigrates to Europe. The mother has been killed in the fire. By chance, they arrive in a small French village and seize an opportunity to buy a property where they will start a new restaurant. It happens to be directly across the road from a highly regarded French restaurant run by the imperious Helen Mirren. Tensions arise almost immediately and the rest of the film is concerned with finding polite accommodations. There is a Romeo and Juliet story between a young scion of the Indian family and a young woman working in the French kitchen. The son is a gifted chef who crosses the road to work in the French restaurant so he can be closer to his beloved. In the end, the blending of Indian and French cuisines makes for a happy resolution, and a metaphor for the “fusion of cultures.’

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