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.
Adapted by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala from her Booker Prize-winning novel , Heat and Dust is the story of two English women living in India more than fifty years apart. Olivia (Greta Scacchi) shares a troubled marriage with Douglas Rivers (Christopher Cazenove), an English civil servant in the colonial India of the 1920s. Anne, Olivia's grand niece (Julie Christie), comes to the subcontinent -- thirty years after the sun has set on the British empire -- to investigate Olivia's life, which her family regarded as "something dark and terrible."
Shortly after her passage to India in 1923, the beautiful young Olivia finds herself bored by English colonial social circles -- she wonders how people who lead such exciting lives could remain so dull --though she is entranced by India itself. Olivia is introduced to the Nawab of Khatm (Shashi Kapoor), a romantic and decadent minor prince who enjoys a Forsterian intimacy with his British confidant, Harry (Nickolas Grace). The willful Englishwoman begins going to Khatm to spend time with the Nawab and they fall in love, engaging in an affair that is not without wrenching consequences in her public and private lives.
In the present day of the film, Anne investigates Olivia's past with Inder Lal (Zakir Hussain), her Indian landlord. Anne finds herself both in the same rooms and in the same predicament as her ancestress, as she herself becomes involved in a romantic entangelment with an Indian man. Heat and Dust cross-cuts between the lives of the two women as Anne discovers -- and then seems to repeat -- the scandal that her independent-minded ancestor caused two generations before. Anne must then re-assert her own independence, fifty years later.
The supporting cast of the film includes Madhur Jaffrey as the Begum, the Nawab's manipulative mother who holds court like a lioness among the purdah ladies; Charles McCaughan as Chid, the American sanyasi and would-be holy man; Patrick Godfrey as Dr. Saunders, in the first of his many turns as an uncompromising Englishman for Merchant Ivory; and Jennifer Kendal as his childless and mirthless wife.
Jhabvala writes in her novel that, to Olivia, being in India "was like being not in a different part of this world but in another world altogether, in another reality." Scacchi's radiant performance never ceases to convey her wonder at the brave new world she finds in the colonial subcontinent, even late in the film when that view is tempered by the reality of an impossible dilemma. Her on-screen chemistry with Shashi Kapoor, who gives a textured portrayal of a outlaw prince, is apparent from their first moment of eye contact . In the present day of the film, Christie brings a warmth and intelligence to Anne that is at once sensuous and true to the thoughtful voice of Jhabvala's novel.
The India of Heat and Dust is a balance of visual splendor and the understated ironies that are characteristic of Ivory-Jhabvala work. Merchant spares nothing in the production values -- we move from ornate banquets in 1923 to breathtaking vistas in present-day Kashmir -- yet the film's grand exteriors provide the backdrop to closely observed interior lives. The director views India with a lens that is equally informed by his lyrical early work on the subcontinent (The Householder, Shakespeare Wallah), and by his later penetrating social scenes of Henry James and Jean Rhys (The Europeans, Quartet). Richard Robbins provides the music and the score is among his best, employing Indian master musicians in arrangements that bridge Indian classical with 1920s period songs.
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