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ImageNow in its 17th year, the Toronto Reel Asian film festival had up until now presented films only from Central and East Asian filmmakers. This year for the first time they have expanded their scope to include South Asian filmmakers and what better way to inaugurate this change than with the opening night film, Bombay Talkies, an anthology film celebrating 100 years of Bollywood. The four films, directed by four of Bollywood’s most interesting directors, have a lot to enjoy including performances by some favourite actors and a lot of humour. But what I enjoyed the most is that while the four films are ostensibly about the influence of Bollywood in the lives of Indians, in the realms of music, dance, acting ambition and star worship, the films can also be interpreted in other, arguably deeper, ways with two of the films addressing anxieties around sexuality and gender and two films exploring the importance of storytelling in our lives.
[Note: this post contains some spoilers]

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Karan Johar’s film is first. Saqib Saleem (Huma Qureshi’s little brother, btw) plays Avinash, an openly gay young man who has been thrown out of the house by his father. Clearly troubled, he approaches the world with an attitude of confrontation, first with his father, and then with his new boss Gayatri played by Rani Mukherjee. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Avinash and Gayatri become friends and when she invites him home for dinner he confronts her husband as well (Dev, played by Randeep Hooda) a confrontation that has an explosive effect on their lives. Avinash and Dev have in common a love of old filmi music and the song “Ajeeb Dastaan Hai Yeh” plays like a theme during the film, but the film is about more than the role of filmi music in the lives of its fans. It’s about lying (Gayatri edits a tabloid, and admits to making up gossip about celebrities, while Dev is a more respectable journalist and news anchor) about the danger of lying to yourself and repressing your true self (symbolized by Dev’s music room, with floor to ceiling shelves of vinyl records like a fortress against the outside world. There is also a great moment at the beginning of the film when Gayatri and Dev are getting ready for work and she opens her closet to reveal a row of brightly coloured saris while his closet is full of somber suits) and about how the truth can set you free. With regard to the last, Rani has a great moment towards the end of the film where she delivers some dialogue while removing her make-up at her dressing table. In fact, my biggest take away from the film was a feeling of frustration that here is an actress at the height of her beauty and her acting talent (in my opinion) in an industry with very few roles for a woman her age.

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Dibakar Banerjee’s film is next, adapted from a Satyajit Ray short story, and starring house favourite Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Purandar, the kind of shiftless man who would rather try and earn money through a scheme raising emus (of which there is only one left, living in the hallway of his building and tormenting his neighbours) than with a steady job as a watchman. Early in the film he tries to tell his young daughter, sick in bed with a fever, a story but she has already heard all of his stories and accuses him of not liking her any more. On his way back from the failed attempt at securing the watchman job he happens upon a Ranbir Kapoor film shoot in progress and is selected by the director (never seen, but voiced by ‎Reema Kagti) to act in a scene where he bumps into the hero. He goes off to a quiet place to prepare and, in the middle of spouting famous filmi dialogues and doing a variety of vocal warm-ups, is visited by the ghost of his former acting teacher (accompanied inexplicably but totally hilariously by the emu). Through their conversation we learn that Purandar was a member of his teacher’s theatre troupe who gave up on acting. His teacher chides him for this and urges him to think about the role he is about to play – who is this man and why does he bump into the hero? Purandar takes this advice to heart and as a result turns his one moment and one-word dialogue into a stroke of brilliance – and a testament to Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s prodigious talent as well. Then he runs home, without waiting to be paid, to tell his daughter this new story. For him, it’s not about the money, or even the craft of acting, it’s about having story to entertain his daughter. In fact, my one complaint about this film is that I would have ended it when he comes home and says ‘Guess what your father did today’ and the little girl smiles. I felt the dialogue-less action that happened after that went on too long and diminished the impact of that moment.

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Zoya Akhtar’s film is third. Vicky (played by Naman Jain) is forced to play soccer by his father (played by Ranvir Shorey) for whom sport is obviously an important part of masculinity. Meanwhile Vicky gazes longingly at classical dance lessons full of girls, and the money spent on soccer coaching means his sister (played by Khushi Dubey) can’t afford to go with her class on a field trip. The family goes to the movies to watch Tees Maar Khan and during “Sheila Ki Jawaani” Vicky gazes up at Katrina Kaif with starry-eyed admiration. One evening he dresses up in his sister’s clothes and his mother’s make-up and dances around the apartment to his sister’s amusement. When his parents come home his father is furious while his mother protests that he’s just a child. Unable to sleep Vicky turns on the television and catches an interview with Katrina. She’s asked how she succeeded in Bollywood when the odds seemed so stacked against her. Her answer, believe in your dreams. And not only that, but sometimes you shouldn’t tell certain people about your dream because they will only discourage you. Then she appears to Vicky in the guise of a fairy and reiterates this message. He donates his piggy bank to help his sister pay for her field trip. To raise the rest of the money he waits until his parents are gone for the day and then dances to “Sheila Ki Jawaani” for the neighbours. The aunties are judgmental and the neighbourhood boys disparaging. We see the boys won over by Vicky’s enthusiasm and talent, but we never see whether the aunties are won over. Naman Jain is cute as a button and can really dance, and the look of joy on his face when he’s dancing is a powerful argument for acceptance, but I couldn’t help but feel extremely uncomfortable by a child dancing suggestively to a raunchy song like “Sheila”. The highlight of this film for me was Khushi Dubey as the sister who, in my opinion, had some of the best moments of the film.

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Finally there is Anurag Kashyap’s film. Vijay (Vineet Kumar Singh) is a tout in Allahabad. His ailing father calls him to his bedside and tells him how his own dying father sent him to Mumbai with a jar of honey for Dilip Kumar to taste and then lived far beyond the doctors’ expectations by eating the same honey. Now he would like Vijay to do the same for him, but with a murabba (which Google informs me is a kind of fruit preserve), for Amitabh Bachchan to eat. Vijay arrives in Mumbai full of confidence and optimism but getting to see Amitabh Bachchan is much harder than he anticipated and eventually he is destitute and must resort to tearfully begging the security guards outside Bachchan’s home. During this part of the film Kashyap gives us an idea of the craziness that goes one outside Bachchan’s house – impersonators, crowds of fans waving placards, impenetrable SUVs zipping in and out of impressively high gates, harried security guards. Vijay eventually does get his murabba to Bachchan, in a cameo by the man himself showing what a good sport he is. However, it is an Anurag Kashyap film so there are a few twists before the film is over, which I don’t want to completely spoil here. In the end the film is less about star worship and more of a meditation on storytelling. There is the story the father tells Vijay that moves him to tears. Vijay telling everyone on the train to Mumbai the story of why is going there. He tells everyone on the train coming home from Mumbai the story of what happened to him there. And then there is the true story of his father’s encounter with Dilip Kumar. And in contrasting that first story with the last one I wonder if Kashyap isn’t trying to say something about the danger of privileging one type of story over another. True, romanticized stories move us and give us hope, but the more realistic, and harsher, stories also contain important lessons.

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The movie ends with a montage of Bollywood songs through the decades, followed by a cheesy new song with appearances by various stars. This should have been left out for film festival screenings, in my opinion, but if they were going to leave it in the least they could have done is subtitle it.