This summer, the TIFF Cinematheque has mounted a retrospective of films directed by James Ivory (of the legendary Merchant Ivory Productions), appropriately called James Ivory: Elegant Pairings. The retrospective has been co-curated by Ivory himself, with each of his films paired with another that “inspired it, complements it or casts it in a new light.” Of the eight films being presented, two are set in India – Bombay Talkie (1970) which was paired with Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited (2007), and Shakespeare Wallah (1965) which was paired with Satyajit Ray’s Charulata (1964).
Bombay Talkie stars Bollywood star Shashi Kapoor and his real-life wife Jennifer Kendal as two participants in an ultimately tragic love triangle. Although the TIFF website describes Bombay Talkie as “a delightful spoof of and salute to the glorious excesses of Bollywood cinema” it seems to me that the movie is mostly infamous among filmi circles for the extreme unlikeability of the main characters. However, Bombay Talkie does have a much-loved opening credit sequence, featuring breezy music (composed by Satyajit Ray) and the cast and crew presented in a series of Bollywood-style posters. And then we get a great scene in which Shashi Kapoor and famous item-girl Helen prepare to film a song where they dance on the keys of a giant typewriter. However, after this the love triangle storyline takes over and the film loses any goodwill it may have inspired.
I think pairing Bombay Talkie with The Darjeeling Limited was an inspired choice, as the films have a lot of things in common: they are both concerned with what I would call ‘poor little rich girl/boy’ characters, they are both about Westerners who come to India to ‘find themselves’, they both have a preoccupation with death (I thought Shashi’s haunting speech about Hindu funerals in Bombay Talkie was beautifully complimented by the almost dialogue-less funeral of the boy in The Darjeeling Limited), and they both use obvious, but in my opinion still effective, symbolism – for example, in Bombay Talkie, the Fate Machine, Jennifer Kendal’s character fiddling with her sari at the ashram, and Shashi Kapoor’s character gifting the knife to Zia Mohyeddin’s; and in The Darjeeling Limited, Owen Wilson’s and Adrien Brody’s characters’ give-and-take of the belt, Owen Wilson’s character’s wounded face, and the lavish luggage finally abandoned on a train station platform. In the end, however, I enjoyed The Darjeeling Limited a lot more than Bombay Talkie – and probably even more than the first time I watched it back in 2007 – because I find its quirky humour and vintage-inspired aesthetic really appealing.
James Ivory’s Shakespeare Wallah is a real favourite of mine (this was my third time watching it). I think Shashi Kapoor is at the height of his beauty and charm as the playboy Sanju, 19-year-old Felicity Kendal is adorable as Lizzie Buckingham, I love seeing her real-life parents Geoffrey Kendal and Laura Lidell as her on-screen parents and their old-school Shakespeare performances, and most of all I love the feeling of melancholy that hangs over the film, this idea of an English girl born and raised in India, the only home she has ever known, but it cannot be her home anymore. The pairing of Shakespeare Wallah with Charulata seems less obvious, at first, than that of Bombay Talkie with The Darjeeling Limited. However, the two films do have several things in common – they both feature female protagonists, both are concerned with artistic endeavours (in Shakespeare Wallah it’s acting, while in Charulata it’s writing), and both of the female protagonists find their hearts engaged by an unattainable person. Ultimately, what the two films have most in common are their beautiful black-and-white cinematography and their mutual “humanism” (as per the TIFF website). It is also worth mentioning that wonderfully evocative music from Shakespeare Wallah, Charulata, and Bombay Talkie appears in The Darjeeling Limited, and I enjoyed ‘recognizing’ the music in the two different contexts.