Fast-rising shingle Viacom 18 offers a tribute to 100 years of Indian cinema with “Bombay Talkies,” an underwhelming omnibus pic in which three of the four entries tangentially connect to a movie theme. Less a nod to the past than a wave to a quartet of young helmers — Karan Johar, Dibakar Banerjee, Zoya Akhtar, Anurag Kashyap — these diverse shorts would work better as stand-alones, since grouping them together detracts from their individual merits and makes them feel even slighter than warranted. Local reviews have been strong, but the public has been unsurprisingly less enthusiastic; fests may call.

Audiences anticipating stereotypical Bollywood fare should look elsewhere, as only one of the foursome has any kind of musical number and two of the entries ambiguously address gay and transgender themes in ways not generally expected from traditional subcontinental cinema. Of the bunch, Kashyap (“Ugly”) and Johar (“My Name is Khan”) are the better-known helmers, the former rather too quickly crowned king of the indies (though his work here is among his better efforts).

Johar’s “Ajeeb dastan hai yeh” (taken from the homonymous song, roughly translated as “What a strange journey this is”) sees openly gay Avinash (Saqib Saleem) hired as an intern for high-profile magazine editor Gayatri (Rani Mukerji). Gayatri is amused by Avinash’s sexual frankness and the two become fast friends, giving Gayatri the laughs she’s not getting at home with cold-fish hubby Dev (Randeep Hooda). Considering the dearth of gay characters in Indian cinema, it’s unfortunate that Johar turns the initially likable Avinash into a selfish sexual predator whose pursuit of Dev opens a chink in his boss’ husband’s closet.

“Star,” based on a Satyajit Ray short story, is a slim tale that Banerjee (“Shanghai”) delicately draws out thanks in part to good visuals and Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s appealing turn as an impoverished father unable to find work. After failing to get to an interview, Purandar (Siddiqui) stumbles upon a film set in urgent need of an extra. An older actor (Sadashiv Amrapurkar) living in a dumpster reminds Purandar of his earlier hopes as a performer in a hallucinatory scene that functions as a salutary lesson on the pitfalls of vocation.

A charming opening for Akhtar’s “Sheila ki jawaani” features a montage of children telling the camera what they want to be when they grow up. Cut to the story, with 8-year-old boy Vicky (Naman Jain) forced by his father (Ranveer Shorey) to play soccer. What Vicky really wants is to dance like Bollywood star Katrina Kaif in her hit song “Sheila ki jawaani” (from 2010’s “Tees Maar Khan”). When he puts on his mother’s and sister’s clothes and jewels and does a drag act, his father whacks him, but Kaif appears like Tinkerbell and tells him to follow his dreams, even if it means keeping them under wraps.

“Murabba” (a type of sweet preserve) is a tribute to star power, with Vijay (Vineet Kumar Singh) tasked by his father (Sudhir Pande) to bring superstar Amitabh Bachchan a jar of homemade murabba. If Vijay can get Bachchan to eat some of the preserve, and return with the half-eaten portion to be consumed back home, then the father will feel blessed. While slightly ribbing the star system, helmer Kashyap appears to look on fans’ crazed heights of devotion with affection, and those hoping for a more pointed statement on the dream factory should look elsewhere.

The only slightly subversive entry here is “Sheila ki jawaani,” with its sympathetic if simplistic look at gender identity. “Ajeeb’s” message, “It’s bad to live a lie,” is in itself admirable, but arriving there via stereotyped characters adds to the perception of gay men as predatory sex fiends who’ll stab their friends in the back to “convert” confused heterosexuals. In addition, it’s the only short without a movie theme, making it a questionable addition in a tribute to Indian cinema’s centenary. Only Banerjee’s pic attempts to go deeper into issues of performance as illusion and the industry as phantom succor.

Overall lensing is solid if unexceptional, with “Star” the most interesting in terms of visuals. “Ajeeb dastan hai yeh” makes nice use of earlier Bollywood songs, while other musical insertions are lightweight. An even greater diversity of styles would have given “Bombay Talkies” the shakeup it requires.

Ajeeb dastan hai yeh
Executive producer, Marijke deSouza. Directed, written by Karan Johar. Camera (color), Anil Mehta; editor, Deepa Bhatia; music, Vishal Dadlani, Shekhar Ravjiani, Shankar-Jaikishan, Hitesh Sonik; production designer, Amrita Mahal Nakai; costume designers, Manish Malhotra, Shiraz Siddiqui; sound, Ali Merchant; associate producer, Apoorva Mehta; line producer, Aditya Singh; assistant director, Tarun Mansukhani; casting, Shanoo Sharma. Running time: 27 MIN.
With: Rani Mukerji, Randeep Hooda, Saqib Saleem, Alisha Shaikh, Shiv Subramaniam, Pravina Deshpande, Vishal Bhonsle.

Executive producers, Smriti Jain, Vikas Chandra. Directed, written by Dibakar Banerjee, based on the short story “Potol Babu Filmstar” by Satyajit Ray. Camera (color), Nikos Andritsakis; editors, Samreen Farooqui, Shabani Hassanwalia; music, Banerjee; production designers, Prasun Basu, Gauri Tiwari; costume designer, Ayesha Dasgupta; sound, Amala Popuri, Satish Solanki. Running time: 26 MIN.
With: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Sadashiv Amrapurkar, Shubhangi Bhujbal, Sanskriti Ghosh, Sarah Hashmi, Kartik Krishnan, Suhas Sirsat, Sunil Kumar, Irfan Shaikh, Ravi Shetty.

Sheila ki jawaani
Directed, written by Zoya Akhtar. Camera (color), Carlos Catalan; editor, Anund Sabaya; music, Shankar Ehsaan Loy, Tubby; art director, Dhara Jain; costume designer, Urmila Lal Motwani; sound, Baylon Fonseca; line producer, Kassim Jagamagia; assistant director, Lakshmipriya Devi; choreographer, Kiran Giri. Running time: 24 MIN. With: Naman Jain, Ranveer Shorey, Khushi Dubey, Katrina Kaif, Shoma Kaikini, Swati Das, Nirvan Shah, Arya Bhagwat, Vivek Sharoff, Cyrus Sahukar.

Produced by Guneet Monga. Executive producer, Shaan Vyas. Directed, written by Anurag Kashyap. Camera (color), Rajeev Ravi; editor, Anupama Chabukswar; music, Amit Trivedi; production designer, Mayur Sharma; costume designer, Preeti Sharma; sound, Kunal Sharma; line producer, Achin Jain; assistant director, Shlok Sharma; casting, Anmol Ahuja. Running time: 30 MIN.
With: Vineet Kumar Singh, Sudhir Pande, Virendra Giri, Paromita Chatterjee, Aditya, Sanjeev Willson, Imran Rasheed, Vinod Gamre, Amitabh Bachchan, Vijay Kumar Singh, Rajiv Singh, Rajesh Kumar Singh.

(Hindi dialogue)

Cannes Film Review: ‘Bombay Talkies’

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Special Screenings), May 21, 2013. Running time: 116 MIN.

  • Production: (India) A Viacom 18 Motion Pictures presentation of a Viacom 18 Motion Pictures, Flying Unicorn production. (International sales: Viacom 18, Mumbai.) Produced by Ashi Dua. Executive producer, Sahil Mehra.
  • Crew: Music, Amit Trivedi; lyrics, Amitabh Bhattacharya, Swanand Kirkire; sound (Dolby Digital).