Mani Ratnam's Bombay (1995) is, according to Rachel Dwyer, one of the few Hindi films that have dared tackle contemporary political events - making it a suitable choice as only the second "Bollywood" movie in the BFI's series Modern Classics (the first being Aditya Chopra's hugely popular diaspora romcom Dilwale Dulhania le Jayenge ). Despite this, as Dwyer notes, Ratnam's film cannot strictly be classified as either Hindi or Bollywood, having been shot largely in Madras and originally released in Tamil.
In her study of Bombay , Lalitha Gopalan notes the paradox of Ratnam, a Tamil film-maker, having become one of the most successful figures within the Bombay-based Hindi-language cinema. His films - as is common practice in India - are promptly dubbed into Hindi and the other main Indian languages, and Bombay was rapidly accepted as being a Hindi film. Not that this absolved it from controversy. It culminates in the communal riots that swept Bombay in 1992-93 after Hindu nationalists destroyed the Ayodhya mosque. Hindus, Muslims and the state authorities all objected to elements in the narrative, and Ratnam was forced to make substantial cuts.
Besides recounting this backstage horsetrading, Gopalan also explores Bombay 's most intriguing aspect - that Ratnam uses the standard song-and-dance melodrama formula of Hindi cinema to put across his political message. In India, a film that lacks these popular elements has no chance of reaching a mass audience, and Ratnam intended his plea for tolerance and reconciliation to be as widely disseminated as possible. Yet he had the audacity to run several of A. H. Rahman's tuneful songs over scenes of mass violence and carnage, a conjunction his audience would scarcely have expected.
Ratnam's film is unusual, Gopalan observes, in featuring a Hindu-Muslim romance, a subject that - despite its evident star-crossed lovers appeal - occurs rarely in Indian cinema. Clashes, though not love, between Hindu and Muslim also feature in his earlier success, Roja (1992), the only other Ratnam movie to make it into Dwyer's 100 Bollywood Films .
In her introduction, Dwyer outlines the tortuous process of deciding what does or does not qualify as Bollywood - a term that in any case she dislikes. Indian silent movies are out, as are the products of what is sometimes known as the "parallel" or "middle" cinema - what in other societies might be classified as "independent" or "arthouse". So only one of Shyam Benegal's films, the Bollywood-on-Bollywood drama Bhumika (1976) rates an entry, and Satyajit Ray's sole Hindi-language film Shatranj ke Khilari ( The Chess Players , 1977) is excluded. The bulk of Ray's work, being in Bengali and, at Ray's insistence, rarely dubbed, would in any case be excluded, but the Hindi-only rule is by no means so straightforward, as Dwyer explains. She includes several films in the closely related tongue of Urdu, up to and including Subodh Mukherji's exuberant youth-romance Junglee (1961), although since Partition Urdu has generally been restricted to the Pakistani production centre of Lahore.
All these caveats aside, Dwyer's selection is balanced and judicious, and it would be pointless to quibble about the inclusion or exclusion of this or that title. In fact, given that she is restricted to a maximum of some 600 words per film, what she has to say is so lucid and to the point that one comes to regret the limitations of the alphabetical-by-title format that prevents a more sustained argument. Even so, as a beginner's guide to Bollywood, this could hardly be bettered.
Philip Kemp is a freelance writer and film historian who teaches film journalism at Leicester University.
Author - Lalitha Gopalan
Publisher - BFI Publishing
Pages - 94
Price - £9.99
ISBN - 0 85170 956 7