Bombay: The Implausibility of the Romance

Posted on September 15, 2012

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Mani Ratnam’s Bombay opens with a remarkable scene. After a few establishing shots of the village and the fishermen, we see Shekhar walking on the rail bridge. He is a journalist working in Bombay and is visiting his home town. Ratnam doesn’t show him get down at the railway station, he simply shows Shekhar walking on the tracks, accompanied by a family servant who is carrying his luggage and is filling him in on the local gossip. All this information is communicated in just one shot.

Next, we see a boat approaching the pier.

It is a bit unclear where this pier is in relation to the rail bridge. One can guess that this is the view to Shekhar’s left. A shot, later in the film, confirms this. We can see the pier and the rail bridge in the distance.

Back to the opening sequence: He has climbed down from the bridge and is walking next to the river, heading towards the pier.

We see some passengers get off the boat. A girl stops to look for something.

He separates from the servant and slows down as he looks in the direction of the pier.

At the pier, the girl pays the boatman, when…

… the wind lifts up her veil. She sees him and in her confusion, drops her books.

She picks up her books but continues to look at him.

We cut to a close-up of his face.

She pulls down her veil.

He continues to gaze at her.

The wind lifts up the veil again.

She runs away from the pier and we realize just how far they are standing from each other and the impossibility of what we were shown.

But they did exchange glances. And he is in love.

A remarkable example of editing. But what is even more remarkable is that Ratnam doesn’t trick us. He wants to show us just how far they really are but also wants us to believe in the romance by closing the space between the two lovers.

Is Ratnam suggesting the impossibility of such a gaze and the resulting romance and therefore, undercutting the message of his own film – Hindu-Muslim unity. Or is he positing cinema as a site where a romance and an unity that will continue to remain an impossibility in real life can be orchestrated?

It must be noted that Ratnam’s vision of the film was severely compromised by the State and the self-censorship on the part of the distributor, ABCL. Apart from the many cuts suggested by the Censor Board, some significant cuts were ordered by Bal Thackeray, who was shown the film prior to its release for his approval. Most of these cuts were made to the second half of the film, which depicts the Bombay riots. One imagines that the film’s first half, particularly those depicting the budding romance between the lovers, would not have received the same amount of attention. And perhaps, it is here that one can look for clues to directorial intent.

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