Joseph Matthew Varghese’s Bombay Summer turns Mumbai’s chaos into an atmospheric playground for a soap opera-like love triangle to unfold. Varghese reveals his history of exile (he left India for the United States in the mid ‘90s) in the way he aestheticizes India into a ballet of machine parts that know exactly where to go, and who not to cross. He shoots architectural decay and urban mayhem as if they were ersatz constructions on a soundstage, tailored with camera-loving symmetry. The kind of eye that looks at a favela and sees hues and textures before it sees misery.
For well-to-do couple Geetha (Tannishtha Chatterjee) and Jaidev (Samrat Chakrabarti), life consists in artistic labor, dodging parental smothering and the occasional, always covert, sexual encounter. A new friendship, with a charming and financially strapped graphic artist who delivers drugs on the side, Madan (Jatin Goswami), lures them into a part of their city they never knew. It is one with households without maids and drug trafficking as the only way out, even if the exit never quite comes. At first, Geetha and Jaidev are incredulous at this other side of the city, then appalled, and quickly fascinated by it. It turns out befriending someone different than oneself can not only cure writer’s block (Jaidev’s) and awaken the libido (Geetha’s), but also tear down one of heterosexuality’s main promises of foundation: monogamy.
Bombay Summer feels a little without consequence, an exercise in fetishizing the city or in filling up the gaps between the classes with startling gloss. When we are told that Mumbai is a dog-eat-dog world in which dogs lick their own piss while their parents sleep lazily after mating, the film outs itself as interested in squeezing some kind of allegory out of its aesthetics. Alterity is risky business, some profiting off of it more than others. But when the “I slept with Madan” confession scene finally comes around, it’s more Days of our Lives than Scenes from a Marriage. And the moral of the inter-caste tale feels more cautionary than celebratory. If only she had stuck to her own kind.