There are spoilers. Be warned and be pleased.
Running Time : 149 Minutes | Language : Hindi | Director : Anurag Kashyap
There are “Beefeater” cartons stacked up behind the kitchen of “Bombay Velvet”, a place where Kashyap’s Hollywoodised Bombay’s jazz thrives, a center where the city’s big shots come and go, discuss their money and pass it on to each other. In the wake of the recent beef ban in Mumbai, it is a light chuckle inducing carton placement to show how different Bombay was to Mumbai. There’s little of the “Bombay” we know in Anurag Kashyap’s “Bombay Velvet” and almost none of the velvet that the title promises.
Set in the prohibition era, circa in and around 1969, we open Bombay with shots of Balraj (Ranbir Kapoor) and Chiman (Satyadeep Mishra) watching the John Cagney starrer, “The Roaring Twenties”. Inspired by the movie, Balraj decides he wants to be a “big shot”, like Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney), a gangster incidentally in the prohibition period of America. In parallel, he has Rosie Noronha (Anushka Sharma) arrive in Goa, escaping the clutches of a Portuguese man (Remo Fernandes). Rosie is a beauty, a singer who loves Geeta Dutt and even imitates her. We see her singing O.P Nayyar’s “Jaata Kahaan Hai Deewane” in a small bar, where she catches the eye of Jimmy Mistry (Manish Choudhary), a media-mogul & communist(an ironic combination) and Johnny Balraj, rechristened as Johnny by a “fruitcake”(as Glitz, Jimmy’s tabloid calls him) – media mogul Kaizad Khambata (Karan Johar).
To show the rivalry of Jimmy and Kaizad, Kashyap makes them both media moguls, one communist and the other capitalist, one straight and roving, the other gay. Instead of building it up, showing us why exactly these men are rivals, it is like the tabloids run in this country which make or break celebrity friends based on one hug. If the hug looks tight, the men are friends, if not they aren’t. There is no deep thought or character sketch needed to ascertain the why and what of a relationship. Kashyap takes the tabloid route in his film for not just this relationship but for each and every one of them, even the one between Johnny and Rosie.
In K Balachander’s marvellous “Varumayin Niram Sivappu”, the lead character leaves the job of a driver because he cannot stand the immoral activity where his boss brokers his wife to sleep with a man for a contract. In “Bombay Velvet” Johnny has no such moral standing. Brought up in a brothel and not reading Bharathiyar, we see a disdain and disrespect for Khambata but in the world he aspires to scale and is brought up in, this is the usual. It gives an interesting dimension to Johnny which ensures we aren’t riled up when he stacks up bodies or kills women in cold blood. It is just the way he is and Kapoor is good at bringing the only sensible part of his character out.
There is little zing in the chemistry between the lead pair or between the antagonists and Johnny. The only times when there is genuine pizazz on screen is when Khambata rechristens Balraj as Johnny while staring wistfully at the man’s johnny and when Chiman stares into the camera. Chiman with his love for Balraj and then the subsequent half – hearted betrayal reminds me of Gaspare Pisciotta -Turi Giuliano’s friend as depicted in Puzo’s The Sicilian and Fransesco Rosi’s brilliant Salvatore Giuliano. Without Chiman and Khambata, Kashyap doesn’t have a film to keep us invested at any point. With them, he has a few scenes to get our attention, one so beautifully staged where Khambata laughs uncontrollably at Johnny’s inability to comprehend the meaning of an English word but insist upon wanting it.
Kashyap’s films have always been built on style. He indulges his love for his material, the production ,the design so often in his movies that there hardly has been a film wholly complete and masterful. If in Gangs Of Wasseypur he didn’t know when to stop with the material and The Godfather mirroring, in Dev D it was the love for the colours and self pity. These were movies with the potential to be masterpieces but like children wanting every toffee they get a glimpse of in the supermarket, Kashyap indulges himself too consistently that the movie becomes secondary. In Bombay Velvet, the research put into designing Bombay is evident, the music isn’t jazz but it is so extraordinary(the best part, really) that I won’t complain. If there is one reason for Bombay Velvet to exist, it is for the incredible mounting and staging of “Dhadam Dhadam”. It is the kind of crooning glory every singer needs and every artist searches for.Mostly, I kept looking for the typical Kashyap vivaciousness and assured staging which make him the extraordinary filmmaker he is but apart from the scenes with Johnny in the ring and the cute little chair smashing domestic fight between Rosie and Johnny, there’s little worth noting.
There are times in Bombay Velvet where we can play “spot the movie”, Balraj boxing in a cage, wiry and kinetic is a very Scorsesian take of Tyler Durden, Kay Kay Menon dropping his hat(does research show Indian plain clothes cops wore hats in 35 degree centigrade?) in the climax is a nudge towards Miller’s Crossing, a shootout is reminiscent of The Godfather II, then there is this inexplicably bad twist ala retro style where a woman is “killed” and is present in the next scene as the twin sister no one has heard of. Maybe, it was possible in the 60s. Most of the time, the dialogues sound like they don’t belong in the real world, they are flimsy, linearly boring and add no depth to the story being told. The plot contrivances are more comical than sinister and it is difficult to consider Balraj as an upward moving thug or Khambata as a political kingpin when the only answer they seem to have to get their way is to make bodies disappear. The one time they don’t, it becomes the central plot for the film with more holes than Swiss cheese.
There is too much thrown into Bombay Velvet. It could be a potent love story with 1940s New York jazz strains in circus music around clubs in Bombay. It could be a story about politics, bootlegging and land scams. It could be about the underworld. It could also be about media barons fighting for turf. It could have been so much but ultimately it is a fantasy Bombay with Johnny Balraj blazing a Tommy gun like Montana in Scarface but without the malice, energy and visceral power of Montana and neither is Kashyap Brian De Palma. It is significant that in less than two minutes, Raveena Tandon captures our imagination of the era, the cabaret and the music than everything else in the film manages to do in its run time. Emotionally there is no aura to the film and neither is this capable group of actors able to hold their characters together to fit in this version of Bombay.
It is disappointing that a movie so redundant and unsatisfying has come out of Kashyap’s stable. It is a film which is all gloss and a great soundtrack. Maybe filming the prohibition era and being a Mumbaiwallah convinced Kashyap and team that filming with a script is banned and it wasn’t possible to bootleg one. I hope there was more to Bombay in the 60s than what the film is able to showcase because otherwise, the line translated from the film – “This is Bombay. Outside this, there is India. In India, there is poverty, hunger and a load of filth” certainly doesn’t make any sense.