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Film review: 'Bombay Velvet' struggles to make the heart skip a beat, let alone go boom-boom

Anurag Kashyap directs an overly ambitious period drama about crime, corruption and heartbreak in 1960s Bombay.

It’s the late 1960s. Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar are holding strong, various Kapoors are running all over the screen, Dharmendra has already taken off his shirt, and Amitabh Bachchan has made his first picture.

Yet, the face on the poster that street thug Balraj (Ranbir Kapoor) worships belongs to James Cagney, the American icon from the 1930s and ’40s ‒ one of cinema’s original angry young men. As he watches The Roaring Twenties, a film that that was made in 1939 but is playing at a Mumbai theatre all these years later, Balraj is struck by the iconic closing line that is spoken over Cagney’s corpse: “He used to be a big shot.”

Balraj badly wants to be this big shot, even if it means dying young, and it’s telling that the protagonist of Anurag Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet picks up his cues from the movies. Like Kashyap’s other films, especially Gangs of Wasseypur, his latest effort has utmost faith in the power of cinema to influence attitudes and career choices. However, it is never clear why a ruffian trying to get in on the big game in 1969 in Mumbai needs guidance from long-dead fictional Americans.

Both character and actor are unable to free themselves from the yoking of a ’60s drama set in the city that was then known as Bombay with the moral dilemmas that gripped America during the Depression: prohibition, the rise of organised crime and the corruption of public office.

Velvet is also influenced by references to Martin Scorsese’s reworkings of American gangster films (Scorsese is among Kashyap’s stated heroes and his long-time editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, has co-edited Bombay Velvet). It also doffs its hat to the television series Boardwalk Empire, set in the US Prohibition-era.

Meanwhile, there is also the source material to contend with: historian Gyan Prakash’s fabulous Mumbai Fables, an unconventional history of the metropolis. Prakash crafted Bombay Velvet’s basic story and is one of the movie’s four writers, along with Kashyap, Vasan Bala and S Thanikachalam. Mumbai Fables includes chapters on the Nanavati murder trial from the late '50s and the rise of the Shiv Sena. Bombay Velvet is concerned with the chapter on the controversial reclamation of the Arabian Sea for the city’s central business district, Nariman Point, portrayed here as an early instance of private interests colluding with the state and street muscle to push through a questionable but lucrative land deal.

Period padding

This handsomely produced and always attractive retro-retelling of Mumbai's recent history – a kind of Once Upon a Time in Mumbai Again again – has been meticulously designed by Sonal Sawant and lit by cinematographer Rajeev Ravi in amber tones to create a twilight zone between dreams and nightmares. At its nub is an old-fashioned love triangle. There’s Balraj, the manager of the Bombay Velvet nightclub, star attraction Rosie (Anushka Sharma, chanelling Goan singing great Lorna Cordeiro to whom the movie is partly dedicated), and Kaizad Khambatta (Karan Johar), the club’s owner. Balraj and Rosie are in love, but Khambatta hasn’t taken Balraj off the streets to run his club because he likes the excitable young man’s curriculum vitae. Khambatta wants to own Balraj’s soul, and had the movie shed its ambitions of being a Mumbai origin story and been a study of these three characters, it would have worked just fine.

The overly busy screenplay features more multi-tasking characters than in a supermoms’ group, but perhaps nobody works as hard as Khambatta who, apart from running the club, runs the tabloid Torrent and operates a hooch racket. When he isn’t listening to Rosie sing, Balraj is getting beaten to pulp as a participant in caged wrestling bouts and argues with his childhood friend Chiman (Satyadeep Mishra) about amassing wealth. Another frequent visitor to the club is Jimmy Mistry (Manish Chaudhuri), the cigar-chomping editor of Torrent rival Glitz who is trying to bring down Khambatta through the ratatat of his typewriter.

The ardour between Balraj and Rosie, however passionless, provides the trigger for the preposterous post-intermission portion. When Chiman picks up a Thomson sub-machine gun and pays visual homage to Cagney, Paul Muni, Edward G Robinson and other leading lights of ’30s cinema, Balraj’s world, and the movie’s conceit of being a cautionary history lesson, come crashing down.

Under the influence

The nods to an American storytelling idiom are at odds with the hyper-locality of the story, which contains references to Mumbai's actual history of prohibition, jazz clubs, the Nanavati murder case (through the song Sylvia) and the rivalry between the tabloids Blitz and Current. Mistry has been inspired by Blitz's charismatic editor Russi Karanjia, though it is impossible to believe that an influential character like Mistry or, for that matter, Khambatta, would be threatened by the loutish Balraj. Kashyap also doesn’t make a convincing case about the nuclear-hot secret that these parties are shedding blood over.

Films such as Shree 420, Deewar, Satya and even the comedy Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro have all pointed to the collusion between capital and crime in Mumbai's history. Bombay Velvet depicts this collusion from the point of view of a punk who is seized by the illusion that he has a chance to move out of the gutter. Ranbir Kapoor has the Cagney template down pat: he displays guts, gumption and guns but little grey matter. It’s an all-surface and no-interior performance from an actor who is capable of suggesting depth and hidden emotions, and it doesn’t come naturally to Kapoor. He neither carries off the Mumbai patois nor suggests a complex beast who is being yanked this way and that.

The American gangster films weren’t big on complex characterisation either, but their narrative style had the directness, smoothness and impact of machine-gun fire. They also had sharp dialogue, which Bombay Velvet misses. The plot is needlessly complicated at the expense of emotion, and assembles a set of well-dressed people who seem to want to go someplace but are not quite sure where.

Anushka Sharma does a better job on the stage than off it, Satyadeep Mishra and Manish Chaudhuri are effective in their roles, while Karan Johar has a whale of a time holding meetings that will decide Mumbai's future and eyeballing Balraj’s lithe frame. In between the knotty web of murder, blackmail, lies, double-cross and corruption woven by the spinners of this ‘70s yarn with ‘50s morality refracted through a projector screening ‘30s films, there is also Kay Kay Menon, playing a cop who has stepped out of a bespoke tailoring establishment.

Among the effective moments of real emotion is the song Dhadaam Dhadaam, where the marriage of glimpses of the action with Rosie’s performance works perfectly. The rest of the time, the montage of moments and fragments fails to make the heart skip a beat, let alone go boom-boom.

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