I went in to watch Bombay Velvet with some trepidation for what I perceived as the second-most anticipated film of the year after Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, which turned out to be a damp squib.
While Banerjee paid homage to his childhood hero, Kashyap has paid obeisance to his. Bombay Velvet begins with a tribute to Martin Scorcese, so much so that Kashyap roped in Thelma Schoonmaker, the Academy Award-winning editor who has edited all of Scorcese’s films since Raging Bull, for his film. Both are highly-billed period crime films by directors with serious “indie cred” attempting to go mainstream — by joining hands with their once (ideological) arch nemesis (Karan Johar and the Yash Raj banner, respectively). It didn’t work out so well for Banerjee, who barely managed to break even on a budget of Rs 50 crore. With Rs 90 crore riding on his biggest venture till date, will Kashyap fare better?
The film begins on a strong footing, by placing its characters in different pockets of this retro-retelling of Bombay-in-flux before it became Mumbai. Our hero is Johnny Balraj (Ranbir Kapoor), a street urchin who arrives from Sialkot two years after Independence and is raised in dire straits by a Falkland Road sex worker. Watching the 1939 classic gangster film, The Roaring Twenties, Balraj is inspired by the original angry young man’s epitaph, “He used to be a big shot”. As he tells his childhood partner-in-crime Chimman (Satyadeep Mishra), “Kisi ka mazdoori nahi karne ka, apun ko big shot banne ka”, Balraj has grown up to be a bare knuckles street fighter — he dreams of breaking free from the shackles of his “aukaat”.
Balraj falls for jazz singer Rosie Noronha (Anushka Sharma), whose powerful yet velvety voice is testament to the hard knocks life has subjected her to. Kashyap has dedicated the film to Lorna Cordeiro, a Goan jazz singer who ruled Bombay’s nightclubs with her silken voice in the ’60s along with trumpeter Chris Perry; Rosie’s character is based on her. Their love story is what propels the first half of Bombay Velvet towards any kind of salvation, hyper-romanticised and paisa-vasool stuff.
A failed robbery bid presents Balraj with his first chance at being a big shot, and introduces Johar’s character with his specially alliterated name, Kaizad Khambata, a pro-capitalist media mogul and the film’s primary antagonist. Balraj quickly becomes Khambata’s trusted lieutenant and is made the manager of his exclusive chic night-club, the eponymous Bombay Velvet, where Rosie becomes the star attraction. With free-flowing alcohol, cigars and suits, there’s a lot of the swinging ’60s and Prohibition ’20s nostalgia of masculine debauchery here, where Mad Men types mingle with Boardwalk Empire-esque characters.
Sharma is better on the stage than off it, and her infamous lips finally seem to have arrived. In one particular song, Dhadaam dhadaam, she fills the stage with such raw emotion that her mascara-laden tears and fake eyelashes flutter with arresting passion. While Sharma was his first choice, Kashyap had reservations about casting Kapoor as Balraj. Kapoor, though, tries with an overeager stance of an up-and-comer, complete with Raj Kapoor’s pencil moustache, mop of curly hair and those deranged eyes that make him quite endearing as the anti-hero. This is a big step away from all his previous chocolate boy roles, and Kapoor does test the waters with methodical sincerity but his portrayal lacks depth on occasion. Johar as the suave and snarky South Bombay type plays his role (or rather himself) surprisingly well.
But the saga of Bombay doesn’t offer the insightful view presented by the film’s source material, Princeton scholar Gyan Prakash’s book Mumbai Fables.
Kashyap has built his reputation on taking cinematic clichés and subverting them, but here he tries to own them, and it doesn’t always work. With the plot thinning towards the end, Kashyap comes out with all guns blazing (literally), and at that point the whole film seems Gangs of Wasseypur revisited. The American gangster films that Kashyap has tried to emulate were more layered, with sharper dialogue and odd moments of humour. There’s also a “Karan Johar is gay” reference that seems all too gimmicky.
Kashyap may have tried to do too much, not unlike Banerjee, but Kapoor and Sharma’s onscreen chemistry at least makes me care about what happens to the lead pair, if not about the real-estate zeitgeist. The climax is so clichéd that Kashyap seems to have crossed over to the dark side of Bollywood blockbusters.
The jazz background score by Amit Trivedi along and lyrics by Amitabh Bhattacharya stitch the narrative together beautifully — holding the film in place even when the plot doesn’t. Rajeev Ravi’s evocative cinematography lights up a ’60s Bombay in its amber-drenched hue, and takes the film to new stylistic heights. Bombay Velvet is a spectacle that is exhilarating and shallow in equal measure, but at the end of the day it is still a class-A spectacle. Watch it — because it’s gorgeous, it’s filmy, and by far the ultimate indie-to-mainstream crossover.