As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster. - Henry Hill (Goodfellas)
Anurag Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet begins with a mention of Martin Scorsese’s name and bears an imprint of the maverick filmmaker’s style in most of its 150 minute length. An impressionable Balraj (Ranbir Kapoor) watches a James Cagney (The Public Enemy, Angels With Dirty faces) film and decides to become a ‘big shot’ in life. He eventually becomes one, but the cost he pays for it is almost similar to what the mainstream Hindi film heroes used to pay in the ‘80s. Where is the difference then? In the canvas and the mammoth pre-production. But before we get into the heart of the matter, let me introduce you to the basic storyline of the film.
Based on Gyan Prakash’s book Mumbai Fables, Bombay Velvet is about those days when a newly independent India was struggling to find its feet. Bombay, due to its strategically positioned dockyard and a number of mills, was fast emerging as the perfect centre for trade and trade unions. Socialists were ruling the state and major policies were conditioned by popular sentiments, but then there were people who knew how to identify the cracks in the system. Soon they started reaping the benefits in the name of urban development and rapid growth rate only helped their case. There begins the actual story of Bombay Velvet.
Small time goons, Balraj and Chimman (a brilliant Satyadeep Misra) are fighting a tough battle against poverty and class difference. Over the years, they have graduated into hardcore criminals, but they still need a patron who can get them admitted into the coveted world of the rich, glamorous and English-speaking scamsters. Their search ends at Kaizad Khambata (Karan Johar), a real estate baron who also owns an influential newspaper The Torrent.
Khambata is a shrewd capitalist, (at least the film tries to project him like this), who has an enemy in Jimmy Mistry (Manish Choudhary), a fierce but morally ambiguous newspaper editor. The real bone of contention between the two is the growing real estate market of Bombay as both of them want it to be governed as per different ideologies. There is a scene in the film where both Khambata and Mistry abuse each other by calling ‘American tout’ and ‘Russian agent’. However, the film lacks any commitment to any type of ideology and all efforts on the director’s part to make it sound like an ideological war just looks very forced.
Romi Mehta (Siddhartha Basu) is another player in the game and he operates in tandem with the ruling party and the local political heavyweights. These are the people who have access to the highly prestigious Cricket Club of India and who bet on horses and their jockeys at Bombay derby. In short, they are the ‘big shots’ of the Bombay gentry.
Khambata rechristens Balraj as Johnny and takes him under his wings. Johnny, along with Chimman, commits all sorts of crime to live a life full of wealth and might, and then he falls in love with Rosie (Anushka Sharma), a sexually abused wannabe jazz singer. Johnny candidly says, "Ek cheez bachi thi wo bhi aaj de di. Ab mera koi kya lega." But, Johnny’s world is destined to fall apart at exactly this point because somebody somewhere is planning to use the entire set-up against him.
Anurag Kashayp’s journey from shoestring budget films to a mega Bollywood thriller is not as in-depth as some of his earlier films, but he has spared no effort in making it a believable premise. Thanks to fantastic CGI, his sets look authentic and provide a credible backdrop to the characters. The set designing of Bombay Velvet is its real strength as it restricts the story from going all over the place in the first half. But the same can’t be said about the second half where the film suddenly becomes a self destructing story of an illogical protagonist.
From the rising crescendo in the initial credit sequence to the unfolding of Balraj’s backstory, everything is in place, so much so that you’ll fall in love with Ranbir Kapoor’s earnestness and Anushka Sharma’s composed demeanour. But then enter the supporting artists and initiate a tug of war which eventually eats into the screen space of the intended love story.
From smuggler Larsen’s suitcase to club singer Dahlia’s (Raveena Tandon) hairstyle, the hard labour is visible in every single frame but the central theme gets hampered in the process. Further, Kill Bill-style slow motion shoot-outs and an unimaginative gun totting police commissioner contribute very little or nothing to the story. A director who presents a short skirt wearing shy girl stepping aside to let an approaching man pass in the first half decides to play to the gallery in the second. The intention of provoking whistles takes a toll on the nuances as the film becomes clichéd towards the climax.
Though their romance hasn’t been given ample time to blossom, Anushka and Ranbir’s chemistry is nice to watch except the scene where they fight while Khambata keeps waiting on the phone. Anushka Sharma reaches her best during the song ‘Ye kya kiya Sylvia’. The lighting in the backdrop, the colour combination, the glint in her eyes... every single thing in the frame screams of her character’s misery.
Ranbir Kapoor is an able actor and he is the backbone of Bombay Velvet. His mannerism, boastful attitude and ruggedness will be remembered for some time. He manages to look ‘misguided’ despite being an out and out killer. That also reminds me of the countless killings in the film which seem easier than throwing a pebble in the sea. The clueless attitude of the police is icing on the cake, especially when the high and mighty of the city are involved. Investigator Vishwas (Kay Kay Menon) has been made to look like a fool, and who cares if a celebrated businessman is smuggling carbines and using them in broad daylight or a stupid twin theory has been floated. But, as they say, form is temporary, class is permanent, Menon makes his presence felt in the scene where Johnny runs out of his trap and he keeps staring. Those haunting eyes are difficult to wipe off the memory.
Self-deprecating humour turns out to be Karan Johar’s best asset. He hasn’t overdone himself but his popular image is definitely juxtaposed on his character, but overall he holds his fort. Not a bad entry into acting. That sly smile can be lethal.
It’s not that the writers haven’t done their job. In fact they have come up with amazing backstories but they couldn’t control the flow when characters started to take the road frequently travelled. For example, when Johnny arrives at a high profile business meeting and has been asked about his expectations from the deal, he says, "Aapne yahaan bulaya hai toh keemat ke baare me bhi socha hi hoga." Plain, simple and intelligent. But, the same team failed to give the police an idea about the serial murders right under their nose.
Rajeev Ravi’s poignant cinematography, Amit Trivedi’s beautiful background score and Thelma Schoonmaker’s top class editing add a lot of value to the film which is shallow in its philosophy. Basically, the whole film revolves on the idea of ‘if I am the one who is getting the dirty work done then I should have a larger share in the profit’, but despite all the guns and jazz, the loverboy-gangster charm remains elusive and the film stops right before achieving the perfect intensity. It’s fast but not engrossing.
Detailing is Bombay Velvet’s real deal and that makes it a watchable movie. But, don‘t expect it to be another film on the lines of Gangs Of Wasseypur 1 and 2. This time, it’s more about the masses.