Mayank Shekhar's Review: Once Upon A Time In Mumbaai

By Hindustan Times

Director: Milan Luthria
Actors: Ajay Devgn, Emraan Hashmi
Rating: ***

Sultan Mirza turns into a bit of a Mirza Ghalib over a few drinks. Or so his girlfriend (Kangna Ranaut) suggests. A woman's deep attraction to powerful men, at its bizarre state, reveals itself in the shape of the ‘gun moll’. The examples are aplenty.

The girlfriend here is a ‘70s film actor. Sultan’s the dominant Mafiosi. His life, she tells him, could make for a great film: “You don’t need to act. There’s a new boy Amit. He has eyes just like yours. They speak volumes.”

The scene refers to Amitabh Bachchan of course, and perhaps a story that later became Yash Chopra’s Deewar in ‘75. The actor before you is Ajay Devgn. You tend to agree with the parallel drawn.

Few actors in mainstream films manage a self-assured, under-stated swagger, convey so much silently, sometimes just with their glance and droopy eyes. It’s a camera art. Bachchan perfected it as the ‘angry young man’. Devgn, you can tell, is his fine successor.

The film starts off with a disclaimer on his lead character: “He bears absolutely no resemblance to the life of late Mr Haji Mastan.” Another gent in this film (Emraan Hashmi) appears with passion for good things in life, and a moustache that thickly tilts at the edges, hides the smirk within. He’s a young, plumpish, short Shoaib, small-time hustler with a police constable for a father. He runs an electronics shop gifted him by the don Sultan, his father’s acquaintance from work. The neighbourhood seems a crowded Dongri.

Note: “not Haji Mastan”; but no such disclaimer for the secure Dawood Ibrahim. I still don’t know a film that calls attention to its supposed source, with its stated denial alone. It works!

A cop who’s just attempted suicide quite lamely narrates for the audience this film’s story: of a dockworker, who migrates at young age to Bombay, and rises rapidly into a world of deceit and infamy. The scenes are but lazily, linearly chapterised.

Laws change. As do definitions. A smuggler of gold, watches or transistors once, would be an importer now.

Sultan, the film suggests, became a strange kind of icon among the impatient youth, the sorts of Shoaib. Business leaders, some of them with questionable pasts (or present), are revered similarly these days. Sultan’s position was also unique because he bought peace for the city by dividing its pieces -- Colaba to Tardeo, Bandra to Versova, Dharavi to Dadar… -- among his rivals, Vardhan, Pathan, Vishnu et al: “Why make enemies, when you can make friends out of them.” The law of Omerta was complete. Until the upstart Shoaib shattered the status quo. Sultan himself developed political ambitions.

Ram Gopal Varma’s Company (2002) was supposedly based on the split between Dawood and his second-in-command Chhota Rajan, in the same way this one refers to Haji Mastan and his protégé Dawood’s break-up.

Movies, I suspect, bear myth-making qualities beyond literature. The medium is too recent to judge for its place in history. But already, films like Mughal-e-Azam or Sholay appear mythologies to rival epics in public consciousness. So do Mumbai’s underworld dons, though for all you know, their real lives may not be fractionally as exciting as their fictional ones on screen. The subject is immediately exhilarating still. As is this film.

Luthria rightly recreates retro from the ‘70s. And this is not just in the low angles of the shots; strange prints on expensive nylon shirts; or trumpets for a background score. It’s most importantly in the sense of the big screen occasion, and a throwback to smart, terse dialogue.

A bit of Salim-Javed then, and a whole lot of early Varma! Both aren't easy to scale. This one's the best effort I’ve seen in long.

Bollywood.com Rating: 3

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