Quentin Tarantino’s violence splashed against music, Francis Ford Coppola’s low lighting and strategic framing, David Fincher’s psychological dystopia and Martin Scorsese’s crime streets and dark themes. Bombay Velvet alludes to and pays homage to these master directors through specific scenes at different points in time. Director Anurag Kashyap clearly has all the correct cinematic capers. While being inspired by the auteurs is no crime, to rob your audience of an original, engaging and well-written script can definitely qualify as one. Alluding to the Roaring Twenties does not guarantee a successful Indian version of Boardwalk Empire or The Great Gatsby.
Bombay Velvet revolves around the protagonist Johny Balraj (Ranbir Kapoor) who migrates to Bombay from Punjab with a relative in his childhood. This is paralleled with the story of Rosie Naronha (Anushka Sharma) who runs away from an exploitative life in Goa to chase her freedom in Bombay. Reeling under the impact of the Bombay Prohibition Act 1949, their lives get intertwined into the real estate nexus of a gluttonous businessman Kaizad Khambatta (Karan Johar), a corrupt bureaucrat Romi Mehta (Sidhhartha Basu) and a media house owner Jimmy Mistry (Manish Chaudhury). The plot then serenades to twists and turns, bombs and betrayals against the consistent backdrop of Amit Trivedi’s music anticipating a climax that turns out to be a cliché.
A period film rests heavily on the creation of an authentic and believable setting. The huge production costs courtesy Fox Studios has ensured that the film impresses the audience on this count. The documentary-like footage and sepia toned frames during the title credits itself rolls the carpet for the opulence of the set design and art production. The costume, the cars, the fonts, the newspapers, the dockyards, the buses, the Queen’s necklace…Bombay Velvet truly becomes a visual reminiscence of Bombay of the 1960s.
In one of his interviews, Kashyap had said how Kapoor is one of those actors who surrenders himself completely to the director. His refined and intense acting in the film stands testimony to this characteristic. In the shooting scene inside his office at the Bombay Velvet club, Kapoor expresses the nuances of violence and vulnerability simultaneously. Johar who debuted in a whole new arena does justice to his well-tailored suit and well-trimmed moustache although his real life affability pervades into some frames of his reel life. Sharma sings her notes right given the rhyme and rhythm of her role. Also, the elaborate costume, impeccable hair and make-up customized for every mood overwhelms the audience enough to miss the lack of variation in her diction and dialogue delivery. The scene at the race course where he is supposed to threaten Rosie is a point in case. In the role of Chiman (Satyadeep Misra) and Tony (Vivaan Shah), the actors form a formidable supporting cast.
While establishing the lives of young Rosie and Balraj in parallel time,the parallel editing style and perfect match card from the scene in the red district of Bombay and Portuguese occupied Goa promises a seamless and evolved narration ahead. Unfortunately, the commitment to crisp and sensible story-telling ends there. Hereafter, the film is fantastic in flashes and fragments. Actually, some of the best shots and frames of the film have been delectably hand-picked for the trailer- Rosie and Johny in the bed and the bathtub, Johny’s angst-ridden fight inside the cage, Johny’s threat to Jimmy outside his car, the stunning lovers in the finest costumes at the racecourse and Johny’s resolution to kill Rosie himself. Each one looked promising in the promo because they work very well as visuals, as stills and as frames. They also work marvelously as misleading and deceiving magazine covers whose inside pages is lacking in editorial content. The biggest contributor to this fractured narrative is the music. One scene ends and there is a string of visuals played against music as a transition to the next scene. The audience is left at the mercy of piecing together the intermediate connection. This method is not effective when it keeps repeating itself.
The construction of individual scenes itself lacks details. Very little thought is put into them. The police chase scene at The Shalimar Hotel or the scene when Johny attempts to rob Khambatta at the Lloyds Bank are fine examples of the filmmaker’s inadequacy or convenient oversight. The latter scene is especially disappointing because that proves to be a turning point in the life of Balraj and the audience is left thinking of Khambata as an imbecile to be impressed by Balraj’s feeble attempt to rob him. The motives given to the characters too are unconvincing- why does Khambatta hire Balraj? Why is Rosy afraid of Mistry? Why is Chiman disgruntled? Why is the inspector (Kay Kay Menon) empathetic towards Johny? Why does Tony help Johny? Why does Johny create Rosie’s fake sister Rita? Why does Johny decide not to fight Khambatta in the last scene at Bombay Velvet when he has entered killing the latter’s henchmen? The logic persistently evades. One might want to listen to the characters speak to find clues of rationality but then the dialogues are too ridden with mediocrity with a few exceptions.
When you create a magnum opus, it might be wiser sometimes to create lateral layers of meaning rather than mount a vertical tower of themes. British colonialism, Portuguese occupation, India-Pakistan partition, mill workers’ strike, land reclamation, jazz clubs, prostitution, bootlegging, gold smuggling, media house rivalry, star-crossed lovers, loyal friendship… give the audience a single point of identification rather than drowning them in a sea of events and issues. As a result, the audience is first overwhelmed and then simply distanced, detached and lost – very soon slipping into the vortex of boredom.
Bombay Velvet’s promo was titillating with the prelude, “One man’s dream will become every man’s nightmare.” Well, the filmmaker stayed true to its promise – Kashyap’s dream to make this period epic saga did indeed become a nightmare for every man in the audience.