Review: Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai

Posted on July 31, 2010



The rise of organised crime in Mumbai is chronicled in a so-so drama saved by its dazzling surfaces.

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AUG 1, 2010 – WHEN MILAN LUTHRIA TITLED HIS AMBITIOUS gangster drama Once Upon A Time In Mumbaai, he was referring, clearly, not only to long-ago days of crime but also long-ago days of cinema. His film is as much a gloss on the rise of Haji Mastan and Dawood Ibrahim (though a disclaimer attempts to dissuade any such associations) as an homage to Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar, who smuggled into urban-Bombay cinema the machinations of mythmaking. The lines in Luthria’s film aren’t just intended to advance plot or announce emotions (though they certainly do that). They are carefully wrought to showcase language while shaping the mythos of this criminal universe. The police officer Agnel Wilson (Randeep Hooda) might have simply said that crime doesn’t pay, but instead, he muses, “Jurm ke raaste kitne bhi makhmali kyon na ho, khatam to jail ke kambal mein hi hote hain.”

The sun around which the Salim-Javed universe spun was, of course, Amitabh Bachchan, and there are moments expressly calibrated to bring back memories of the angry young man who took to crime when abandoned by the System. (There’s an amusing mention here about a new actor on the scene, named “Amit.”) And thus, when Sultan Mirza (Ajay Devgn) appropriates a Benz, its license plate bears the number 786, which adorned Bachchan’s badge in Deewar, and as a child, Mirza worked with coals, like Bachchan in Kaala Paththar. Even Sultan’s heroic introduction sequence is calculated to bring to mind the Bachchan of the seventies. He removes portions of railway tracks to drive a truck (carrying contraband) through, and yet, in order to save the innocents in an oncoming train, he replaces the tracks in a hairsbreadth manoeuvre. Once Upon A Time harks back to a time heroes weren’t metrosexuals but men – manly men.

The problem, though, is that Devgn, on screen, is a laconic brooder. Give him a line like “Waqt kahan badalta haiSirf guzarta hai,” and he perfectly locates the weariness of a man for whom life doesn’t so much evolve as elapse. But he cannot channel the intensity that Bachchan wore like a second skin, with blazing eyes and a baritone to match. And Sultan Mirza is intended to be intense. He is, after all, the man, who, for all purposes, birthed the underworld as we know it today – and Devgn come off as less someone who makes things happen than someone to whom things happen, a creature not so much of drive as destiny. As his skittish protégé and partner-in-crime, Emraan Hashmi (playing Shoaib Khan) has an equally tough time putting across such self-showcasing lines as “Sher se hal chalaoge to kisaan to marega hi.” The cockiness behind this don’t-mess-with-me sentiment is nowhere in sight – all we see is someone trying too hard to be cool.

Once Upon A Time is hampered by disappointingly life-size actors grappling with lines meant for mythical (anti)heroes, and also by a structure that devotes most of the first half to romantic entanglements, getting to the nitty-gritty of crime only in the post-interval portions. Large swatches of screen time, early on, are committed to Shoaib’s run-ins with Mumtaz (Prachi Desai, who gets to preen in Pritam’s best song, Pee loon) and Sultan’s wooing of Rehana (Kangna Ranaut, playing an actress in the film’s most interesting performance; and perhaps it’s no coincidence that her name, along with her lover’s name, conjures up the infamous seventies starlet Rehana Sultan). For a story that seeks to chart the growth of organised crime in the city, the gangster goings-on in this first half are entirely nominal, in a bare handful of scenes like the one where Sultan Mirza amicably divvies up Mumbai amongst fellow criminals.

For a while, we seem to be in the presence of the most benign mobsters in history (or movie history), and it’s only in the second half that we actually see hands getting dirtied with blood. (And as if in compensation, the love interests now get short shrift. Are there repercussions from Shoaib’s one-night stand with a pretty girl at a party? We never learn.) And even in these stretches, we miss a sense of violence or danger. The life of crime appears almost too easy. The only heavy lifting is apparently in the case of girlfriends who routinely need to be dealt with when they bring up the prospect of retirement. Even the cops are barely a presence. Wilson’s purpose is solely to provide an awkward, and completely needless, framing device for the story. “Apne aap se bhaag raha tha,” he sighs at the beginning, hinting at heavy existential underpinnings – and he’s then reduced to a mere narrator.

But the moral dimensions shine through. Where Deewar infused a core of morality through the Mother who was lost when the son went after quick gains, Shoaib’s weak father is simply lost amidst the proceedings – and that’s perhaps fitting for a character as amoral as Shoaib. This is not a man to be cowed down by conventionalities (though you would never guess this from Hashmi’s puppy-eyed performance). Sultan, on the other hand, hews closer to a familiar moral template. He is presented as a moral man because, like Don Corelone, his conscience won’t allow him to traffic in drugs. And he has a place in his heart for the beggar woman down the street, along with the others that the System has no time for. Evil in his profession and yet good to his people, he embodies the benevolent-monster archetype we know from the gangster movies.

And it’s these movies and their memories, ultimately, that enliven Once Upon A Time in Mumbaai, which echoes Once Upon A Time In America (young kids from an impoverished neighbourhood rise through the criminal ranks; there’s also the actress-girlfriend) and Nayakan/Deewar (boy from Tamil Nadu flees to Mumbai and becomes a harbour-based gangster) and especially Goodfellas (a boy drawn to a life of crime), whose rapid-fire docu-approach Luthria strives to emulate. Like Scorsese’s epic, this is a film of dazzling surfaces derived from an age of floor-show cabaret dancers and Chori Mera Kaam hoardings. The men come dressed in outrageously patterned shirts, with the double pockets with flaps last seen in Guru. The women wear knotted blouses, proffering their breasts like Christmas presents to be unwrapped. And, save for a corrupt Home Minister, there’s not a Hindu in sight. That, truly, was once upon a time in Bombay.

Star Ratings

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi