Milan Luthria’s Once Upon Ay Time In Mumbai Dobaara! isn’t so much a sequel as a retread. Like the earlier film, this one centers on the relationship between a mentor and his protégé. There, the name of the zeitgeisty hit on the marquee was Bobby; here it’s Mard. Here, too, the gangsters spend more time attending to (and obsessing over) matters of the heart than the business they’re supposed to be in. (This film is actually a love triangle.) The city of Bombay, there as here, remains a she, a siren who beckons with untold temptations. There’s an actress here reminiscent of the character Kangna Ranaut played in the predecessor. She, too, falls for a gangster, has a shooting session disrupted by an irate and frustrated man, and ends up in a hospital. And then there are the deliberate invocations – strains of Pee loon in a song here, or the scene where that actress, accepting an award, tells the audience, “Bas dua mein yaad rakhna.” This request to be remembered in one’s prayers was a signature of the slain gangster that Ajay Devgn played in the earlier film, his “goodness” represented through his all-white attire. The part of his slayer, Shoaib Khan (always clad in black, befitting the quintessential “bad” gangster), has passed from Emraan Hashmi to Akshay Kumar.
The biggest similarity between the films, however, is that the actors feel out of place in this milieu. Luthria is attempting something ambitious here (as he did in the earlier film) – he wants to conflate the glamour of Bombay cinema with the grit of Bombay’s underworld. (Why these films allude to Mumbai in their titles, instead of Bombay, is a mystery.) And so we have Shoaib Khan gradually (and dramatically) emerging from the shadows, individual aspects of his face and body highlighted until the whole package is revealed in the “hero introduction shot.” The younger Aslam (Imran Khan) actually refers to himself as if he were a hero. We see him first when he jumps onto a running train, and when a passenger remarks he could have died, he says that he’s just made his entry and there’s a while left before “the end.” (“Abhi to meri entry huyi hai. ‘The end’ aane mein bahut time hai mere dost.”) And film references abound. The changes in the city are noted through the passage of heroines, from Kum Kum to Kimi Katkar, and there’s even a gangster’s girlfriend named Mona.
This stylised universe needs actors with heft and swagger. They need to own the purple prose that erupts from their mouths. The problem with today’s heroes is that they cannot do rhetoric. They distance themselves from what they’re saying by playing it cool, as if they’re in on how retro-chic these lines are – the pauses, the inflections are all wrong. We don’t believe for a minute that these words are coming from inside these people, from inside their heads – they seem to come off a teleprompter. (At least Akshay Kumar is old-school enough to give this a game try. Imran Khan is horribly miscast. It’s painful to watch him go through the paces of a song that harks back to a hit from Amar Akbar Anthony, flitting uncomfortably between a Muslim character and a caricatured Muslim. ) And when they both fall for Jasmine (Sonakshi Sinha), the constant posturing, the constant faux-poetry makes the film look like Chaudhvin Ka Chand dragged kicking and screaming into the underworld. It’s not pretty.
Jasmine is the film’s weakest character. For the longest time, it’s never clear if she’s flirting with Shoaib and Aslam or if she’s just being friendly. We never see her becoming the great love that the story demands, the kind of love that will make sworn enemies of friends. At first, Shoaib is shown to be a womaniser, a cad who’ll not just proposition another man’s wife but instruct her about the colour of the undergarments he wants to see her in. And we just don’t see this animal being tamed by someone as colourless as Jasmine. (Sonali Bendre, playing an older love in a handful of scenes, makes a far better impression. You want to see her love story.) This failure is significant because, the romance apart, there’s little else in the film. The business with a rival gangster (Mahesh Manjrekar, who seems to live in front of a projector playing clips from Prem Chopra movies) is so underdeveloped that whenever he makes an appearance we have to remind ourselves that he exists.
Luthria stages a couple of competent action sequences, along with some enjoyable masala moments. (The one in which Shoaib walks into a police station reminded me of a similar scene in Public Enemies, another film that was as much about gangsters as it was about the movies.) But he doesn’t get anywhere close to, say, Gangster, whose tightrope walk between love and a life lived on the edge (each informing the other) remains unmatched in recent cinema. The directors from the Mahesh Bhatt stable know their way around the darker side of desire – the emotions of the drunk, the despairing, the dispossessed – and they know how to shape characters that are real yet just this side of larger-than-life. Other filmmakers venturing into these waters come off as posers, substituting art direction and period clothing for genuine feeling. We hear Kaate nahin katte on the radio and we see a poster of Pataal Bhairavi and we know it’s the 1980s, but had one of the Bhatt boys made this film, it might have felt timeless.
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