When I heard Anurag Kashyap was making a movie about Bombay, I wondered – despite the heavily Hollywoodised imagery – if he would tip a hat to the “Bombay movie.” Bombay Velvet opens, instead, as a Bombay documentary, with grainy, sepia-toned footage that gives us glimpses of the city, round about 1949. There’s prohibition. There are dance bars. There’s a “Godse Will Hang” headline. And as the story begins to unfold, we get flashes from Bombay movies. We meet a singer who models herself on Geeta Dutt. She goes on to perform at the titular club, which is like Star Club in Dev Anand’s Baazi, one of those oases of Western vice after the British deserted India, with singers crooning decidedly un-Indian-sounding songs. The protagonist ‘Johnny’ Balraj (Ranbir Kapoor) is a Dev Anand-like character who wants to get rich, whatever the means. And there appears to be a nod to the mixed-descent characters we used to see on screen. The singer – Rosie (Anushka Sharma) – is part Portuguese, and something like Madhubala’s Anglo-Indian singer Edna from Howrah Bridge (technically a Calcutta movie, but same difference).
But as the posters and trailers suggested, there is more of Hollywood. Johnny (Ranbir Kapoor) is a masochistic raging bull who enjoys getting battered and bloodied in fights, and this is the first of the many Scorsese nods. The incredibly kinetic violence is pure Scorsese, possibly the work of frequent Scorsese collaborator (and this film’s co-editor) Thelma Schoonmaker. (The early portions move like a fever dream.) And like Gangs of New York, Bombay Velvet attempts to narrate a bit of a big city’s history; that film ended with visuals of modern-day New York City, this one ends with shots of Bombay today. Coppola is visible too. Johnny is quick to burst into rage like The Godfather’s Sonny Corleone. A shootout is reminiscent of the one in The Godfather: Part II. And the spirit of the director’s notorious flop, The Cotton Club, floats through this film; that, too, was about a nightclub and the gangsters around it.
Apart from these major quotations, you might catch a glimpse of Scarface. And you’ll definitely see Cabaret – not just in the staging of the musical sequences and the snare-drum-rattling transitions, but especially in the character of Kaizad Khambata (Karan Johar, who’s quite good), who comes across like a version of the malevolent, androgynous KitKat Club emcee. (Khambata is gay. At one point, he’s called a “fruitcake.”) And oddest of all, we see Johnny getting influenced by James Cagney’s “big shot” in The Roaring Twenties. Odd, because you wouldn’t think of this tapori, with his Bombay slang, stepping into a theatre screening an English movie. But that’s perhaps the point of Bombay Velvet: upward mobility. For Johnny. And for Bombay, which needs to transform from an industrial (socialist) city to a financial (capitalistic) one. (Johnny says that outside Bombay lies India, which is nothing but poverty.) Johnny may misinterpret the legal word “tender” for its other meaning (naram, soft), but he wants to deal with the legal word “tender.” He wants to be a big shot like Cagney. This, we might assume, is Kashyap’s nod to the “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster” moment from GoodFellas.
With all these memories (and you may have more), I thought Bombay Velvet would be about Kashyap diving into the movie images swimming inside his head. The movie clichés as well. The loyal friend who gets left behind. A twist on the prostitute with a heart of gold. Identical twins. (Here, Bombay Velvet goes all desi on us, quoting Ram Aur Shyam.) The orphaned hero’s sad story. All this is unremarkable, just plain water, and you want to see Kashyap adding his special brand of vodka to spike things up. You want to see the Kashyapisation of this material. This, after all, is the man who made Devdas a hallucinatory pill-popper. You want to see scenes like the one in which Dev chomps up a bus ticket, those delightfully mad moments that Kashyap seems to have an endless supply of on tap. Like the bit in Gangs of Wasseypur where Faizal Khan is reduced to tears after a romantic overture. Like the bit in Ugly where cops divert their attention from a potential kidnapping to the real names of film stars.
There’s none. For the most part, the archetypes never become characters we give a damn about. Kashyap never finds a way to make them his own. They remain generic templates. The loyal friend who gets left behind. A twist on the prostitute with a heart of gold. Identical twins. The latter could refer to Ranbir and Anushka, who are equally lost. From him, we get an overly frantic performance – he’s the rat-a-tat of Cagney’s gun. As for her, it doesn’t help that Raveena Tandon shows up (no explanation) in a couple of numbers and effortlessly embodies what being a diva is all about. Anushka, in comparison, looks like she’s auditioning for the part of Little Nell. The Dickens reference isn’t entirely accidental. An early scene where a young Johnny befriends a pickpocket reminded me of Oliver Twist and the Artful Dodger. But that’s what archetypes are. They’ve been around forever.
A number of actors come and go in supporting parts. Kay Kay Menon. A cigar-chomping Manish Choudhary. Siddhartha Basu. Remo Fernandes. They say their lines, they try to look as if they believe in them, they pick up their cheques, they’re out – you probably won’t care. Satyadeep Misra does a little more. He tries to add some dimensionality to the thankless role of best friend. (He’s the Artful Dodger, all grown up.) I liked the way he looked at Rosie after he discovers the truth about her. It’s just a shot, but we get an idea of what’s going on in his head. Vivaan Shah is there too. He’s replaying his role of shy-young-guy-in-love-with-the-heroine from 7 Khoon Maaf. As a reward, he gets to show his face during the song Mohabbat buri beemari. He’s down with a bad case of love. The film keeps doing this, it keeps using songs to underline emotions. When Rosie first meets Johnny, she’s singing Geeta Dutt’s Jaata kahan hai deewane; the line hai yeh pehli mulaquat seems to have been written for them. And when she re-enters his life with a sinister purpose, we get Behroopiya. The best songs – the ones that probably bring us closest to the movie Kashyap had inside his head – are Darbaan, which talks of the gatekeepers of the establishment who won’t let Johnny in, and the speakers-busting Dhadaam dhadaam, a devastating heartbreak number that the scarily good Neeti Mohan sings in the fashion of a Verdi heroine who wandered into a Duke Ellington recording session. Anushka’s mascara streaks notwithstanding, I kept imagining what Raveena Tandon would have done with this song.
Kaizad Khambata gets no songs. He needs no songs, for he gets the juiciest lines and scenes. Watch him react to a mill workers’ union chief who pronounces “ideology” as ideo-low-gy. And at least from his side, he shares quite the love-hate relationship with Johnny, eyes frequently pooling with tears. The scene where he decides to nickname this young man Johnny is quite something. Kaizad checks out Johnny’s butt, then his eyes drop to Johnny’s crotch as he decides on the name. I wasn’t sure if there was something there, so I looked up urbandictionary.com. And what do you know, I found this against “Johnny”: “One who has an incredibly oversized cock.” Okay, so maybe Johnny is just a nod to the name of Robert De Niro’s character in Scorsese’s Mean Streets. But the earlier meaning does make sense, given the ripely Freudian scene where Kaizad finds himself at the receiving end of Johnny’s frenzied thrusting.
Apart from the scenes with Kaizad, there are some nice moments with Johnny and Rosie. In one, he abuses her and she slaps him and he slaps her back and she brings a chair down on him and begins to laugh. The laugh is a bracing splash of vodka. It changes the dynamics of the scene – and of her character, who’s a victim of physical abuse. It’s almost a mad moment. In another scene, they bicker again and she finds she has a limp. You wish these scenes were longer. And a joke about Santa Claus is a scream. Bombay Velvet needed more of these tangents, more of these characters and their mad moments.
Instead, Kashyap keeps cutting away to his big story about the transformation of Bombay. The technical contributions that bring the period alive are astonishing, and it’s evident a lot of research is up there – given the preponderance of jazz in Amit Trivedi’s marvellous score there’s even a mention of Chic Chocolate, one of the many Goan musicians who ended up contributing to Hindi film music. But all this research suggests a TV miniseries. How can so many specific details result in a film so generic? Bombay Velvet looks horribly shrunk. I’d like to see all the footage that was edited out. Maybe that will make the film more of a piece. The second half, especially, goes all over the place, a grab bag of desperate invention. There’s a bomb blast. There’s gonorrhoea. There’s a Tommy gun. There’s a line of dialogue that tells us it’s a Tommy gun. I threw my hands up. I kept thinking about Mahesh Bhatt’s Kabzaa, which was also about a young man with criminal tendencies caught between two powerful men and their fight over a piece of land. Call it unfashionable melodrama, but at least that movie moved, physically and emotionally.
I was also reminded of Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How The Sex-Drugs-And-Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. The book begins with the release of Easy Rider in 1969. Its success paved the way for New Hollywood, which resulted in the rise of auteurs like Scorsese and Coppola and Bogdanovich and a remarkable series of films. And then, it all ended about a decade later when these directors, after making their name, graduated to big budgets and flopped badly, not just financially but also critically. Scorsese bombed with New York, New York. Coppola bombed with One From the Heart. The last chapter of the book is titled “We Blew It”. As I write this, I hear Bombay Velvet isn’t doing well. At least Scorsese, after a lean period, made a major comeback. I guess now Kashyap will have to be inspired by that Scorsese story too.
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