Anurag Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet written by him along with Vasan Bala and Thani and based on Gyan Prakash’s Mumbai Fables takes its own time to unravel. It is not presented like a set of events where A led to B and B led to C and so on. It is a series of montages at least in the first half of the film. It is a set of events strewn together in random and the Bombay of 50s and 60s is painted as a series of vignettes. Tulika Books published something called Dates.Sites: Project Cinema City, Bombay/Mumbai sometime ago and that too presented a possibly porous timeline of the development of Bombay all through 20th century. It may very well be true that Kashyap and his band of writers took cue from this book for writing Bombay Velvet. Balraj (Ranbir Kapoor) arrives into Bombay in 1949 amidst the Godse trial fanfare that we see as part of the newspaper someone’s reading. That’s another device Kashyap uses throughout the film to mark the changes Bombay went through on its way to becoming the financial capital of India. We are shown how Balraj has a penchant for getting into fights and is a masochist at heart who loves to get himself beaten into a pulp. We also see the grown up Balraj watching The Roaring Twenties in a quintessential old Bombay talkies (or takis?) and getting fascinated by the bigshot line and seeds of his ambition to make it big at all costs already sown.
It’s quite clear there is a lot of craft that’s gone into Bombay Velvet. It’s an Anurag Kashyap film after all and in this one – hailed as his most commercial venture to date with the kind of budget involved etc – he doesn’t go for coherence. Characters walk in with no introduction and we learn important things about them much later. Kashyap shows things first and explains and reasons them only later. It fits with the theme of the film. Bombay Velvet examines Bombay’s past and it is adamant about doing it in the archeological way. There are a lot of details in this film that Kashyap hopes we’ll fill in ourselves that could potentially be his and the film’s undoing. While it is nice to see all this craft, the polish in the writing and the visual flourish – even if the story itself is cliched but when has that been a problem – the film lacks what Balraj’s character has in the biggest size available – heart. There are very few instances in the film where you feel something. A knockout scene involving Kaizad Khambata (Karan Johar) and Johnny Balraj and the meaning of tender. There is another scene where Kashyap establishes the whole film in a nutshell with a single piece of dialog. We see the protesting trade union leader Deshpande, a puppet of Jimmy Mistry the somewhat communist newspaper editor, in a meeting with Khambata and Romi Patel (Siddhartha Basu) as the latter try to buy him out. When Khambata asks Deshpande why is he doing all this, Deshpande replies,“siddhant” only for Khambata to ask, “Who’s he?”. It is a clash of ideologies between people that believe in none. Caught amidst people fighting for their daily wage and the hunger to have their name on the towers of Bombay are Johnny Balraj and Rosie Noronha (Anushka Sharma). Balraj and Rosie are birds of the same feather that came to Bombay escaping their horrific past – one from Pakistan during Partition and another from Goa after an abusive childhood. When Rosie wants to escape again Balraj tells her there is India outside Bombay – the socialist inclined non-aligned India. And Bombay was cut from a different cloth – both physically and ideologically.
To Kashyap’s credit he does offer all the right shades to his principal characters. Rosie as a victim of possibly two abusive relationships before joining Balraj and Khambata’s Bombay Velvet club. Something that informs her actions later in the film. Kaizad Khambata with a wife he employs for his nefarious purposes but who’s really his beard. He even collects money from a bank and puts it into his handbag. There are two incredible stretches involving two of the best songs from Amit Trivedi’s soundtrack. One is at the club when Balraj is so angry with Khambata not treating him like an equal and a photographer Rosie knew during her early days in Bombay trying to disrupt her performance as she croons Sylvia (that quite blatantly refers to the Nanavati case of that time). Balraj is taking out his frustrations on Chimman (Satyadeep Misra as the most level header character of the lot) who is trying to explain to Balraj that he is indeed Khambata’s menial handler (as a waiter enters the kitchen where they are talking). In this moment he becomes involved in the kerfuffle with the photographer and Rosie and in a fit of rage kills him. Sylvia or Rosie, what’s the difference? The other one is set to Dhadaam Dhadaam that is again one of Kashyap’s adopted style here of showing things that make no sense first but are explained later. At least he’s stayed true to it from start to finish. Forwarding the story using newspaper shots are a delight. It’s also a bit anachronistic featuring the iconic kiss between Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker celebrating the East Germany and Soviet Union relationship (in reference to the various factions developing within Bombay) in 1979 and the use of stand up comedy in the 60s to offer some social commentary on the changing landscapes of Bombay. We also get little nuggets like Pataudi Jr. being named Wisden Cricketer of the Year (1968).
And yet the film suffers because it is served a bit lukewarm. There is great detailing and some solid filmmaking making good use of the jazz age and background score but there is always a key ingredient missing. Kay Kay Menon suffers from a terribly written role and the way he is shoehorned into the story is cringe inducing. It is also quite sad that he chooses to literalize Johny’s masochistic ways in the end. It begins like The Godfather, becomes Scarface in between and ends like Romeo Juliet. Bombay Velvet makes you wonder if Kashyap is trolling the studios and the establishment that shunned him for years. Or it is just that Kashyap has a long way to go in terms of bending popular cinema to work for his sensibilities. My guess is the latter. If only he could be given another chance at making the same film. Only this time with feeling.
(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)