Few films have the ability to get your attention right from the opening shot. In Bombay Velvet Anurag Kashyap, jumping from ‘sort of mid budget indie’ to full on mainstream mode does this exceptionally well. As the opening credits roll a nostalgic surprise from the 90’s greets you to the backdrop of Amit Trivedi’s Jazz, and the world of Bombay Velvet becomes yours before you can blink. The atmosphere is intoxicating, the sets, costumes and scope are far beyond anything done in Bollywood.
The film is supposed to borrow from Gyan Prakash’s historical book, Bombay Velvet is no historical sermon, it’s a love story, pure and simple. There’s Ranbir Kapoor as Johnny Balraj, a boxer turned mobster. It’s a showy role. He looks great in a boxing vest. He looks great in a suit. He looks extremely cool as he chats up Rosie, the girl of his dreams, played by an equally attractive Anushka Sharma. She croons velvet on stage, he woos her with his eyes and smile. Paisa vasool date movie stuff, hyper romanticized at the moment Anushka beautifully lip syncs to ‘Dhadaam Dhadaam’. And they’re a great couple – deeply in love even when the girl smashes furniture on the guy. It’s been a while since we saw an on screen romantic couple to root for in a Hindi film, Ranbir and Anushka’s chemistry is a breath of fresh air.
Then there’s Karan Johar as the villainous newspaper baron Khambatta, pulling off an unlikely, uncontrollable snigger when you least expect it, and Satyadeep Mishra as Balraj’s pal, chewing scenery with just his stare. They’re all only matched by the incredible production design that recreates 50’s Bombay with such detail it’s impossible to differentiate real sets from CGI. Truly gorgeous and entertaining stuff, and the first half glides along to perfection, with Trivedi’s background music always on to stitch scenes together.
In the second half of Bombay Velvet there’s a sequence featuring a massively long buildup with sexy lighting and music, that develops into a dazzling slow motion shot of a vengeful man firing dual tommy guns in slow motion. The walls are peppered with holes, the furniture explodes into pieces, it’s so powerful it seems like he’s spraying the whole world with spitfire, extinguishing whole countries in the process. He ends up killing two, inconsequential and faceless people and you’re left wondering what the buildup was for.
This scene accurately reflects the essence of the second half of Bombay Velvet, and the effect it has on the audience. Post interval the story wilts out and Kashyap dedicates himself to making everything look cool, and that is the problem - the film looks like a million bucks but has no depth. It feels like a beautifully crafted, well-timed shot only to be caught at the boundary.
While the first half is a homage to 70’s films, the second becomes a 70’s film, complete with clichéd blackmail negative rolls, double rolls, madh island gold biskut maal, damsels in distress. Kashyap is known to take cinema clichés and subvert them, but here he goes head first into the clichés with great seriousness. Despite the magic of Thelma Schoonmaker (and there’s a lot of it), the film’s story elements are mostly incoherent. There is a 50’s Bombay real estate scam plot point which is pretty much indecipherable. It’s tough to figure out what Khambatta actually is about, and what his deals with the real estate barons are, and what exactly is at stake. There is a rival newspaper too, the intentions of the editor of which (Manish Choudhary) are unclear. There is some history about the World Trade Center force fed to us during the end credits which makes even less sense.
Rather than being its own beast this is more a throwback to older, better gangster films by Scorsese, the Coens and Curtis Hanson. There’s a Goodfellas car trunk nudge, and a Miller’s Crossing hat wink, and neither of them add anything to the plot except for fan service and a strain for greatness that remains out of reach. There’s a noticeable lack of humor in the film, but the film’s elements are not dark enough to warrant such seriousness. All the elements are mainstream ‘filmi’ things, and it’s hard to imagine why there is only one joke in the whole movie.
Needing some sort of punch in the second half, Kashyap makes a late grab for thrills and renders the aforementioned tommy gun scene, but it speaks more of the desperation to compensate for a weak story than it does about delivering a great cinematic moment.
Make of it what you will, ultimately what Bombay Velvet lacks in complexity it makes up for in sheer beauty. It’s a cinematic achievement for sure, but it doesn’t always succeed in camouflaging its narrative limitations with its imagery. Clearly, the curse of the second half gets to even the best.
(First published in Firstpost)