18 May 2015

All That Glitters

My Mumbai Mirror column yesterday:

As flamboyant and luxurious as the Art Deco era it's set in, Bombay Velvet ends up being all shine and little soul.

A little boy comes to Bombay, his mother earns a living as a sex worker, he becomes a small-time crook. Then his mother runs away with his ill-begotten stroke of luck (gold biscuits, no less), and he decides to become a big-time crook. The steep rise of the local hoodlum unfolds against the backdrop of the spectacular growth of the city itself, and is clearly meant to echo it. Like Ranbir Kapoor's Johnny Balraj, we're shown a Bombay that thinks it can do better -- be larger, get grander, become what The Roaring Twenties (the James Cagney film referenced here) would call a "big shot". 

With Bombay Velvet, director Anurag Kashyap, too, has made the big filmi film he wanted to make, complete with old-movie childhoods for the hero, heroine and hero's best friend. But sadly, neither this, nor the spectacular visual recreation of 60s Bombay (on an immaculate set in Sri Lanka), nor the sensational jazzy soundtrack, can make this film the epic it wants to be. 

The primary problem is that the characters do not compute. When we first see our hero, he's a cute little boy with an uncanny resemblance to Ranbir Kapoor, shyly, slyly watching another little boy do the dirty: deliberately bumping into a rich man walking past, so as to swipe his wallet. By the time we see them next, roles seem to have been reversed - shy little Balraj has become the mop-haired, ambitious, stop-at-nothing Ranbir Kapoor, while the expert pickpocket Chiman has become his silent sidekick. We never learn quite why Chiman has lost his panache and signed it over to Balraj. The heroine, meanwhile, makes her entry as a little Goan girl with a golden voice. We skate too smoothly over Rosie's journey from singing in church to sleeping in a rich man's bed, and even more quickly over her escape to Bombay, where she works glumly in a beauty parlour by day and sings Geeta Dutt songs -- even more glumly -- in a bar by night. 

And then everything changes again, faster and more inexplicably than before: Balraj fails at a robbery and acquires an unexpected Parsi benefactor, a man called Kaizad Khambatta who is a bootlegger, real estate shark and tabloid editor rolled into one -- Karan Johar, playing himself with a fake touch of evil. Balraj is quite literally picked up from the Bombay streets and thrown up to an enviable position at the city's Art Deco acme. Anointed Johnny, he becomes the manager of a nightclub that is the emblematic centre of everything that 60s Bombay is: Bombay Velvet, a stunningly re-imagined version of the city's real-life Eros Cinema. Meanwhile our nightingale has acquired a Parsi benefactor, too. Jamshed Mistry is Khambatta's oldest rival, and he, too, runs a newspaper. And sure enough, Rosie, too, gets a position as singer at Bombay Velvet. 

So our hero and heroine are ostensibly all grown up, the stage is set for their epic love story - but they seem like they're just play-acting. Other than a single song picturisation ("Dhadaam-dhadaam"), Anushka Sharma's performance as Rosie has neither oomph nor dard nor Goan-ness. There is more 60s sexiness in Raveena Tandon's minute-long appearance as Rosie's nightclub replacement than there is in Sharma's acres of silken costumes. 

As for Ranbir, he imbues Johnny with hotheaded angst, but we never quite get why Johnny's so angry, either with the world or with Khambatta. We're told he willingly gets his face beaten in every night in the boxing ring, even when he's got a job managing the fanciest club in town. But we never really see why. This is a hitman with many murders to his name, pathologically violent - and yet his fights with his girlfriend are almost childish, with none of the brute force one imagines. And to paint this character as a victim, as the film wants to, would take much more doing. Sharma and Kapoor are talented actors, but they clearly don't yet have it in them to transcend themselves. Satyadeep Mishra, playing Chiman, is perhaps the one actor with a major role to convincingly inhabit it. 

But if the depth of the performances is too little, the spread of the canvas is too wide. Like Dibakar Banerjee in the recent Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, Kashyap and his team of writers (including the historian Gyan Prakash, whose non-fiction book Mumbai Fables is the seedbed of this film) clearly have no dearth of detail. This is Prohibition-era Bombay, where Indians can't get a drink unless they're with a foreigner. It is also Art Deco Bombay, when the young and chic (like Rosie) are moving into multi-storeyed buildings that line the city's seafront. It's the last stage of Back Bay Reclamation, new commercial buildings are being planned, the government is in cahoots with builders and tabloid magnates against mill-workers and union leaders. The film is punctuated with fake tabloid headlines interspersed with real news, and what plot there is revolves around photographs - a 'revealing' advertisement, a blackmail photo that stays secret, and another that gets splashed on the front page. But in trying to capture multiple urban worlds - leisure, commerce, media, politics, crime - the film loses its grip on all of them. 

Bombay Velvet could have been a big shot. But it misfired.

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