(This has first appeared on Firstpost)
There are two shootout sequences in Bombay Velvet. One of them starts with a wonderful drum roll. The camera is on Ranbir Kapoor’s face, which wears the most anticipated expression of determined revenge. Then we see his back as he rises from the floor, armed with a tommy gun in each hand. This is the Scarface moment, the dream action scene every actor loves to play and every Tarantino-struck director loves to shoot.
Kapoor and director Anurag Kashyap are no exceptions. So much so that, Kapoor forgets he is Johnny Balraj here and Kashyap was probably too trigger happy to have his Gangs of Wasseypur moment to care about the timing of the sequence. And so, the only dramatic scene in the movie ends like a gun with a silencer that misfires. The following climax involving Karan Johar, is a unintentionally hilarious version of Gabbar saying, "naach Basanti" in Sholay.
Bombay Velvet follows Balraj (Kapoor) and Rosie’s(Anushka Sharma) stories. She is a nightclub singer and he is a streetfighter turned henchman. Rosie has suffered abuse since she was a little girl and Johnny has survived poverty. He is in a hurry to become a “big shot” and gets picked up by journalist and businessman Kaizad Khambatta (Karan Johar introduced in a yellow jacket). Khambatta sets up a nightclub called Bombay Velvet, where he can entertain clients who need persuasion and where liquor flows despite prohibition. Johnny and his friend Chimman are given the task of running Bombay Velvet.
Meanwhile, Jimmy Mistry (Manish Chowdhary), Khambatta’s childhood friend, current friend and editor of “Glitz”, makes Rosie his mistress. He then sends her to Bombay Velvet to do some digging about Khambatta. She’s supposed to seduce Johnny for information and she does, only to fall in love with him in earnest. And so begins a love story full of betrayals and danger. (That Mistry conveniently disappears later in the plot is another matter).
Consider the elements that Bombay Velvet has been trumpeting (pun intended). It’s supposed to be an epic love story mounted on a grand, lavish scale set in the Bombay of ’50s and ’60s. The sensational promise of jazz, cabaret, nightclubs; a distressed, heavily made up singer with heavy gowns and big red flower bows in coiffured hair; a perpetually beaten up boxer, madly in love with her; a sly Shylock. The big appeal is the backdrop — the city’s post-independence history of mill strikes, rooted in a non-fiction book, Mumbai Fables by Gyan Prakash.
Sadly, the backdrop is also the biggest sham about the film. Bombay Velvet pretends to show a real Bombay, but is actually as pretty and artificial as a Sanjay Leela Bhansali set, only in lovely sepia tones. Real facts are just touched upon and relegated to a few lines at the end of the film. The song “Sylvia” nods at the infamous Nanavati scandal, but the film doesn’t talk about it. There’s banter that could have been meaningful, but doesn’t end up to be. For instance Khambata calls Mistry “Russia ka tutoo”, and Mistry in turn calls Khambata “American agent”. Had their rivalry been developed, it would have made Bombay Velvet a more interesting film and a better testament to the city’s history than Rosie and Johnny’s love story is.
Instead we get passing references to mill strikes, a reference to Russi Karanjia’s Blitz which is Glitz in the film, named after the real publication-Blitz. Manish Chaudhary plays Jimmy Mistry, clearly modelled upon Karanjia. Only, Chowdhary does not come across even remotely as a Parsi, which is something we’re reminded of each time Johnny calls him “Bawa”.
There has been much talk about the use of jazz in the soundtrack. Apparently, there were live recordings by musicians brought in from Prague, England, Chennai and Mumbai. Music director Amit Trivedi also reworked the famous song from CID, sung by Geeta Dutt, ”Jaata kahan hai deewane…”. Back when CID was released, the censor board did not allow the picturised song as it imagined a word “fiffy’ to have a “double meaning”. Trivedi’s revamped “Fiffy” brings back the original song, but ‘jazzed’ up, it loses half its charm.
Bombay Velvet boasts of 13 months of editing, two edits (Thelma Schoonmaker, Prerna Saigal ), one year of pre-production, 25,000 kilos of costumes and eight years of research. Mumbai was recreated in Sri Lanka, which is quite a feat for the art director and despite the challenging camera work by Rajeev Ravi, it doesn’t quite bring alive the magic of Marine Lines or Colaba.
The backdrop and jazz paraphernalia charm and seduce initially, but quickly becomes tiresome. Balraj and Rosie’s love story is predictable and cliched, but despite all the show of passion — tempers flying, slapping, kissing, bathtub scenes et al — there’s little emotional connect between the audience and the couple. The scenes don’t flow smoothly and the intercrossing cuts serve to disconnect rather than involve. This is particularly disappointing, as the edit does not reflect the craftsmanship expected of a Hollywood editor who has worked with Martin Scorsese.
Sharma and Johar try their intense best and manage to sustain interest, to some extent. Sharma’s expressions in the song “Dhadaam” will tug at your heartstrings and Johar’s private moment of sneaky laughter is delightful. Kapoor, in contrast, is like an injured boxer who does not belong in the ring. His Balraj flounders and crumbles. Raveena Tandon Thadani makes a worthy special appearance in one song, with a giant purple peacock feather as her crowning glory. Satyadeep Misra as Johnny’s loyal friend Chimman and Kay Kay Menon as the Bollywood-loving cop do their part with panache.
Yet, all this isn’t enough to redeem Bombay Velvet, which tries too hard to be a Taj Mahal. Ultimately, though, it just ends up feeling like monumental vanity.