It’s not everyday that an epic bore is mounted on so grand and spectacular a scale. There have been deluded attempts before, but few have been as self-satisfied and bombastic about their ambition as Anurag Kashyap about Bombay Velvet.
Fox Star Studios spared no cost to fund Kashyap’s determination to tell the “story of a city”, and his creative team spared no effort on their part. There were diligent readings of Gyan Prakash’s Mumbai Fables to glean mota-mota factoids about Bombay; production designer Sonal Sawant spent 10 months creating vintage Bombay of the writer-director’s imagination in Tissamahrama, Sri Lanka. Complete with roads, Art Deco buildings, restaurants, hoardings, its centrepiece was the club, Bombay Velvet, an opulent replica of Bombay’s Eros Cinema.
Music director Amit Trivedi worked on the film’s music for two years and used musicians from England, Prague, Chennai and Mumbai to induce the “vibe” of ’50s and ’60s jazz into the film; costume designer Niharika Bhasin Khan’s luscious gowns with feathers and pearls, sequins and gold, beads and elaborate head-gear promised drama around club crooners; and the lighting department lovingly bathed every scene in the glorious glow of halogen.
A stylish, filmy Bombay look, impressive and seductive, was all there, poised for dramatic effect. But Kashyap's Bombay Velvet is lost in a maze of his own making. Bombay Velvet, based on a confused, haphazard screenplay, has been directed in a whimsical and erratic way that falls woefully short of the world it inhabits. A simple story has been convoluted beyond our caring and all the coolness of the sets, music, costumes, lighting, cinematography gets drowned in the dullness that the actors and story generate.
Bombay Velvet’s stars and actors look the part, but they don’t act or speak it. The film neither has the tone of the time it is set in, nor the cadence of its setting. Apparently, Rs 100 crore (not counting the marketing cost) have been spent on the film. I wish some sensible soul from Fox-Star had called Kashyap over for drinks during the shoot and said exactly what Vidyapati said to Bhola in Padosan, “Bhole, sur ko pakad.” Sadly, no one did.
The film opens with instructive text on the screen to inform us that the story Bombay Velvet wants to tell harks back to 1949, when Godse was to hang and prohibition was making Bombay swing to the docks and back. It was at this historic juncture that little Chiman and littler Balraj became friends, living by their wits, jeering at the law. At the same time, in Goa, little Rosie (Anushka Sharma) was being abused by her creepy music teacher. They all soon grow up.
Chiman (Satyadeep Mishra) and Balraj (Ranbir Kapoor) are still partners, but now Balraj is the dominant one, and Chiman his loyal flunkey. Balraj wants to become a “big shot”, so he gets hired by a smuggler. He also wants to release his frustration over mommy vanishing with his gold, so he lands in the boxing ring. Soon he is hired by Kaizad Khambata (Karan Johar), the editor of Torrent, a tabloid, and a wheeling-dealing land shark, and starts doing his bidding, including murders which he takes to rather easily. Pleased, Kaizad gives him a name, Johnny.
Rosie, meanwhile, decides to smash her teacher-abuser’s head and lands up in Bombay, on the couch of another editor, Jimmy Mistry (Manish Choudhary). His Glitz is Torrent’s rival. There is talk about Bombay, made up of seven islands, being turned into one seamless piece of land out of reclamation and selling of mill lands. We are not in on the details and that’s partly because this is a pastiche of Bombay’s story in the 1920s about reclamation, and 1960s about the mills, and it hasn’t been strung together properly. We get the sense of it all, though. It’s a big game with big trade-offs and the key player are Khambata and Mistry, and Khambata’s Bombay Velvet club is where deals are made and celebrated. The story runs helter-skelter between everybody trying to acquire a negative of a key official in a compromising position, an angry mill union threatening to jeopardise all plans and a romance.
In between all this, politics makes appearances in a kiddish way — there's a passing parade of headlines, a sarcastic stand-up comedian — while Rosie croons at the club, golden liquid is poured out of decanters, and the hero in rags tastes riches and wants more. This leads to the evil businessman-mentor turning murderous, and a crime branch cop begins to keep track of the bodies stacking up in the sea.
The film hops, skips and jumps from one thing and one character to the other, without explanation. Many things happen, but how they happen is irrelevant to Bombay Velvet. The film is tracing the footsteps of its many, many predecessors and picking bits and baubles it likes on the way, things that fancy Kashyap even if they have nothing to do with the story or add any dimension to the characters, like physical-sexual abuse. It must make an appearance in all of Kashyap’s films, and it duly does. But here because it involves an A-grade actress, the sexual abuse is left ambiguous. There’s no rubbing our face in it and dirtying the actress. It's non-commital, and so is the character to its backstory.
Though some characters carry hints of real people, all are operating on fleeting references to characters who are standard-issue curios of a genre of the 1960s, Navketan’s city thrillers and its Hollywood mentors — the skulking, smoking cop; the crooner at the club; random, fedora-flaunting slender men with shadows falling on their faces. Kashyap is good with small people in intimate settings. Grittier the setting, grimier the situation, the better he is. Here he’s in an imposing world. Everything is larger, better than life. He feels lost, so he does silly.
So chuffed is he to have its two leads called Rosie and Johnny that he gets all his characters to say their names, repeatedly. His camera lingers on banal dialogue, gestures and antique curios to reiterate how cool it all is. All men smoke and give smouldering looks and the film is often in conspiracy close-up with them, but it never amounts to anything. It’s just a cutaway that gives the film the pretence of noir.
Despite the simulated razzle-dazzle of the shinny vintage cars and a cool fight scene with Tommy Gun, Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet just doesn’t take off. He’s not able to catch the zeitgeist of its time, and his film has no moxie. In a velvet setting sits a sloppy, rough ball of velcro that’s lost its ability to, well, velcro.
The one inspired intervention is the fun we have at the expense of Karan Johar. KJo is a terrible actor, and that’s perhaps why Kashyap made his character so camp that Johar has to play himself, only in exaggeration.
Though he grits his teeth to project villainy, the real KJo always peeps out and winks at us. These scenes are interactive almost, and fun, though the last scene is simply bonkers. Dying, Khambata’s mouth is open wide and very close to Johnny’s, as if he wants one lick before he passes.
Understandable, because Ranbir Kapoor, with his Gemini Ganesan head of bouncing curls, looks adorable. And in some scenes he bursts out, making the screen crackle, showing us that he could have very easily carried this film on his shoulders if he were allowed to. But he has been given a skeletal character, mingy scenes and dialogue so burdened with tapori Bambaiya that there’s little space for anything substantive.
Anushka Sharma has put in a lot of effort to be Rosie. But, despite all the drama of the gowns, hairdos and the husky, sexy songs she is lip-syncing, her glamour quotient is zero. And so is her character Rosie’s fun quotient. Rosie is so sulky off stage that the spirit of a crooner she tries to conjure on stage just doesn’t oblige. So what we remain focused on instead are Anushka’s Daffy Duck lips working overtime.
You just have to watch the club songs of Howrah Bridge (1958) or Taxi Driver (1954) to know how much fun club outings were and can be. If it weren’t for the inadvertent hysterical bits, the briefest possible chemistry Anushka and Ranbir try to generate, I would have kept my eyes closed throughout Bombay Velvet, happy to only listen to Amit Trivedi’s fantastic music and his cool crooners, Neeti Mohan and Shefali Alvares. These three are the real stars of Bombay Velvet.