Movie Review 'Bombay Velvet': All beauty, no soul

Published May 15, 2015, 7:09 pm IST
Updated Mar 29, 2019, 4:40 am IST

Cast: Ranbir Kapoor, Anushka Sharma, Karan Johar, Satyadeep Mishra

Director: Anurag Kashyap

Rating: 2.5 stars

Bombay Velvet attempts to tell a story of a city en route to becoming a maximum city. Based on historian and Princeton scholar Gyan Prakash’s book Mumbai Fables, this film takes us back to the late sixties, when the minds and muscles that mattered were busy making plans of turning Nariman Point into a business district, a la Manhattan, by reclaiming the Arabian Sea, joining the seven islands of Bombay. The blueprint of Bombay’s future was being drawn by cash smelling land sharks, power hungry politicians and crafty, opportunistic tabloid editors in the backdrop of mill workers’ strikes, gang wars, murders, smuggling and jazz.

This is the world Johnny Balraj (Ranbir Kapoor) finds himself in, in his twenties. Having grown up in a brothel, earning his living through petty pilfering jobs, he makes just enough to splurge on a Hollywood movie ticket to be transported to a world that makes him dream of becoming a “big shot”. The love of his life Rosie (Anushka Sharma) is an established jazz singer, courtesy talent and compromises with a handful of male mentors who helped her in exchange of a few favours.

Kashyap, who is known for subverting clichés in his films, indulges in one too many in this magnum opus. There’s love-at-first-sight, (between Johnny and Rosie), there are villains in their love story, there’s revenge, there’s even a Sholay kind of friendship between Johnny and Chiman (Satyadeep Mishra).

There are as many sub-plots in the story as there are shades of grey. Leading the grey patch is Kaizad Khambatta (Karan Johar), a closet homosexual, a media baron who runs a bunch of other illicit trades. He finds his target in the vulnerable and dashing Johnny and makes him a cog in the wheel of the giant land grabbing conspiracy. There’s also Khambatta’s rival Jimmy Mistry (Manish Chaudhary), his childhood friend who now runs his own tabloid and is constantly on a hawk-eyed search of an opportunity to get the better of Khambatta.

Squished in this deceitful game of one-upmanship, is Johnny, his friend Chiman, his love Rosie and also a crime branch officer played by a very under-utilised Kay Kay Menon, and pretty much everybody else, including the city of Bombay painted in sepia, relegated to the background. Had the city been the film’s lead protagonist, and the story a study in history of how the seven islands metamorphose into an economic epicenter, Bombay Velvet might have worked. There is so much grandeur to the sets, so much flawless detailing, it’s heartbreaking that the recreation of that period remains only skin deep and never percolates into the story.

And if the film were just about the three central characters, their love triangle and revenge plans, in the backdrop of 60s Bombay, that too might have worked. The film’s major undoing is that the background and the foreground exchange places too often to allow us to understand what the story is really about.

The first half you are busy settling into the world Anurag Kashyap and his set designer Sonal Sawant have created. Once you are done being dazzled by the beauty, you go looking for the soul only to encounter too many persistent question marks, which weigh down the second half. And when a story is rooted in well-documented history, one cannot afford to let the ellipses remain.

There seems to be too much of an attempt to sway the viewer with visuals to cover up the lack of facts. The Tommy gun firing Johnny towards the end is one of the most visually splendid moments of the film, but why he lets go of them before taking on his key adversary is something that’s never explained. Characters appear and disappear, there seems to be some plan that’s being hatched, we never know what it is. Thanks to history, we can take a wild guess.

Ranbir Kapoor’s angst is something that is not explored enough. There is not enough reason to empathise with this misogynist, bloodthirsty ruffian, who beats and makes love to his girl in the same fervor, who doesn’t seem to have any grey matter up there, a street fighter who kills and likes to get beaten up as a hobby. The actor is his usual earnest self, but you just watch him, you never feel his emotions. Anushka shines in a few scenes but largely carries a standard expression throughout the film. Karan’s smirks are well-timed, he tries his best to be as menacing as his role is meant to be, but never manages to terrify. Satyadeep Mishra is good, with his deep set stares and telling silences, one of the most convincing acts in the film.

Amit Trivedi’s background score is richer than his jazz tunes. However, the music on the whole does manage to lift a sagging story time and again. The visual grandeur and scale aside, Bombay Velvet fails to live up to its ambition. Don’t even try to search for sharp dialogues and Kashyap’s trademark wicked humour. That’s probably reserved for his indie ventures only.

So can we have the real Anurag Kashyap back please?