If Farah Khan's Om Shanti Om celebrated the colour and choreography of the Seventies and paid tribute to escapist entertainers of the bygone era, Rajat Aroraa's Once Upon A Time in Mumbaai goes beyond kitsch and brings the writer back in focus. Which is why I'm calling it Rajat Aroraa's Once… Upon A Time in Mumbaai (Rajat is the film's screenwriter) and not director Milan Luthria's.
Every single scene in the film is an excuse for characters to indulge in some great dialogue baazi, the exposition and intensity reminding you of all the archetypes that inhabited the cinema of that period. The unemployed angry young man, the rich do-gooder on the wrong side of the law, the frustrated “imaandar police afsar”…
Cast Emraan Hashmi, Ajay Devgn and Randeep Hooda in these roles, and put the right words into their mouth, and you have a cracker of a movie. Emraan works out all right, though you can't help but think what a better-equipped actor would've done with the material.
But, you don't need to think too hard because Randeep Hooda and Ajay Devgn show us how it's done. In the few scenes he gets, Randeep chews the scenery around him with his Bachchan-like presence, his baritone firing away dialogue as if he were born to play this role. So much that it is, indeed, tragic to see Agnel Wilson (Hooda) fizzle out of the film after all the promise, and thereafter limited to the task of narrating this story about the rise of Mumbai's underworld.
The film belongs to Sultan Mirza (Ajay Devgn), the gangster who always dresses in white to make up for the darkness in his heart and to forget the memories of his childhood working in coal mines… And, Devgn populates him with the ease of a veteran, having done a similar part in Company. But, while Devgn played the character based on Dawood Ibrahim in Company, here Emraan Hashmi gets the part (A disclaimer at the beginning of the film clearly denies that Devgn's Sultan Mirza is based on Haji Mastan, and this distancing seems necessary given that the film chooses to hero-worship the character). There's a beautiful symmetry and a sense of poetic justice in the two films based on Dawood when you compare the Sultan Mirza-Shoaib Khan equation with the Malik-Chandu rift in Company. Okay, three films if you include the underrated D that featured Randeep Hooda in the titular role.
Ram Gopal Varma's Company, one of the filmmaker's best works, was laced with superlative writing by Jaideep Sahni. D was limited in its scope as a prequel, and, though Once Upon A Time in Mumbaai treads into the same territory (the rise of Dawood), it is decidedly more filmi than the gritty, realistic Company films from the RGV stable.
The result is delicious for a Seventies Hindi movie fan. It's not just the clothes, the mood and the music that is retro, every bone of the text, the subtext and the context is faithful to the period. Be it Kangna doing a Zeenat Aman-Parveen Babi or Prachi Desai stepping into Bobby's polka-dot dress, the leading women are a delight. So is the movie. If you miss those days when actors only spoke in character-expository dialogue, you're bound to say: Waah! Time-travel to the days of Salim-Javed with this ticket to Bombay.
Director: Milan Luthria
Cast: Ajay Devgn, Emraan Hashmi, Randeep Hooda, Kangna Ranaut, Prachi Desai
Storyline: The life and times of Sultan Mirza, the gangster with a heart of gold and the rise of his protégé Shoaib Khan, the dark horse in the Mumbai that was
Bottomline: A worthy prequel to Company, done Salim-Javed style, back in the Seventies