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Bombay, velvet and all that jazz

Johnny has the sadomasochism of Dev D's Dev; the narcissism of K from No Smoking, the retributory impulses of Faizal Khan of Gangs of Wasseypur  

In a throwback to Dev D, one of Anurag Kashyap’s earlier films, Bombay Velvet begins by thanking, among others, Danny Boyle and Martin Scorsese. And just like Dev D, the narrative is about a confused individual’s pent-up passion wreaking havoc in his own life, leading to complete self-destruction. Balraj (Ranbir Kapoor), a small-time crook with a scarred soul in the Bombay of the 1960s, watches the 1939 classic The Roaring Twenties and wants to become a big shot. What is more interesting is that unlike many other starry-eyed ambitious youngsters, his aim is not so much becoming one but being remembered as a ‘Big Shot’.

The narrative of Bombay Velvet begins in 1949, two years after India’s independence. Bombay, one of the three presidencies in the British Raj, is already a financial and industrial hotspot. Money power and muscle power reside in this emerging megalopolis while political power is concentrated in the distant Delhi. An aam Hindustani, as the opening track goes, is unlikely to find much luck here, unless he ingratiates himself to the powers-that-be.

The city and its inhabitants develop a penchant for circumventing the regulations imposed by politics. Hence, an unnatural prohibition law is openly flouted, in a jazz bar ironically named Bombay Velvet. Is there a tip of the hat to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet here?

The city’s Mayor Romi Patel (Siddhartha Basu) acts as a conduit for industrialists to protect their legitimate and illegitimate interests. When Balraj says later in the movie that outside Bombay is ‘India’, a place full of poverty and filth, it is clear that the emotional secession of the city from the rest of the country is complete in the minds of its power brokers.

Balraj, thanks to media magnate Kaizad Khambatta (an unintentionally funny Karan Johar), becomes ‘Johnny’ Balraj, an upstart desperate to graduate from a low-key con to a high-profile businessman. His obsession with changing his aukaat (standing) matches his possessiveness toward jazz singer Rosie (Anushka Sharma).

Balraj wants to be a big shot, like the James Cagney of The Roaring Twenties. Rosie, a Sadhana with the voice of Geeta Dutt, wants to be a singing star. He is accursed with ambition, she with a pleasant voice. Her voice first bonds her to a overbearing instructor (Remo Fernandez), then liberates her momentarily to find stardom before she finds herself as a tool again in the hands of Khambatta’s rival, Jimmy Mistry (Manish Chowdhary).

The rawness that has been the trademark of AK’s previous films is sorely missing here. The action, the romance, the cinematography neither have the jagged edges of Gangs of Wasseypur nor the psychedelia of Dev D. The sepia-tinted shots act more as eye candy than a conduit that suck us into a dark, brooding world of Bombay Velvet the jazz club. Here, again, the compulsions of the star system act against AK's favour. Having Ranbir and Karan in lead roles comes with their price tags.

Bombay Velvet is only the second full-fledged Anurag Kashyap film not to have been given an ‘A’ certificate: the first one being the delightful Return of Hanuman. Perhaps, it would have been better off if it had been made with an adult audience in mind. The most endearing elements of AK’s filmmaking -- abrasive language, dark ambiance, abstract imagery, claustrophobia-inducing close ups -- would have been given a better play.

In the absence AK’s usual motifs, the movie, in the second half, veers off into a wannabe-masala-flick, in the Manmohan Desai mould. By focussing excessively on style, the screenplay loses track of the nuances and becomes simplistic. The narrative becomes centred on one photo negative, a couple of ‘good-vs-bad’ big fights and even attempts to accommodate badly conceived punch dialogues.

The most cringe-worthy part of it comes when Anurag tries to show Khambatta as gay -- without the subtleties that mark the filmmaking of, say, an Onir. The scene where he kidnaps Rosie and says usmein kya hai jo mujhmein nahin to Balraj over the phone is the most pungent of the dialogues and I don’t mean this as a compliment. Why did AK have to fall into such a trap where the characters become unidimensional?

Ek gunde ko itna mat chadhao Khambatta, says Mayor Romi Patel to Khambatta and I wonder why one gunda has to be given so much of screenspace, while the characters of the other protagonists -- Inspector Kulkarni (an underutilised Kay Kay Menon), Manish Chaudhary (Jimmy Mistry) and Tony (Vivaan Shah) -- are reduced to mere prototypes? Surely Johnny’s road to perdition doesn’t have to be shown as a set of monochromatic encounters? Surely the screenplay was conceived to be Bombay Velvet and not a Johnny B?

Just to give a glimpse of his similarities with other AK characters, Johnny has the sadomasochism of Dev from Dev D; the narcissism of K from No Smoking; and the retributory impulses of Faizal Khan from Gangs of Wasseypur. However, what he lacks is the coldness and brutality of a Showmik Bose from Ugly that would have seen him transition from a whining lover-boy to a ruthless gangster, that would have seen him becoming as brutal as a Tony Montana (from Scarface).

Here, an Abhay Deol or a Kay Kay Menon would have done more justice. Ranbir’s aristocratic looks and suave mannerisms, despite him trying hard to look and sound otherwise, make it difficult for us to buy him as a tapori-turned-thug. Ranbir is at his best on screen when he plays adorable barfi, not as an abhorrent badass.

The movie is at its most delectable where we find references to songs and films released in the 50s and 60s. As a young Johnny enters Mumbai’s red-light area with his foster mother, we a Nadia film poster with the tune of Ghar aaya mera pardesi playing in the background. When Rosie goes to pose for an advertisement, the photographer talks of having given Sadhana her first break. We hear O. P. Nayyar’s name as the CID song Fifi zamaana hai bura segues from being a number on the radio to a song performed by Rosie in the bar. Rosie is clearly more a fan of Geeta Dutt than a Lata or an Asha. To reinforce this, we have more references, to songs like Jaane kya tune kahi and Waqt ne kiya.

I wonder if the ring-fight scenes were a form of remembering Manmohan Desai. Doesn’t Amitabh of Naseeb -- also named Johnny -- indulge in such street brawls at the end of a tired day?

In trying to gain a level of acceptability, aiming to strike gold at a quick pace, not being averse to getting his hands dirty, Balraj is not unlike the upstart Vijay of Deewaar. However, the reasons for him being on the wrong side of the law are more muddled and selfish. He doesn’t have the baggage of the emotional scars inflicted by the suffering of an ideal maa. Having been betrayed by both the maas in his life, he seems to be in the lookout for a mother figure.

He perhaps finds one in Rosie. However, the need to show Johny's Machiavellian side comes in the way of showing his masochistic self. Anurag, toward the later part of the film, tries hard to present him as a fallen soldier rather than the hopeless upstart he is, something that makes his road to self destruction more muddled than that of Dev Dhillon. Added to these is some gratuitous melodrama. Why does Balraj’s acts of killing have to be so high-voltage in the second half when they are so subdued in the first? Surely it has to do more with showing Johnny as a hero than a violent protagonist?

A Tony Montana may have been more calculating, a Dev D more self-flagellating. However, Johny Balraj is more of an aimless upstart who seeks redemption both in the arms of big money and in the embrace of timeless romance. His end in the end is just what he had hoped -- in the lap of love and vanity, with his companion calling him a ‘big shot.’

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Printable version | Apr 16, 2021 4:42:05 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/blogs/blog-free-for-all/article7216445.ece

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