A small-time hood with big ambitions, wanting to become ‘Bambai Ka Raja’. A honey-voiced Goan girl, heart set on being a star. A city on the cusp of explosive growth, swarming with venal babus, greedy businessmen, beady-eyed landsharks and cops-in-cahoots.
Based on historian Gyan Prakash’s excellent original work (he’s also co-written the movie), ‘Bombay Velvet’ is the story of all these characters trying to find their place in the late 60s Bombay. It was the era of Prohibition, rising brawny action heroes, flashy media moguls parlaying power and gossip, jazz bars spilling over with illicit liquor and dirty money, and rapacious builders.
It was also the Bombay of dying mills, blue-collar desperation and fiery trade union leaders. By then, it was already the eternally seductive city paved with gold– the place people came to dream and to despair, forming the unending cycle which still is its reigning double-edged leitmotif.
Lookswise, the film is pure gorgeousness. Trouble is, it is also largely overwrought and inert. The meticulous detailing in the re-creation of one of the most pulsating periods of Bombay’s history, is terrific. Much of the film stays, mostly and disappointingly, on its sepia surface.
Growing up in the city’s sleazy red-light area, Johnny Balraj (Ranbir Kapoor) has seen soul-destroying poverty. A chance encounter with the well-heeled dodgy tabloid czar Kaizad Khambatta (Karan Johar) leads him into the hallways of the rich and famous. Johnny has been the perennial outsider; now he wants in, and he will do anything to break into the charmed circle that rules the city with iron hands and corrupt fists, and nothing his best friend Chiman (Satyadeep Mishra), nor the love of his life, singer Rosie Noronha (Anushka Sharma) can say will dissuade him.
The story of an underdog clawing his way up in close-knit mafia-doms is an overused trope, both in Hollywood and Bollywood. Real-life references (influential Parsi media barons, the Nanavati scandal, the emptying mills in Parel, the blatant take-over of Nariman Point) are rife. The Scorsesian influences are clear, too, as well as shades of Leone, and the 30s Hollywood gangster tales : this would have been fine if the story-telling had been sufficiently rat-a-tat. That doesn’t happen, and we end up admiring the fancy fripperies – the fin-tailed cars, the retro dark glasses, the sharp suits, Balraj’s cool curls, Rosie’s magnificent gowns and feathers – as the film keeps trying to struggle out from under.
There are flashes where you can see Anurag Kashyap’s sharpness and visual acuity, which is on abundant display in his finest – ‘Black Friday’, ‘Dev D’ and ‘Gangs Of Wasseypur’. An early bit, featuring the leads as children, has energy, as has Rosie’s beginning. Some walk-on parts – Remo Fernandes, Raveena Tandon – leave an impression. Satyadeep Mishra, as Ranbir Kapoor’s best friend, has pleasing steadiness. And Johar, who looks most comfortable in his often outré attire, has a nice giggly solo moment, though he could have been more if the plot had been brave enough to maximize its homo-erotic strain. Still, his Kaizad creates more frisson with Johnny boy, in fact, than Johnny boy does with Rosie girl: Johnny and Rosie huff and puff but have very little going on between them.
The lead pair doesn’t, in fact, spark. Johnny’s streak of sado-masochism is meant to be a blazing trademark, but it comes off minus impact, as does the character. Like everyone else in this beautifully-dressed film, Ranbir Kapoor looks perfect for his Cagney-esque part, complete with tommy guns and leery grins, but does not pull it off. And Anushka Sharma shines only occasionally, channeling pain better than come hither-ness: in a tiny cameo, Raveena Tandon shows how to do Sultry Club-Singer, with a teeny swing of the hip and an inviting crook of the finger.
The music, composed by Amit Trivedi, is superb, though, even if it doesn’t break the dizzying bar set by ‘Dev D’. When you can hear it, and in some effective parts, ‘Bombay Velvet’ soars. In the rest, this thing doesn’t sing. It needed more zing.