Welcome to the dark side, Anurag!
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Kay Kay Menon
What to Expect
Let’s settle down for a moment and list all that we know about Anurag Kashyap’s (Gangs of Wasseypur) brand of cinema. To begin with, let’s throw in solid narratives, relatively unknown but terrific actors, dark themes, black humor, offbeat – albeit memorable – soundtracks, Cannes premieres and, above it all, shoestring budgets. Now, with Bombay Velvet, here’s the same Anurag Kashyap, minus what some would call “handicaps”, instead with Star power, a massive budget, and a wide commercial release along with similar such enablers added to his tool kit. The natural question, that follows, thus is this: does Kashyap’s much hyped, much discussed, much touted and awaited apparent dream project get a shot in the arm?
Sample this, with actors like Ranbir Kapoor, Anuhska Sharma, Kay Kay Menon, and Karan Johar in his acting debut, music by the ace Amit Trivedi, and having been co-edited by Scorcese regular Thelma Schoonmaker and directed by the maverick Anurag Kashyap, what’s not to like? All of them individually have amazing repertoires and the sheer prospect of them coming together can set any movie enthusiast’s pulse racing. Add to that Fox Star Studios (20th Century Fox) backing it with a mammoth production budget, and it all sounds like just the perfect mix for Kashyap to deliver his dream project the way he would have wanted. What he delivers indstead, after years of preparation, and over a year more on post production, is a visually stunning, technically brilliant mess of a film with a befuddled script that can’t seem to make up it’s mind on whether it wants to push the independent fillmmaking style to a wider audience-base or to be pulled into the very commercial and formulaic world of generic Hindi films that Kashyap’s otherwise never been able to touch.
What’s it About?
It’s 2 years after India’s independence from the British Colonial rule and a young Balraj (Ranbir Kapoor; Wake Up Sid!) arrives in Bombay with his mother. He picks up street tricks from another urchin Chimman (Satyadeep Misra) and moves on to petty crimes and theft. After a failed bid to rob Kaizad Khambatta (Karan Johar) rather unconvincingly, Khambatta spots the opportunity to manipulate the thugs with the lure of a better life in exchange for doing his dirty work. He puts together a rather elite club called Bombay Velvet and leaves Balraj in charge. While in distant Goa, a Portugese man spots the talented Rosie (Anushka Sharma; Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola) in a choir and takes her off to train her but exploits her instead. Rosie manages to escape to Bombay and after a few poor choices lands at Bombay Velvet. As her love story with Balraj takes off, it starts to uncover secrets and notch up ambitions, threatening dire consequences for everyone involved.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Mounted on a lavish scale and with excellent attention to detail to get the look and feel of the 60’s right, Bombay Velvet is a sight to behold. Unlike Dibakar Bannerjee’s rather subtle, slice of life, views of Kolkata in Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, cinematographer Rajeev Ravi here, goes for expansive wide shots of the streets and aerial views of some of the landmarks. It is difficult to tell apart the real from the CGI. The camera follows Johnny and Rosie intimately and works magic to show case their chemistry. A very important component of the movie has been jazz and the wonderful Amit Trivedi (Dev.D) delivers a brilliant soundtrack that is clearly one of his best.
While, the focus clearly has been to get the whole paraphernalia and vogue right, it sadly fails to move beyond it. The biggest surprise that Bombay Velvet delivers is its generic tone and stereotyping that is typical and no-brainer formulaic. The budget , funnily, might be to blame here, forcing the filmmakers to play safe and let go of any possible creative control to the studios bankrolling it. The end-result is a predictable venture, which follows a pattern that is no different from any other film with parallels to this one. It also can be argued that the scope and expanse of such an idea could have worked better in a mini-series; to shrink it to a runtime of a mere hundred and forty-nine minutes is letting go of some rather important plot points unexplored to their full potential. It also hurts that while the soundtrack on its own is fabulous an inclusion of more than 10 original songs throughout the rather short runtime is bound to wear your patience thin, especially when it has not been marketed as a musical.
Major players in the stratosphere of the screenplay – namely Johnny Balraj, Rosie Noronha and Kaizad Khambatta – are shockingly weak characters who leave a lot to the viewers’ assumption and take latitudes which could only be attributed again to the constraint of the runtime which leaves little scope for character development, which is absolutely critical for such an expansive idea. Anurag tips his hat to a lot of great filmmakers, be it the trunk shot from Goodfellas, or the the elaborate Moulin Rouge! performances at the club, not to mention an ode to Scarface is the shootout with the Tommy guns, which quite frankly is one of the best shot scenes in the film. Most of it, however, don’t really add up with any reason.
To Perform, or not to Perform
The call-sheet reads some very talented actors both in the principal as well as the supporting cast, but they are greatly let down by the weak and rushed writing. Ranbir Kapoor puts his best foot forward but looks rather lost in this shoddy character whose portrayal is not just weak on the inside but even outside with that hideous ‘stache and rather elaborate hairdo. Karan Johar’s casting came as a surprise to everyone and at the end of the movie would surely turn to dismay on Kashyap’s eccentric choice, purely because of Johar’s half-baked output, which leaves most of that talked-about talent surprisingly unexploited. His could have been easily the most interesting character of the lot. What the audience gets instead from Johar’s Khambatta is a slightly effeminate Parsi, which is quite alright, but the audience would have loved the menace to surface when it was badly needed. The only actor who shines, despite a weakly written character, is Anushka Sharma, who quite literally is the soul of Bombay Velvet – the club, and the movie. Anushka wears Rosie’s despair and helplessness as her own, and though we’re not given much reason to sympathise with her, it’s her very performance that makes you care for her and feel her pain. Among supporting actors Satyadeep Misra as Johnny’s friend Chimman, Manish Chaudhary as Khambatta’s rival Jimmy Mistry and Siddhartha Basu (making his debut) as Romi Patel, the Mayor, are quite effective while Kay Kay Menon (Gulaal) is another casting choice that has been thoroughly wasted.
The standards that Anurag Kashyap has set with his body of work is going to be the proverbial dead albatross around Bombay Velvet’s neck and this film, I suspect, is going to be harshly compared to his better works. It can pass as tolerable at best but that would be the case only if you are in a narrowly particular benevolent mood. While visually arresting, Bombay Velvet on the whole is just a pretty face with a few tricks to make you stop for a few minutes but not interesting or charming enough to make you stay for the entire show.
I can’t help but wonder if Kashyap has deliberately moved from Film Festival releases to simply festival releases? If the answer stands on an unfortunate positive, then let me personally welcome you Anurag, for you have just crossed over to the dark side.
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