'Gangs of Wasseypur' director Anurag Kashyap's big-budget historical epic revolves around gun-slinging mobsters and corrupted officials battling over the development of Mumbai from 1949 to 1969.
Bombay Velvet revolves around an audacious man who, inspired by a classic Hollywood gangster flick, seeks to become a "big shot," bites off more than he can chew and ends up destroyed by his foes and disowned by his so-called friends. That's how the life of wannabe mobster Johnny Balraj (Ranbir Kapoor) unfolds on screen, but it could also serve as an apt description of the trajectory of director Anurag Kashyap as he makes his most expensive film to date. Leaving the small-budget milieu in which he has attained incredible success over the years, Kashyap has made a leap into mainstream Bollywood. But flounders there as he fails to connect the wildly divergent political, artistic and commercial aspirations weighing down the film.
Having taken the Indian film industry and international film festivals by storm with his bleak and brutal reimaginatings of genre cinema, Kashyap seems to have lost the artistic control he once had over his earlier, taut and riveting tales of individual excess (Dev D.) or social meltdown (Gangs of Wasseypur and Ugly). Financed by the Indian filmmaking arm of 20th Century Fox and boasting an A-list cast in Kapoor (Barfi!), Anushka Sharma (Till My Last Breath) and actor-director Karan Johar (My Name Is Khan), Bombay Velvet is torn between Kashyap's audacity in tackling contemporary Indian history and his efforts to accommodate the populist components of dance and romance.
The unfortunate result of all this is a halting juggernaut which is too melodramatic to be a j'accuse about the dodgy origins of modern-day Indian prosperity, too explicitly preachy to be a gangster-and-moll romance and too stylistically incoherent to be a piece of guilty-pleasure entertainment. Local audiences have seen through to the sprawling mess behind the top-notch production values, with its domestic takings recouping just a fraction of its $12.5 million budget. Unconfirmed reports said that Thelma Schoonmaker — who was already credited as an editor of the film alongside Prerna Saigal — will be making a new cut for a possible rerelease in October. For the time being, the original version of the film will begin trekking through the festival circuit, its international premiere at the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival last week to be followed by a high-profile screening at Locarno next month.
Schoonmaker's presence is just one of many indications of where Kashyap's inspirations lie. While based on Princeton post-colonial studies professor Gyan Prakash's book documenting the social history of Mumbai, Bombay Velvet owes more to Martin Scorsese, who is ranked first on the list of acknowledgements appearing before the film begins. The template for Bombay Velvet is obviously The Gangs of New York, with which Kashyap's film shares more than just a final shot of a skyscraper-filled landscape. Similar to Scorsese's contemplation of the origins of the Big Apple, Bombay Velvet is a clear attempt to probe the corruption, chaos and crime which feeds into the growth of India's most populous and famous city.
Unfolding between 1949 and 1969, Bombay Velvet centers around Balraj and Chimman (Satyadeep Misra), two young men determined to rise to the top from their humble street-urchin origins. Moved by the heroics of James Cagney's Eddie Bartlett in The Roaring Twenties, Balraj begins to plot for prosperity — just at the same time as Rosie Noronha (Sharma) struggles to attain stardom in Mumbai after running away from home and an abused past in Goa. After a brief but fruitless meet cute, the pair soon falls under the aegis of two men from different ends of the political spectrum: Balraj — along with Chimman — becomes the henchman of self-made entrepreneur and government supporter Khambatta Kaizad (Johar), while Rosie is taken in by self-styled socialist newspaper editor Jimmy Mistry (Manish Chaudhari).
Having done many a dirty job for his boss, Balraj finally sees himself as having made it when Khambatta appoints him as the manager of a high-end nightclub. His Bombay dreams seem to be complete when Rosie returns to become his lover and also his star performer. But the woman is back with an ulterior motive; she and the boys are, of course, shown to be pawns in a bigger game. However much Balraj wants his and Rosie's story to be "an epic" or "a smash hit," their every move is just part of the power play between their mentors, the real holy grail here being the development rights of the Manhattan-like business district on the just-reclaimed lands on Bombay's seashore.
On paper, Bombay Velvet offers an explosive premise. It has male bonding, belligerence and betrayal; as a piece of social critique, it dares to take aim at conditions and circumstances of a malaise still very much present in India, such as the way political leaders wield influence and manipulate the masses through a mix of sheer muscle and media connivance. But all such potential is squandered by Kashyap's attempt to shape Bombay Velvet into something for for everyone, with the relentless glitz obscuring the grit which this story should have thrived on.
Nodding at The Great Gatsby — the most recent screen version of which generated a lot of talk in India for featuring the Hollywood debut of Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan — Bombay Velvet sports snazzy, jazz-age revelry that constantly rips up the pacing of the film and is at odds with its crime-thriller components. Just as the screenplay reduces complex political intrigue to simplistic standoffs, potentially nuanced characters become caricatures, with Kapoor and Sharma (whose roles in 2015 include that of a deadly avenger against rural thugs in NH10) giving performances far below what they're capable of.
Like his actors, Kashyap should have tried something new rather than attempting a bigger, brasher and more bombastic version of what he has already done before. After all, why should Kashyap tackle the gangster genre again when he has already offered a perfect remaking of the Indian gangster-film template with Gangs of Wasseypur?