Script is king, or so they say.
But then, how about painstaking production design? Or meticulous cinematography? Or music that brings a film alive in every frame? Acting? Are the abilities of a cast equal, or superior to a script?
Bombay Velvet’s release is a good time to reinforce the “script is king” cliché, because it shows that even when several factors work in a film’s favour, soulless screenwriting can ruin the party. Hating on awful films is a habit, loving great ones a rare joy. But, how about being let down by a film’s potential? Infuriating.
It’s ridiculous how much there’s going for Bombay Velvet. Director Anurag Kashyap makes his move from “indie” filmmaking to big-budget mainstream entertainment, and gets two of the most talented actors in Ranbir Kapoor and Anushka Sharma, and a massive budget to boot. He displays the kind of visual flair we often yearn to see in our blockbusters, where a chunk of the budget is spent on actor fees rather than aesthetics.
Amit Trivedi’s predominantly jazz-inspired score, while firmly retaining its Bollywood, er charm (though purists will frown at what passes for jazz here), Sonal Sawant’s gorgeous production design, and some nifty camerawork by Rajeev Ravi transports you to 1960s Bombay (comforting to have the license to say “Bombay” without inviting the wrath of “Mumbai”-loving folk). Kashyap has said in interviews he would like his film to be the definitive Bombay film, yet it’s tough to say how much about the city the film gets right. Jazz clubs, brothels, seedy cage-fighting arenas and Marine Drive-facing apartments all add to the charm, but don’t look for versimillitude. It all seems rather fantastical, and why not? The film’s ambition with regards to history seems limited; ultimately it is probably only a backdrop for the unfolding romance between a mobster and a jazz singer.
Kapoor plays Johnny Balraj, who tags along with a guardian from Sialkot to Bombay in 1949. He grows up in and around whorehouses, making shady deals with best friend/sidekick Chiman (Satyadeep Misra) and wrestling with big, burly men who often beat him to pulp. He’s an angry chap, but no Bachchan. There isn’t angst against the system, only Hollywood gangster films-fuelled ambition. He hangs around sailors’ clubs to get a glimpse of Rosie (Anushka Sharma), the crooner who commands attention with a seductive voice as much as her sultry looks. But Balraj is no “big shot” to get close to her so all he can do is watch her from afar as she is courted by printing press owner Mistry (Manish Chaudhary). Enter Khambatta (Karan Johar), Mistry’s arch-rival, and the man who will be Balraj’s saviour. Old Bombay types will get the hint of one man running a tabloid called Torrent and the other editing Glitz.
“Apan ko jo bhi mangta hai, sab log bolta hai apan ke aukat ke baahar hai. Apan ko apan ka aukat badalne ka hai,” Balraj tells Khambatta in Bombay street patois, who takes Balraj under his wings, and tries to give him an aukat upgrade. He hands over the management of Bombay Velvet, a club Khambatta runs as a front for his nefarious activities, to Balraj. Johar’s casting is an inspired move; the filmmaker’s personal equation with Kapoor creates a chemistry that bodes well for the mentor-student relationship the two are meant to share in the film. Johar’s character reminds us of stylish villains from the 1950s and ’60s, and is remarkably restrained.
At the other end of the spectrum is Kapoor, who nails everything about his over-the-top character. The writers give him the best lines, and he delivers them like a pro and, in moments, elevates the film. Like most Kashyap films, the actors in smaller parts make an impact too, among them Chaudhary’s Bombay-loving communist, who is worried about the fate of the city in the hands of the rich and powerful.
Anushka Sharma, who turned in a solid performance in NH10 earlier this year has grown tremendously as an actor and impresses yet again. Her character however is incongruously etched out—the mystery surrounding her is overblown. (Saying anything more would be a spoiler.) Sharma manages to rise above the inconsistencies. She exudes the right balance of vulnerability and shrewdness, and is a treat in the many songs DOP Ravi almost caressingly shoots her in.
Kashyap has been found guilty of overindulgence – self-indulgence, really – in past films, and while the filmmaker’s known to struggle with balancing out style with substance, it’s never been more pronounced than in Bombay Velvet. The writing is the biggest flaw, going from inconsistent in pre-interval portions, to often ridiculous in the post-interval stage. Gyan Prakash, Thani, Vasan Bala and Kashyap share writing credit, and the team sets major story developments on flimsy grounds. The first half hurtles along without the writers bothering to plug gaps in the story.
This could easily be an editing problem – leaving out information to quicken pace – but works against the film. Martin Scorsese’s regular collaborator, Thelma Schoonmaker, shares editing credit with Prerna Saigal, and it’s impossible to say if the film turned into such an inchoate mess on the editing table or if it arrived beyond repair. When the narrative settles down post-interval, bizarre plot twists are introduced. Tragically, the film seems to suffer from all the familiar problems that plague mainstream filmmaking in India, over-relying on actors to cover up storytelling discrepancies.
A scene in the film shows characters stabbing corpses to create holes in them, because “bodies with holes sink to the bottom”. That’s true of the film, too – the plot holes sink it.
Aniruddha Guha is a Mumbai-based film critic.