Right from the first frame, it is apparent that ‘Bombay Velvet’ is a labour of love. The aspect that strikes me the most is the exquisite attention to detail; from the sepia overtones in certain shots to the vintage cars, the old-style sub-machine guns, the hair, the clothes, the inherent style…I could go on but, “point pe aao na saab,” as the lead protagonist would say.
Based on Gyan Prakash’s book ‘Mumbai Fables,’ the story is set in 1949, two years after Independent India came into being. Johnny Balraj (Ranbir Kapoor) who grows up in the red-light district of Bombay, is a petty pugilist; an angry and ambitious young man who wants to be a ‘Big Shot’ as fast as he can climb. He falls in love with Rosie Noronha (Anushka Sharma) a small-time, club singer. Johnny’s best mate and childhood friend is Chimman Chopra (Satyadeep Misra.) The duo try to hold up Kaizad Khambatta (Karan Johar) who is a suave, sleek hood, well entrenched on Bombay’s social ladder.
In a not-very-well-thought out twist, Khambatta takes Johnny under his wing, making him the front man for his new club Bombay Velvet, where a lot of business deals are struck under the table. Clearly, corruption existed even then, where the left-over goras (whites) were available for “hire” in order to be able to get a drink at a club! Tuck in Romi Patel (Siddhartha Basu) as Bombay’s mayor, a brooding Jimmy Mistry (Manish Choudhary) as newspaper editor of Glitz (a neat tongue-in-cheek on Russi Karanjia of the erstwhile Bliz) Inspector Kulkarni (Kay Kay Menon) driver Tony (Vivaan Shah) and you pretty much have the story.
A lot of the background scenes have been inspired by the old Westerns, or so it seems; everybody has cigarette/cigar billowing around them and the men tend to speak out of the sides of their mouth. The scene where a betrayed and very drunk Johnny comes back to the club late at night is very reminiscent of ‘Casablanca’…empty restaurant, all the tables laid out, dim, forlorn lighting. Speaking of which, lighting in this film deserves a special mention and the cinematography is stark or spectacular as the scene demands, but always spot on. The sign displaying Duke’s soda was a nice touch for those of us who remember our childhood Bombay with much love. The well-researched costumes of the era such as Rosie’s gowns, Johnny’s high-waisted trousers and pin-striped suits, the braces, the jackets, Kulkarni’s stetson-like topi add a remarkable authenticity to ‘Bombay Velvet.’
Where does the story falter? There are far too many characters to keep a track of; while this worked in ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’ coz basically everybody was killing off everybody else, in a story, one needs to weave in the sub-plots. Nonetheless, in typical Anurag Kashyap style, the story zips along and the first half has one pretty much rivetted to one’s seat. The second half of the movie could have done with some nifty editing. Also, the plot leaps from crag to crag, witness the Portuguese man (Remo Fernandes) who whips the little Rosie into singing better (Sado-masochist? Plain pervert? Professor Higgins to Eliza Doolittle?) and then this angle sinks without a trace. How does Kulkarni say she has gonorrhea when it is established that the burnt corpse is not that of Rosie? How does Johnny, brought up on a life of sex and crime, not suspect Rosie of skipping nimbly from bed to bed in spite of seeing her drive away with Mistry? Is Rosie a ‘woman of the world’ or a browbeaten virgin?
The Ranbir Kapoor-Anurag Kashyap coming together is a lethal combination of skill and talent. ‘Bombay Velvet’ is Ranbir Kapoor’s show all the way through. I thought he had reached his zenith with ‘Barfi’ but he carries this film too on his shoulders quite effortlessly. He has the tapori street lingo and accent down pat (very manicured nails for a tapori, though!) That weird hairstyle takes some getting used to, but it does give his character a rather wild, bad boy look. Although I can’t figure out why he always has a bruise on his right cheekbone, his facial expressions are superior…the look on his face when he sees Rosie for the first time is priceless, the part where he silently lords it over Mistry as the latter watches Rosie sing, is classic.
The fact that Karan Johar is in front of the camera for the first time has been much tom-tommed about. Sorry, but it must be said – it’s a very portly KJo who waddles more than walks! It’s a definite change watching the affable TV talk show host play at being the main antagonist to Kapoor’s Johnny. Thankfully, the director has steered away from the cliched menacing look and dialogues and so Khambatta comes across more as a wealthy, unscrupulous, ruthless game player. There is a very trademark KJo moment though when he chortles uncontrollably to himself at Johnny’s attempt to explain a ‘tender.’
Anushka Sharma’s defining moment in the movie has got to be the scene where Khambatta shoots Rosie – that bewildered, hurting, uncomprehending expression speaks a thousand words. Well done indeed. Not that I mean to be mean, but those duck lips pretty much hog the spotlight and detract from her performance; she really ought to fix them – again – soon.
For probably the first time in an AK movie, the casting was a bit off. Vivaan Shah is still too much of a kid; his attempt at a drunken scene didn’t go down well at at all. A heavily made-up Raveena Tandon had a blink-and-miss-it appearance as one of the club singers. KK turns in a restrained performance; this talented actor has been under-utilised in this film, a thousand pities. Siddharth Basu was superfluous, Choudhary (with no trace of a Parsi accent in spite of Johnny repeatedly cue-ing him as “bawaji”) and Misra failed to impress.
Costumes (Niharika Khan) cinematography, (Rajeev Rai) music (Amit Trivedi) were all extremely commendable. The story is collaborated on by the original author Gyan Prakash, Anurag himself, S. Thanikachalam and Vasan Bala. Hmm. I have had occasion before to remark on the old adage, ‘Too many cooks,’etc etc. Casting director (Mukesh Chhabra?) uh uh. ‘Bombay Velvet’ is edited by Prerna Saigal and Thelma Schoonmaker; could have undoubtedly done with some tauter work here.
Directed by Anurag Kashyap, the movie on the whole is a definite must-watch; excuse the snags.
*This review is written exclusively for The Film Writers Association of India.