Anurag Kashyap is no longer just another indie film-maker. Since the unprecedented, meteoric success of Gangs of Wasseypur in 2012, Kashyap has become a brand. For better or for worse, audiences have come to expect a brand of cinema that is uniquely his. Where at one stage, mainstream audiences dismissed his blatant flouting of Hindi cinema genre conventions as misguided zealousness; today, they see his style to be the very essence of new age Hindi cinema – one that is more self-aware of its own absurdities. The mainstream subsumed the fringes. Post the commercial and critical success of Wasseypur, it was suddenly ‘cool’ to be Anurag Kashyap, to champion his films, to quote the dialogue of his scripts.
It’s important to be aware of this contextual development before delving into Bombay Velvet. Indie film-makers of Hindi cinema have never found the kind of audiences, distributors and monetary capital that is afforded to commercial Hindi films. A lot of it has to do with the arbitrary commercial vs ‘arthouse’/indie divide that deems commercial films to have higher “entertainment value” that can bring family audiences to theatres. Kashyap’s success proved this mindset to be rightfully facetious. Now, an indie director had a lavish budget and commercial celebrities wanting to work with him. Bombay Velvet was Kashyap’s magnum opus on a grand scale: a handshake between indie and commercial cinema, recognising that Hindi cinema has to change its outlook moving forward. However, despite having a few beautiful moments, this hybrid approach doesn’t work at all.
Bombay Velvet is set in newly independent India, where Bombay is thriving in capitalist excess in stark contrast to the socialism in other parts of India. We are introduced to Johnny Balraj (Ranbir Kapoor with a hairstyle that rivals Jack Nicholson’s in About Schmidt) who is a street fighter, but dreams of becoming a ‘big-shot’. Balraj and his pal Chimman (Satyadeep Misra in a remarkably restrained performance) attempt to rob a bank but fail miserably. However, their bravado catches the eye of Kaizad Khambatta (commercial film director Karan Johar in a surprisingly suave portrayal), a media conglomerate who is looking to establish a stronghold in Bombay. He hires Johnny and Chimman to do his dirty work for him and uses the nightclub ‘Bombay Velvet’ to schmooze all dignitaries – where alcohol flows freely despite prohibition and cabaret singers lighten your mood (ala Boardwalk Empire). However, Khambatta’s success doesn’t go down well with everyone. Rival media conglomerate Jimmy Mistry (Manish Chaudhary in a cigar wielding over-the-top performance) sends Rosie (Anushka Sharma in an extremely placid role) to spy on Johnny and Khambatta’s activities. However, Rosie and Johnny fall in love. Can two lovers survive in the political web of money and deceit that is Bombay?
The film’s narrative has significant issues. For starters, the audience is never sure what kind of film this is. Is it a stereotypical commercial love saga of two lovers uniting against all odds? If you sit through the film, you know it’s not that at all. Is it a historiography of Bombay as a city – with its many socio-political elements impacting on the characters? This interpretation seems more plausible. However, even though we get snippets of the capitalism vs socialism tussle, there isn’t enough material for the audience to sink its teeth in. For the most part, the protagonist of the film is the city of Bombay itself. And that’s quite a fascinating narrative if given the time to drive the plot forward. Unfortunately, the film keeps oscillating between the lovers’ saga – which is emotionally unengaging and badly acted – and the socio-political story of what made Bombay the city it is today. In the process, the film becomes a turgid mess of uncertainty, without any central focus.
This uncertainty is mirrored in every aspect of the film. It’s quite evident that Kashyap never intended to make an out-and-out conventional commercial film. If he did, the protagonist Balraj wouldn’t be a street fighter who goes into the ring to get beaten up as a form of punishment.1 However, Balraj is played by Ranbir Kapoor, the upcoming commercial celebrity darling of the masses. He tries his best but cannot bring forth the complex ambiguities of Kashyap’s protagonist successfully. Sharma as Rosie is unintentionally hilarious during the soft emotional sequences; you know the casting is a complete disaster when you end up giggling at scenes that meant to pull your heartstrings. Ironically, it’s commercial film director Karan Johar’s turn as the menacingly suave media mogul Khambatta that has the most credibility. He’s the only one who is in tune with the pulse of the film’s narrative.
Most of the intended impact of this film has been lost in editing. There are scenes that begin and end as non-sequiturs. Furthermore, the film completely changes direction in the second half, almost becoming an entirely different kind of film. The narrative sensibilities of editors Prerna Saigal and Thelma Schoonmaker are not in sync and the final product is a film that in parts feels over-edited – with crucial narrative links missing – and in other parts thoroughly neglected. The commercial elements in the film appear forced and extrinsic to the central narrative. I’m secretly hoping that Kashyap has an extensive five hour epic director’s cut hidden away somewhere because as a viewer you can’t help but feel there’s a lot more that was taken out of this film than what was left in.
I say this with some vain hope because in the moments that Bombay Velvet does get things right, it’s absolutely magical. The recreation of 1950s Bombay and beyond is meticulous. Special mention must also go to the tonal hues of the cinematography. The wonderful tones of blue and orange give an eclectic retro sensibility to the film. From a purely technical perspective, the film is majestic. Complementing the technical aspects is the jazz score of Amit Trivedi, who has given a surreal period background score to the film. The songs themselves however, are hit and miss. When they serve to elevate or undercut dramatic tension, they work well, but otherwise seem unnecessary.
This theoretical idea of a hybrid commercial-cum-indie film is a great concept, but in execution it falls flat. The uncertainty of whether this ought to be a thoroughly commercial film or an indie film and striking the right balance is palpable throughout. Anurag Kashyap doesn’t need to reinvent himself. There are way too many directors waiting in the production line of stereotypical commercial Hindi cinema. Kashyap on the other hand, represents this new wave of thinking that’s challenging long-held fallacies about what Hindi film audiences want. Without any doubts, that’s a great outcome. Kashyap needs to realise that and trust his style of film-making.