Bombay Velvet review: With four writers and 2 editors, this Ranbir-Anushka starrer is a mess
By the time the last bullet is fired, all you can feel is relief that Bombay Velvet is over.
There's so much that is astonishing about Bombay Velvet, Anurag Kashyap's new film about Mumbai in the 1950s and 1960s. Like a cameo by Remo Fernandes, who pops up as a kinky, abusive music teacher (he is clearly channelling his inner Christian Grey when he picks up a riding crop, whacks little Rosie and then lovingly rubs balm into her wounds). Or Karan Johar's villainous Kaizad Khambatta pouting sadly during the film's climax no less, and asking Johnny what Rosie has that Kaizad doesn't. Or the fact that four writers, two editors and one director couldn't put together one coherent story.
Balraj (Ranbir Kapoor) is a petty thief in Bombay, in the 1950s. Rosie (Anushka Sharma) has escaped her abusive teacher, left Goa and come to the city of dreams to make a new beginning. He's picked up by a gravelly-voiced smuggler in a fedora. She meets a chap called Jimmy Mistry (Manish Chaudhary) while singing at a seedy bar. He's rich, she gets into his car. We may waggle our eyebrows.
Meanwhile, Balraj decides to rob a bank with his friend Chimman (Satyadeep Mishra). The only problem is that Balraj is planning to pull this caper off with a finger gun. Presumably we're supposed to be so impressed by his daring that we don't notice what an idiotic idea this is. Balraj picks as his target a coiffed dandy, Kaizad Khambatta (Karan Johar). Khambatta may be wearing a yellow coat, but he's not completely senseless. He realises Balraj's ploy, but is impressed by his bravado. Or maybe he just thinks Balraj is cute. Whatever the reason, Khambatta invites Balraj and Chimman to his office, offers them a job, then stares at Balraj's crotch for a moment before declaring that henceforth Balraj will be called "Johnny".
So why does Khambatta need henchmen? Because he wants to befriend the mayor of Bombay (Siddharth Basu). Apparently, the best way to do this is by killing the mayor's coterie so that when the mayor finds himself in need of company, Khambatta will appear at the mayor's service. It sounds extreme to us now, but perhaps in the lawless 1950s, this was how people networked. Aren't you glad we have Facebook and Linkedin?
Why Khambatta trusts a man who wanted to rob a bank with a finger gun is a mystery, but he does. So Johnny and Chimman go around kidnapping and killing people for Khambatta. We learn that Khambatta, when he isn't thinking up unimaginative names for cute boys, owns a newspaper called Torrent, writes Page 1 articles for it, pimps his wife out and is also an entrepreneur looking to get into the construction business. Quite an overachiever, our Khambatta.
It turns out that Mistry and Khambatta are childhood friends and present-day rivals. Mistry runs a paper called Glitz, which carries exposés that are actually conjecture and gossip. When Mistry realises that Khambatta has put Johnny in charge of a gentleman's club called Bombay Velvet — where Khambatta entertains his contacts — Mistry sends Rosie to Johnny as a spy. Somehow, Mistry also learns that Johnny has in his possession a set of negatives that are being used to blackmail an honest minister into participating in a real estate scam. Rosie's task is to get the job at Bombay Velvet, seduce Johnny, get the negatives and give them to Mistry.
Confused yet? Because coming up in the second half are mistaken identities, exploding apartments, disappearing plot lines and characters, tommy guns and other details that add up to nothing. There's also a cursory nod to the mill workers' movement, which, like cheap labour, is dismissed once it has served the purpose of making Khambatta seem a little more villainous.
As children, we used to play a simple storytelling game. One of us would say a sentence and whoever sat next to them had to continue the story with another sentence. And so it went, with stories taking unpredictable turns like Noddy meeting Hercule Poirot or a dragon turning vegetarian because he met Gandhi and got a toothache. Bombay Velvet's script moves with about as much elegance as that childhood game, and a lot less inventiveness. It's as though one of the four writers favoured the historic angle, another preferred romance, while yet another wanted to make a cops-and-robbers film, and the last imagines he's the love child of Brian de Palma and Quentin Tarantino. They can't agree upon one track for Bombay Velvet, so they take turns and the plot doesn't as much build up as lurch towards a climax. It's like the Russian roulette of storytelling.
Net result: you get neither a sense of the historical times, nor do you feel the romance. Most of the crime remains unresolved and there are more loose ends than there are single, lost socks in washing machines.
Rumour has it that editor Thelma Schoonmaker was brought in to salvage Bombay Velvet from becoming a rambling mess, which makes us feel there may be a god after all and perhaps he cares for Bollywood fans. The final version of Bombay Velvet is jumpy and unevenly-paced. Sometimes it speeds, at other times it slows down drastically. For instance, there's no telling just how long Rosie spends as Johnny's girlfriend — it feels like years, but presumably is less — before Mistry starts demanding Rosie finish the task assigned to her. However, it does move and we'd like to say a prayer of thanks that it's only five hours, sorry, two and a half hours long.
Issues like logic and pace might not have been such glaring problems if we cared about anyone in Bombay Velvet. However, in an effort to be edgy and noir, Kashyap has filled Bombay Velvet with characters that range from unpleasant to loathsome to pathetic. Take the lead pair, as an example. Johnny is foolish, arrogant, greedy, a murderer, has a bloodlust and is one of those gentlemen who thinks it's perfectly fine to tell his girlfriend, "I killed that man because you made me jealous, so the fact that he's dead is your fault." Even if all this toxic machismo is wrapped in Ranbir Kapoor's babyface good looks, there's so little genuine goodness evinced in Johnny's behaviour that you can't bring yourself to feel sorry for him when things start going wrong.
Then there's Rosie, who is used and abused repeatedly, but because she's got a twinkle in her eye and a bright smile, we're not supposed to pay attention to the loop of exploitation that she's stuck in and her growing dependence upon men who mistreat her. Every man (including Johnny) takes advantage of her and blames her for his actions, and she accepts this. To convince us of Rosie's feistiness, we're shown scenes in which men slap her and she slaps them right back. If she drives a man to hit her and can hit him back, it's not abuse, right? The fact that Johnny sees her as his property, rather than his partner, isn't a problem because hey, he loves her. He might be possessive and occasionally slap her, but she breaks a chair on his head and then they giggle together. Take that, feminists.
As if all this wasn't bad enough, most of the acting in Bombay Velvet is either theatrical or bland, including Kapoor and Sharma's performances. Sharma recently proved her powerhouse acting skills in NH10 and Kapoor has the gift of slipping into roles with sparkling spontaneity. Neither of these talents are on display in Bombay Velvet. Kapoor struggles to convince us he's a lowlife and Sharma's performance is laboured. There's more spontaneous charm in Raveena Tandon Thadani's little cameo than in Sharma's entire role. One of the few actors who stands out is Mishra, who crackles with intensity as Chimman.
Set in streets, rooms and buildings that look too clean and pretty to be lived-in or real, Bombay Velvet unfolds at best like a play, with actors striking poses and delivering lines in a mannered fashion. For all its claims of historical accuracy, this film is an operatic version of Anurag Kashyap's vision of the 1950s and 1960s — which makes Bombay Velvet twice removed from reality. Had Kashyap stuck to making a few music videos on this theme, Bombay Velvet would have been lovely because there are a few gorgeous sequences in which Amit Trivedi's music and Kashyap's direction are beautifully matched. Unfortunately, while that's enough to generate interest, it's too little, too late by the time those scenes show up in the film.
Ultimately, Bombay Velvet is a thoroughly disappointing and frustrating film. There are some powerful ideas that have been lain to waste here, like the journalistic rivalry between Khambatta and Mistry, the subtle insertion and acceptance of a certain kind of criminal into 'polite' society, and the impact of violence on a person's worldview. This should have been a film that seduced us with its beauty and then savaged us cruelly. Instead, we're victims of a lavish boredom. By the time the last bullet is fired, all you can feel is relief that Bombay Velvet is over.
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