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ONCE UPON A TIME IN MUMBAI.Director: Milan Luthria. Players: Ajay Devgn, Emraan Haashmi, Kangana Ranaut, Prachi Desai, Randeep Hooda.Music: Pritam. Theatrical release: Balaji Motion Pictures


After debacles like Hat-trick, Taxi No. 9211, and Chori Chori, director Milan Luthria finally breaks the jinx with
Once upon a time in Mumbai
. Whether it becomes a block buster or not remains to be seen, but the director has put together a decent film, despite the fact thatOnce upon… is a gangster movie, with a familiar storyline, like many others before it.

The film starts on an intriguing note—of ACP Agnel Wilson (Hooda) trying to commit suicide. The why is what keeps you glued to the screen.

Once upon … is a study in contrasts. In a crisp flashback narrated by Hooda, we’re told the thinly veiled true story of the underworld rivalry that permeated Bollywood a few decades ago, and which the industry has used as inspiration for countless movies.

The first story is that of Suleman (Devgn), an orphaned stoker at Mumbai port. With nothing else but his wits, he gradually rises to become the uncrowned underworld king of Mumbai. The typical goon with a golden heart, his innate humaneness sets him heads and shoulders above any ordinary gangster while his intelligence keeps his beloved Mumbai safe from gang-wars.

In contrast we have a policeman’s son, Shoaib( Haashmi), a money minded, conscienceless small time crook, who dreams of becoming a kingpin like Suleman. He becomes Suleman’s protégé in due time. Suleiman comes to trust Shoaib enough to leave his empire in his hands. As they say, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and the power goes to Shoaib’s head. The rest of the story is the battle of wills between the two, which is watched mutely by Wilson, who keeps hoping that this will somehow deliver Suleman in his hands.

Interwoven in this are the love stories of the two, once again as diametrically opposite as their general attitudes. Suleman woos the super-star, Rehana (Ranaut, in a wonderful take on a 70s heroine, glamorous and sophisticated) and remains faithful to her till the end. Shoiab woos Mumtaaz (Desai, sweet and credible in her underwritten role) but still has a glad eye for every pretty girl around.

Starting with the unforgettable Deewar, Bollywood has turned out films likeSatya, Company, and Vaastav on similar themes, even similar stories, but Once upon… is by far the most non-violent of all the gangster sagas. The focus is more on relationships, between father and son, between the two couples, and the shifting loyalties between the protagonists. Both Devgn and Ranaut mesmerize you with their compelling performances, which is a feat in itself,as both have played similar roles earlier, Devgn in Company and Ranaut inGangster. But both brilliant actors keep their performances fresh, without any hangover from their previous roles. Devgn uses his forte, intense silences, to convey menace more effectively than reams of dialogues, and an endearing playful irreverence to bring out the earnest lover. Desai also impresses in her small role, as does Hooda. The biggest drawback of the movie is Haashmi, who fails to portray the nastiness he’s supposed to and ends up looking too harmless to be a dreaded don.

After a long time, a Hindi movie features excellent dialogues and repartees. Pritam’s songs have already become chartbusters; additionally, the songs carry the film forward swiftly rather than hinder the pace of the story. A special mention must be made of the cinematography of the sizzling “Parda, parda” number, where Gauhar Khan effortlessly brings back the times when Helen’s feisty cabarets used to be the top crowd pullers for any movie.

The biggest strength of Once upon… is its heart, brought to the fore by Milan Luthria’s skillful direction and excellent writing. Watch it and savor Bombay before it became Mumbai. Unlike fairy tales beginning with “Once upon a time…,” this story leaves you with a vague sadness and longing for the times when goons had hearts of gold.


Madhumita Gupta has written for The Times of India, Hindustan Times, and the India Currents. Her prize-winning stories have been published in various anthologies and international publications like SAWF...