The thinking had to go something like this. Bring together Anurag Kashyap, perhaps the most important mainstream Hindi language filmmaker working today (Gangs of Wasseypur, The Girl in Yellow Boots, Black Friday), happening A-list actors Ranbir Kapoor (Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, Barfi, Wake Up Sid) and Anushka Sharma (NH 10, PK), throw in the buzz-worthy acting debut of Karan Johar, incidentally also the directorial force behind some of the biggest hits in recent memory (Student of the Year, Kabhie Khushi Kabhie Gham, Kuch Kuch Hota hai) on top of a retrograde story and, viola, there would be magic. Not so fast. Bombay Velvet, the resulting expensive and definite retro-feel collaboration, feels weighted down by self-importance.
Tracing a loose and, at times, disjointed arc from 1949 to 1969, Kashyap’s story, co-written with Gyan Prakash, Vasant Bala and Thani, appears to have too many hands on the script from the get go. Small time pickpocket and moonlighting kickboxer Johnny Balraj (Kapoor) has ambitions far exceeding his station in the hard knock life of brothels and street brawls of what was then Bombay. Johnny’s ambitions and brawny stature attract the attention of the two powerful newspaper publishers, Kaizad (Johar) and Jimmy Mistry (Chaudhary), both of whom want to use their politically-skewed respective flagship presses to influence the massive post-Independence public spending works about to get underway to transform Bombay from a large brackish swamp into a modern and thriving sub-continental hub.
There are other elements, the most important of which is that Kaizad has capitalist leanings while Mistry champions communism and that Kaizad uses Johnny to take blackmail-worthy compromising photos of a prominent politician—the same photos that Mistry sends his mistress Rosie (Sharma) to get. This tug of war, sometimes carried out in the open at Bombay Velvet, Kaizad’s high-end nightclub that he ropes in Johnny to manage, soon overshadows all goings on and will eventually affect the lives of everyone involved.
There are too many sub-plots and detours to track. That is too bad because Kashyap’s execution of technical details is simply flawless. The cabaret song sequences take an already sultry Trivedi score to tap into a workable late-night blues and Asha-Bhosle-with-one-mic soundtrack framework for amazing visual polish. The same eye-catching attention is paid to some jaw-dropping costumes and strategically cropped pseudo-vintage camera work that captures a distinctly less-crowded city on the brink of major figurative urban revolution.
What also gets lost in all the plot traffic are some credible performance by a talented cast. As if finally coming of age, Kapoor’s Johnny wonderfully channels not only gangster-era Hollywood but even more so his legendary great-uncle Shammi Kapoor’s turns from that Kapoor’s classic films like China Town, Bluffmaster and Singapore. As Johnny pines for Rosie in an increasingly dangerous game, his pain comes across as real. Sharma’s Rosie is a steady subdued siren forced to be a feather boa for one sugardaddy too many. Johar and Chaudhary both deliver surprisingly astute media barons and Menon is spot-on as a determined cop perennially on the cusp of exposing the mysterious cross-fire murders that may ensnare both sides.
What trumps style over substance, alas, is just how much Kashyap makes us care for whether Johnny and Rosie end up together and how little he inadvertently has us care for what happens to the larger currents that will pull the city’s path into the future. While we know that communism failed to make deep inroads into India—Hinduism and collectivism are fundamentally at odds—one would not necessarily surmise that from this movie.
Period pieces are especially tricky to reenact given that they require recreating a bygone era while resonating with modern ethos to truly grip the audience. If the retro-feel can successfully subjugate another time period while ringing true for any age, the resulting work becomes noteworthy (Parineeta, The Dirty Picture, Detective Byomkesh Bakshi). On the other hand, if the end product achieves only a retro-feel (Hawaiizada, Once Upon a Time in Mumbai Dobaraa) with no compelling modern sentiment, the movie feels only half baked.
Squarely in the latter camp, Bombay Velvet walks the walk but does not talk the talk.
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.