Almost exactly forty years ago, Hindi film producer-director Ramesh Sippy was sweating bullets. After two-and-a-half years in production and a then unheard-of budget of Rs. 30 million, his magnum opus was floundering at the box-office in its second week in wide release. Print media critics had savaged the film and trade pundits were typing up its obituary, and with it, possibly, that of Sippy Films, too. And then something mindboggling occurred: the film went into a miraculous reversal of fortune and became a seemingly unstoppable juggernaut, going on to be the monster hit the world knows as Sholay, the standard by which all pretenders to Bollywood greatness are measured today.
Imagine, though, if the internet had been around in those days – Sholay wouldn’t have stood a chance. Instead of being allowed the time to transform from slow-burning embers to the raging inferno of success it went on to be, Sholay would have been dead in the waters off Bombay’s Marine Drive faster than you could say, “Kitne aadmi the?”, driven to the morgue by the net’s media commentators, self-appointed guardians of our cinematic sensibilities. Such is the dubious ‘power’ of the worldwide web’s insidious arachnids; the only thing they love more than building up a talented filmmaker’s reputation is tearing it to shreds when they get bored with playing nice, or when said filmmaker is deemed to have outstayed their welcome by not appearing to be appropriately deferential to the powers that be, or simply dreaming too big. Which, one suspects, is what has happened across the border with Bollywood’s brash, irreverent wünder kid Anurag Kashyap and his massive-budget labour of love, Bombay Velvet. Barely three days after the film’s long-awaited release, the filmmaker felt compelled to go onto social media to pen an emotional disclaimer of sorts, stating that he was proud of Bombay Velvet but was now moving on. This came after vicious butchery by the Indian media (particularly the virtual kind) of a film which, to believe their version, is nothing less than a crime against humanity and small, furry animals. One should probably point out here that some of these critics are the same ones who champion mind-numbing fare like Happy New Year by stating that it’s worth watching if you ‘leave your brain at the door’, without, of course, explaining the process by which one is supposed to do that.
All this is not to suggest that Bombay Velvet is the best thing to come along since sex and chocolate (it isn’t). Is it a great film? No. But is it the unsightly verruca on the fair face of Hindi cinema that so many gleefully spiteful, schadenfreude-laden reviews are painting it out be? Good grief, NO. It is a flawed film, certainly, but its one truly great sin is, let’s be perfectly honest, a pretty damn common one: a set-up whose audacious ambitions are let down by a meandering screenplay. Bombay Velvet is solid on subtext but fails to find a narrative focus, making it a frustrating watch, yes, but that does not prevent it from being a compelling story experience. It borrows generously from 30’s Hollywood gangster films (as acknowledged in an early scene), as well as the New American cinema of Scorsese, Coppola, De Palma, and even Sergio Leone’s epic Once Upon A Time In America, to tell the tale of Johnny Balraj (Kapoor) a small-time hoodlum in 60’s Bombay (framed very much like the 40’s aesthetically, though) who, against all odds, strives to become a ‘big shot.’ Aiding him in this endeavour, albeit for his own cynical purposes, is slick media tycoon Kaizad Khambatta (Johar), who puts Johnny in charge of his new venture, the Bombay Velvet, ostensibly a nightclub but obviously a front for more nefarious activities than jazz music. Throwing a spanner in the works is Johnny’s love for the club’s entertainment headliner, singer Rosie Noronha (Sharma), as well as the messy, violent politics involving high-profile stakeholders in the city’s impending financial boom.
The trajectory of BV’s main characters of course owes quite a debt to oft-told cautionary tales of the promise of prosperity offered up by an urban metropolis morphing, inevitably, into a landscape of moral decay. So the film is as much about Johnny’s descent into darkness as it is about the wily ways of Bombay itself, that lures its prey with bright lights and blue waters only to cripple them morally, like a spider ripping the wings off a captured fly. Kashyap and co recreate bygone Bombay with Dick Tracy-style panache: the film’s visual stylisation of an imagined past is an utterly dazzling smorgasbord of high-contrast inky blacks and warm ochres, punctuated with splashes of jewel tones that look good enough to eat. And the ugly rot underneath the surface is portrayed just as lovingly as the crimson seductions of the titular establishment. At the heart of it is Kapoor’s mesmerising performance, marking him yet again as far and away the best actor of his generation. Johar has fun with the snivelling Kaizad but often teeters dangerously close to being one-note. Sharma is adequate but her plumped up upper lip, which has become as prolific as her lately, is a distraction. Add in Amit Trivedi’s haunting jazz score and you have a film that strikes a resonant chord, despite itself. For now, Bombay Velvet has to lick its wounds in a dark corner. But there will come a time when many will sheepishly recall the undeniable, if somewhat shallow, glories of a film they so cruelly dismissed.