Bombay Velvet

Director: Anurag Kashyap  | Year: 2015

It was a Friday night 10pm show, after a work day and 90 minutes’ drive from my workplace on Sarjapur Road. But I did sit through the film without my attention wandering. (My wife next to me was even snoring gently for a good part of the film. But I must add she stole a few winks during Piku too in a similar late night show. But here she slept through the almost entire second half. ) But there was not a single scene that perked me up, except maybe the song sequences with Amit Trivedi’s gorgeous jazz-laced ,melodies.  But there was not a single scene that I  could say was badly written, performed or staged (unlike say in films like Saawariya or Raavan.) Did I like the film? Not at all. Did I dislike the film? Not one bit. ( One lady from my wife’s Kitty Party group Whatsapped her, “ The Times Of India review of Bombay Velvet is pretty bad.’ My wife replied, ‘Don’t go to see films after reading reviews. Go see the film and give your views! ( So we have another writer in the family, I see!). And as you can see Even my wife won’t tell anyone to not to go and see the film.

A strange creature this film must be!

Strange indeed it is.

Bombay Velvet 2

There are so many departments in which the film excels. Vintage Bombay has never been so been beautifully recreated. The performances are all good. The plot has enough twists and turns, quite intelligently weaved. The music as I have mentioned is gorgeous.  ( Muhabbat buri bimari, Naak pe gussa, Sylvia,  Dhadaam Dhadaam,Bahuripiya and Darban  are exquisite. I am mad at Amazon for telling me that they will deliver my CD only after 23rd.). Yet, why didn’t a care for any of the characters while I was watching the film? Why wasn’t there a smidgen of feeling welling within me at any of the scenes (except perhaps towards the end during the Dhadam Dhadam song) ? Why the whole thing left me so cold (Until much later, when I was running the film in my head during my morning walk) ?

In fact during this walk  a strange but simple image wafted into my head: It was god creating a beautiful woman, perfect in all respect…but for one small omission. He forgot to breathe life into his creation. The next image that floated in was that He did not really forget, more like the devil stole the cruet containing the film’s life breath. Now who could the devil be? The Fox Studio executives? Or Anurag Kashyap’s own inner devil inhibiting his natural creative impulses in order to shoehorn the film into a commercial format? Or the film’s Hollywood benefactors including Scorsese’s editor, Thelma Schoonmaker who seems  to  have chipped  ( chopped) in at the last moment? I think it’s all of them.

I think the problem started at the start when Kashyap conceived the film in Hollywood clothing…literally in jackets, bowler hats and swanky gowns. That could never be the reality of the Bombay in the 60’s. But such an island of Western sophistication and cultural influence, where a street urchin fantasizes about a James  Cagney character, could have existed. Or at least we could be made to believe for the length of the film that it could be so…only if many other creative mis-steps wouldn’t have compounded the alienation.

Bombay Velvet 1

Next I will pick on  Schoonmaker. Yes the film is tightly edited, but so tightly that it can hardly breathe. Things happen. Shots glissade into shots without a pause for the scene to sink in or the emotion to register.  The film has so many strands running in parallel – the creation of a swanky Bombay on the back of crime and backroom deals; the tragic love story of a small time gangster and a talented but vulnerable jazz club singer; the birth of a capitalist Bombay against the backdrop of a violent labour movement; a power-hungry tabloid baron and corrupt politicians. But each of them are touched upon, never fully explored. The potential in each of these   narrative kernels is evident in many scenes and strands begging to be elaborated upon.

I have a feeling the film would have worked so much better if it had unfolded at a lumbering pace, spread over two parts like in Gangs Of Wasseypur, or stretching over a running time of over 3 hours if needed. What so many scenes now lack is any kind of context or continuity. Johny’s boxing scenes, his relationship with his friend Chiman, and his intimate moments with Rosie … all these lack detailing that could make them real for us. Raveena Tandon Thadani is so resplendent in her two singing breaks. But she is just dropped from the sky. We surely would have loved to know a little more about her. The scene where Rosy pulls Johny into the bath tub, is where the scene should have begun, not ended. We would have liked to see What Johny does next as hat would reveala bit of his inner self to us.

Take similar scenes in Gangs of Wasseypur. There is a scene where Manoj Bajpai wants to make love to his pregnant wife ( Richa Chadda). She tells him, ‘ Hamar pet mein jo hai use gnada karige kya?’. Mext we see Bajpai talking with the maulavi, planning his marriage to Durga, his paramour. Earlier, there was also the scene where Durga is washing a bundle of clothes by squashing them rhythmically on a slab as Bajapai is all lust and desire, salivating to the strains of ‘ Oh Womaniya.’ Then there is the scene of “ Haan touch kar sakte hain, leking pehle permission to lena chahiye na” between Nwazuddin and Huma. Or take the elaborate explanation of the naming of ‘ Tangent’ and compare the perfunctory manner in which  Kaizad asked Balram to change his name to Johny…no rhyme, no reason proffered.

Actually it is the eschewing of the detailing and the quirky that emasculates the film , turning it into a neuter incapable of arousing any passion. Much of the writing so flat. The public speaker who was speaking against the land reclamation was so colourful, but his stints are cut short and there is nothing else that is remotely as interesting or witty. The verbal and theatrical inventiveness of Kashyap is totally missing in the film…letting us glimpse only a lifeless narrative skeleton. There is this song ‘Dhdaam Dhdaam’, which comes after Johny accuses Rosie of spying on him on behalf of Jimmy. She is  heartbroken and finds the ground beneath her feet slipping. But it is not a conventional song; the dhdaam dhadaam reprise has an element of the bizarre. Anushka should have played it accordingly and nor straight sad as she has done. She could have alternated between straight emotions and the burlesque. There is similar straightjacketing in staging of most scenes, robbing them of Anurag’s signature with which you can have a love-or-hate relationship. Right now you feel neither.

Similarly the birth of modern Bombay built on reclaimed land is quite fascinating. The animated graphic showing the sea between the seven islands whets our appetite. But a coherent commentary completing the narrative goes missing. The voice-over at the start of and all through Gangs of Wasseypur bridged the gaps so well.

When I got up in the morning and spooled out the film in my head again there was much that seemed to have stick. The tragic love story of Johny and Rosy bothered me a lot. The false bravado of Johny, basically a small-time henchman trying to punch above his weight is the tragic flaw in his character. For Rosie it is her frailty and vulnerability.  It is this strand which should have been central if it was to be shirt and tight film. And it could have been more imaginatively narrated for better emotional cohesion. For example, it could have started with us meeting the 80-year-old  Rosie,  singing in a Goan bar ( as she is supposed to be doing as per the end notes of the film) and hearing about Johny through her flashback. That would have  made the canvas smaller, leading to many superfluous scenes being thrown out and making the narrative flow smoother and easier to follow.

And maybe it would have need only half of its rumoured 90-crore budget. If  Gangs of Wasseypur could be made for 30 crores, this should have been too , not including the fees of the lead pair. And frankly who cares if Bombay has been recreated faithfully or not – when the historical accuracy has any way been sacrificed at the altar of visual styling. All we want to see on screen is good story, well told. I suspect the good story is very much there, only it has been obscured by too much cleansing. I suspect I might be able to see the rough edges and the quirky detailing snipped off during the Hollywood-style editing or the director’s self-censorship,  if I give the film a second viewing, through my own imagining – or in reality if there is later director’s cut of 4 hours.

( Ps:  While I have been hammering this out the film apparently has opened to  a disastrous opening. As always, when such a thing happens I never blame the audience but try to look for what did the film not do right. Sometimes the punishment that the audience metes out is grossly disproportionate to the film’s crime, but it  would never hang an innocent. So certainly there is something amiss. It is not a bad film. Far from it. But I can understand the audience’s disappointment. But my recommendation to anyone who sees cinema as an art form: Do go and see it. There is much that is beautiful even though the film in its totality will disappoint you.)  

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