Film Review: Bombay Velvet

Overlong Bollywood flick with impressive musical ballads and production values but slight dramatic power. It pays its respects to renowned crime-drama and noir classics to trivial effect.
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The action is rowdy, the outfits are gorgeous, and the music is jazzy in prolific writer-director Anurag Kashyap’s good-looking yet customarily overlong crime drama, Bombay Velvet. A traditional Bollywood melding of a juicy, troubled romance with memorable musical tracks that alternate between joy and lament, Kashyap’s period film aims sky-high with stellar, ostentatious production design yet unfortunately loses dramatic heat by aimlessly chasing nostalgia for a long-lost era, with frequent nods to certain classics of the gangster and noir genres. Despite eye-candy pleasures such as Rajeev Ravi’s dazzling photography and dynamic editing by Prerna Saigal and Martin Scorsese’s longtime, famed collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker, Bombay Velvet ultimately is an overwrought masala of artistic ideas that hop from one cinematic reference to the next in a heartbeat.

The credits include a thank-you to Martin Scorsese, among others, and it is not completely inappropriate to wonder whether the acknowledgement stretches beyond the support Scorsese (might have) provided to Kashyap to also embrace a fan’s admiration. Set in Bombay (today’s Mumbai)–India’s film capital a la Hollywood–and covering nearly two decades all the way to the verge of the city’s development expansion in the late ’60s, Bombay Velvet zeroes in on an underdog-turned-gangster of sorts with scenes and postures dutifully saluting familiar characters and situations from Scorsese’s universe. The underdog in question is go-big-or-go-home hero Johnny Balraj, played by Ranbir Kapoor with fittingly unruly hair and a name reminiscent of Robert De Niro’s Johnny Boy in Scorsese’s Mean Streets. Through hard work, often poorly calculated ethics and unquenchable ambition, Johnny quickly proves to be the kind of character who would gladly do anything for fame and fortune, whether taking a Tyler Durden-like beating or two in the city’s underground fighting rings (he makes money by losing the fights) or establishing an ultimately doomed proximity to and partnership with the story’s achingly well-dressed villain, Kaizad Khambatta (Karan Johar). The roots of Johnny’s thuggish ways and ruthless dealings extend from Brian De Palma’s Scarface to Scorsese’s GoodFellas (one particular scene where we see a body in a trunk is a clear reference to the latter); the lush set design and whirling pace also highlight the nods to those films.

Of course, the film’s noir sensibility calls for a femme fatale to approach with caution, who arrives in the form of Rosie (Anushka Sharma, quickly stealing the film). Johnny desires Rosie at first sight; destined to be together from the film’s early moments (they each tell their childhood stories in a parallel trajectory), the two eventually begin an ill-fated affair. Rosie becomes the voice of Johnny’s supper club Bombay Velvet and rocks one spectacular outfit and sensual ballad after another (pay special attention to “Dhadaam Dhadaam”) until an impossible string of cheating, lying and double-crossing (which becomes increasingly difficult to keep track of as the minutes accumulate) destroys their future hopes and plans. Johnny wants nothing more than to become a “big shot”–a phrase he picks up after watching Gladys George mutter the words “He used to be a big shot” over James Cagney’s lifeless body in The Roaring Twenties–and, in a way, signs and seals his death warrant with that desire. The film’s references don’t stop there: We also get a taste of Vertigo when Rosie fakes her death and “reincarnates” as her imaginary twin sister, bringing the eventual doom of Kim Novak’s Hitchcock character to mind.

Somewhere near the 90-minute mark, this laboriously over-plotted effort starts to overstay its welcome, despite Amit Trivedi’s lovely music and all the rich, chicly designed visual indulgence onscreen. An argument can be made that the intriguing artifice of Bombay Velvet—its emotions and unlikely plot turns—is intended and fits the tradition of many noir classics. Yet in Kashyap’s film, these elements feel haphazard instead of well-considered, ultimately depriving it of much-needed dramatic weight.

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