While the second half of Anurag Kashyap's latest film 'Bombay Velvet' was on, during a particularly engaging sequence featuring the song 'Dhadaam Dhadaam', the movie stopped abruptly. I was watching the film's first show at Chandan, a fairly well-equipped single-screen theatre in Mumbai's suburb of Juhu. The air-conditioning was still on, as were the lights inside the 'exit' signs, so it was assumed that this was the result of a serious technical glitch in the projection room.
Some people protested, but not too enthusiastically. "Projectionist bhi bore ho gaya rahega," one fellow deadpanned. Nearly everyone -- by which I mean about 50-60 people -- laughed lustily at that. Some pulled out their smartphones while others simply waited, patiently, for the problem to be fixed. It almost felt like they were... relieved.
In the ten minutes it took for the film to start playing again, I stepped out to get a cold drink and check my phone. My Twitter timeline seemed to be in sync with the sentiment inside the theatre, including my own -- 'Bombay Velvet' was trending, and not necessarily for good reasons. It was around 2 in the afternoon and I'd already read one tweet that spoke about shows being cancelled in places like Gwalior; earlier, another friend had told me that he heard of shows being cancelled in Kolkata.
That 'Bombay Velvet' is on its way to being perhaps the biggest commercial disaster of the year is now looking more and more certain. Perhaps it was inevitable. After all, with a reported budget of more than Rs 100 crore, it would need to make at least double the money to be considered a hit -- a tall order by any standard, not least for a period drama with none of commercial Bollywood's usual 'masala' elements. None of the trailers or snippets of gossip coming in from the sets -- that it had gone over-budget, that Ranbir Kapoor (the film's male lead) wasn't happy with an early cut, that they had to re-do a lot of the special effects -- were encouraging. Were they true? Who knows, but the human tendency to link smoke to fire is strong.
Anyway, box-office results are another thing. All I really, desperately wanted from 'Bombay Velvet' was for it to be a good film. A watchable film. A laudable film. As most Kashyap films are for me, it didn't have to be excellent (I belong to the minority that disliked 'Ugly'), but it could have had some kind of takeaway. For example, it could've been the kind of film you discuss with your friends and say, "Hey, you have to admit though, that part was pretty kickass."
There were two times 'Bombay Velvet' came quite close to being kickass. One is the aforementioned 'Dhadaam Dhadaam' sequence, which uses stylish cross-cutting and Amit Trivedi's excellent music to create a great sense of foreboding. And there is a scene towards the end, shown in the trailer, which uses tommy guns, slow-motion, and jazz drums to superb effect.
That's... pretty much it.
"That 'Bombay Velvet' is on its way to being perhaps the biggest commercial disaster of the year is now looking more and more certain. Perhaps it was inevitable."
'Bombay Velvet' is not so much a film as it is a 140-minute montage. Its script isn't so much a script as it is a bunch of scenes strung together, trying in vain to create some sort of lasting cinematic impact. A rags-to-riches story of a young street-fighter-with-a-dream named Balraj (played with loads of enthusiasm but very little depth by Ranbir Kapoor), it follows the template that has been established by American crime classics ranging from James Cagney starrer 'The Roaring Twenties' (1939) (referenced directly in the film with all the subtlety of a jackhammer) to Martin Scorsese's mob epic 'Goodfellas' (1990).
In the process, it attempts to pay homage to Bombay's once-thriving jazz scene via a troubled singer named Rosie Noronha (a thoroughly miscast and almost disinterested Anushka Sharma), and even dedicates the film to Konkani singer Lorna Cordeiro. But Rosie's jazz-singing career, inspired by Cordeiro's, is merely window-dressing for the film, which does a complete disservice to the latter's legacy. The National-Award-winning Konkani film 'Nachom-ia Kumpasar', which I watched earlier this week, does a far better job, thanks in no small part to a superior performance from its lead actress, Palomi Ghosh.
But 'Bombay Velvet' wants a bit of this, a bit of that, and ends up making a royal mess of everything. So, with a rags-to-riches story set between 1949-69 and a blooming love story, we have a sub-plot involving a conspiracy that involves striking mill workers and a plan to develop the city further. Then we have another sub-plot that focuses on the rivalry between two rival tabloid editors: Kaizad Khambatta (Karan Johar, whose confidence in front of the camera is being mistaken for good acting here), who runs a publication called 'Torrent' aside from being involved in a couple of other nefarious activities; and Jamshed 'Jimmy' Mistry (Manish Chaudhari), the anti-hero in charge of 'Glitz', who is looking to bring Khambatta down.
At the centre of this insanely convoluted plot is a jazz club called 'Bombay Velvet', a negative of an incriminating photo, and Rosie. That's a lot of thread that needs unravelling, you think, and you expect the movie to find a way to do that in ways that don't defy logic. But surprise, surprise: logic takes a tram-ride on several occasions. A plot-twist that I can't reveal (in case you've reached this far and still want to watch the film), soon after the interval, is so ridiculous that it made the audience laugh. The writing (credited to four people) ranges from sometimes functional (I liked every moment of stand-up comedian Varun Grover's cameo as a sutradhaar of sorts) to annoyingly pedestrian, not to mention expository.
"'Bombay Velvet' is, for me, definitive proof that Anurag Kashyap has become -- and this has been true for a while -- perhaps the most overrated filmmaker in India."
'Bombay Velvet' is, weirdly enough, a briskly edited film (partially credited to long-time Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker, no less) that gets duller and duller as it progresses. It hurls bodies at the screen and casually side-steps emotional impact. Its so-called style wears thin after the first half-hour. The characters are half-baked.
A number of positive and/or sympathetic reviews have cited Rajeev Ravi's cinematography and the ambitious production design as reasons to watch the film. Not only were these aspects better in the recent 'Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!', they are also not -- and should not be, in this day and age -- reasons enough to laud a film. You order biryani for the biryani, not the raita that's served with it.
'Bombay Velvet' is, for me, definitive proof that Anurag Kashyap has become -- and this has been true for a while -- perhaps the most overrated filmmaker in India. I yearn for the Kashyap of 'Black Friday', but I suspect that he does not exist anymore. However, I cannot say I'm happy about the film's impending failure. While social media is abuzz with copious amounts of schadenfreude, which is heartbreaking enough for a film the entire community has awaited for more than three years, low box-office returns could have far-reaching consequences for 'new Bollywood'. I'm afraid that production houses and distributors will be more afraid than ever to take risks if this film doesn't make some money.
This was supposed to be THE 'crossover film', after all. This was the film that would take a big star at the top of his game, leave him in the supposedly capable hands of one of India's best-known auteurs, and create something grand and beautiful. This was the film that would bring together the so-called 'classes' and the 'masses'.
But when the show ended at Chandan, no one applauded. No one stayed back to watch the credits. People sprang out of their seats and dashed towards the exit.
"Ekdum bakwaas picture hai, mat dekho," yelled one particularly irritated man to people lining up at the ticket counter for the next show. I nodded instinctively, agreeing with him, except with a heavier heart.