Anurag Kashyap has a thing for lumpens. He finds in the lives of people belonging to this category the perfect material to be exploited in cinema, the way many decadent writers and artists critically focused on or spoke about this class, in industrialised France of the 19th century. This class represents the underdog. They dream the heroic and live the tragic. They are motivated by ambitious self-interest, siding neither with their own class nor falling into favour with the rich. The lumpen is tempted to become the socially challenged criminal.
It is the conflicted lives of people belonging to this class that Kashyap has brought very laboriously to light in Gangs of Wasseypur. The lead male character in Bombay Velvet also belongs to this class. His name is Balraj, an orphan brought up by a woman who was forced into prostitution, and who eventually ran away with the gold he earned illegally. The lead female protagonist, Rosie, comes from a middle class Goan family; she was abused in childhood by a Jazz teacher. Both Balraj and Rosie find their shaky freedom in Bombay, where Rosie ends up being the jazz singer in the club run by Balraj. By then, Balraj is Johnny, renamed by a Parsi real estate baron called Khambatta, who runs an influential newspaper. Khambatta is also gay, mentioned in a rival newspaper by the derogatory term "fruitcake". As the desperate lumpen, Johnny becomes Khambatta's love-pawn whom he misuses for his own ends. He tries to forget the scars of his past by receiving new ones in the boxing ring.
"There is always an intriguing foray into the nuances of sexuality in Kashyap's films, and this one is no different."
History is however taking a new shape in the backdrop quite literally, as Bombay is being grafted by a new reclamation to solve problems of housing (the city was initially grafted by the British joining seven neighbouring islands). There is a pro-socialist media baron, Jimmy Mistry, who is Khambatta's rival, and he provokes the mill workers to protest against the devious designs of the capitalists to grab unfair share in proposed new land. Khambatta makes his wife (who is his other pawn) as sexual bait to trap and blackmail an otherwise honest politician. Mistry is out to save the politician, and it is this tussle that will play itself out in their respective bids to gain control over land deals.
Bombay emerges as a city in the film more through its 'Art Deco'. Gyan Prakash, co-scriptwriter, whose book Mumbai Fables forms the film's storyline, elaborates on this style which combines a "commercial motive with its design motif". The mise-en-scène of the club, Bombay Velvet, and other elite spaces, echo this eclectic style which came into being in the 1960s as Bombay turned capitalist with vigour. It merged the city's commerce with its design. Aesthetically, the approach was more pragmatic, as Gyan observed in his book, than utopian.
What is however missing in the film is a deeper unravelling of Bombay's street life, its outdoor milieu and its accompanying noises. The background music, which otherwise adds to the film's jazz-intonated mood, takes the audience away from the city's bustle, perhaps to draw an intricate juxtaposition between music and architecture. The film focuses on the ways of the old gentry, the nouveau riche and foreigners, who were more visible socialising in the club rather than out in the streets.
"Johnny and Rosie, played by Ranbir Kapoor and Anushka Sharma, appear a touch contemporary for a period film, though their performances are intensely convincing. Their chemistry and raw intensity holds up against fleeting glitches."
Kashyap has successfully captured details of street life in his previous films. Here, his camera moves into Bombay the way its outsiders arrive, through the dock area, through slums, until he finally arrives to claim what his protagonist seeks to claim: the nerve centre of business and dreams. In Bombay Velvet, Kashyap is more interested in the politics and manners that unravel within an exclusive space of the elite. The red light areas and the factory workers echo another disturbing world, whose fate is being decided without being discussed by ruthless powerbrokers.
There is always an intriguing foray into the nuances of sexuality in Kashyap's films, and this one is no different. If Khambatta is a closet gay who uses his wife, his rival Mistry is declared not quite a man by Rosie, who sleeps with him. Both masculinity and the suggestion of impotency are used in pejorative ways by Anurag as a means to depict politically and ethically corrupt characters.
Johnny and Rosie, played by Ranbir Kapoor and Anushka Sharma, appear a touch contemporary for a period film, though their performances are intensely convincing. Their chemistry and raw intensity holds up against fleeting glitches. Karan Johar, delightfully understated, delivers the most memorable snort in Hindi cinema, and makes remarkably subtle, erotic gestures at Johnny. As the lumpen, Johnny exudes a restless energy. In contrast, Rosie is poised, as the torn, confused, trapped jazz singer. She mouths her songs with faltering desperation. Jazz is about one's internal story of pathos, and the song of despair. The song "Dhadaam Dhadaam", by Neeti Mohan, gauging the soul of cabaret jazz, captures that pathos. Rosie's strength is her lust for life and music. She does not play victim.
Bombay Velvet is Kashyap's sleekest but most restrained film. The editing appears constricted, leaving out certain moments that would have enhanced both story and characterisation. But it is still an engaging film about a charming lumpen and his brave songstress. Only the workers with their red flags and slogans are now waiting to flood Kashyap's camera, demanding their presence in his cinematic vision.