It's a fundamental lack of substance, not some pesky reviewers, that is responsible for Anurag Kashyap's Rs 120-crore mess.
Director: Anurag Kashyap
Starring: Ranbir Kapoor, Anushka Sharma, Karan Johar, Kay Kay Menon, Manish Choudhary, Siddhartha Basu, Satyadeep Mishra
This is not a review of Bombay Velvet,” begins a rant by YRF exec and film critic Nikhil Taneja on his blog ‘Taneja Main Hoon’. “Because whatever I say about Bombay Velvet doesn’t matter to you at all. You’ve already made up your mind about how you feel about Bombay Velvet,
even especially if you haven’t seen it”.
It is “pointless” to review the film, you see, because “clearly, no one’s reviewing movies anymore, everyone’s reviewing their expectations of it.” Everyone is going to the cinema already convinced of what they’re going to think about the film, based on their—or their friends’, or their favourite critic’s—opinion of the actors, director, genre, trailer or some other prejudice. “Think about it,” he writes, “we now rarely feel any different after watching a movie from what is being said about the movie, or the opinion we formed about it beforehand.” Films that outperform low expectations are unduly praised, while those that don’t match up to high ones are unduly criticised. As evidence, he cites identical 2.5-star ratings for Gabbar, Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! and Bombay Velvet in reviews he’s read online.
There’s some merit to the argument. Film criticism has become just another form of half-baked instant-opinion that treats films as consumer goods rather than works of art; the need to file 600 words of copy before everyone else does cause the medium to tend towards the formulaic “loved this, hated that, all said and done a family entertainer” model rather than a serious examination of the questions and issues a film raises. (Laziness isn’t the only reason I write these reviews on Mondays. I find it allows me enough time to digest the film, often temper my kneejerk reaction.) Expectations do play a part in how you perceive a film, and star-rating systems are problematic—it’s almost impossible to condense your opinion about a 150-minute immersive experience into a single number, and very frustrating when that meaningless number is the only thing a reader takes away from your review. (Having given Gabbar one and Byomkesh three-and-a-half “stars”, I can give Velvet a guilt-free two point five as a truly middling work.)
Blaming reviewers for “killing” a film assigns them too much power; God knows there have been plenty of films universally panned by the critics that have made hundreds of crores at the box office.
But Taneja does overstate things when he rather dramatically ends by asking the reader to not “let the Internet kill Bombay Velvet. Do not let the Internet kill movies.” Sure, the reviews have been negative, ranging from the respectful “surely this is but a misstep” kind to the more mixed “awesome style, lacks substance” to the downright “it was a total snooze-fest” variety. And sure, the critical reception and bad word-of-mouth publicity has hurt the box-office take of the film in its opening weekend, which made just Rs 16 crore, less than a third of Piku‘s returns from its second weekend, and less than a sixth of the film’s massive budget. But blaming reviewers for “killing” a film assigns them too much power; God knows there have been plenty of films universally panned by the critics that have made hundreds of crores at the box office. Bombay Velvet failed not because Rajeev Masand “found [himself] looking for some soul”, but because, as Kashyap himself put it in his Facebook post, “a lot of people didn’t connect with it”. Yes, the critics’ verdict is more important for a film like this than a star vehicle, but surely we trust audiences to think for themselves.
In any case, Taneja’s talk of the “curse of being Anurag Kashyap”, his suggestion that the poor reviews are because audiences and critics can’t “disassociate the filmmaker from the film”, borders on paranoia. Gleeful detractors like Kamaal R Khan and Ram Gopal Verma (who hilariously called the film Kashyap’s Aag) have an agenda, of course, but the average moviegoer (and critic) isn’t so petty that they are almost unanimously underwhelmed by the film simply because they don’t like Kashyap. (Again, if the film had been successful, the reverse charge could have been thrown: Kashyap’s fanboys are going gaga about a mediocre film. You know, like with The Dark Knight Rises.)
And asking reviewers to only focus on the content of the film—especially the much-fetishised “What did it make you feel?”—and not care about the context in which it’s made, is just plain silly. Films aren’t made (or watched) in a vacuum, and “Anurag Kashyap’s ambitions with this film, the film compared to his other work, the film with respect to other gangster film, the budget of the film, the expected box office, the negative buzz around it, etc etc etc” are all perfectly valid, if not always necessary, discussion points for a discourse about this, or any, film. Still, if it agitates him so, I’ll try to steer clear of these topics in this review, not look at this film as a spectacular commercial failure, not comment on how arrogant Kashyap comes off as in Gayatri Jayaraman’s fawning profile in India Today, not mention how Taneja’s rant is remniscent of the petulant whining on social media by Kashyap’s clique when The Lunchbox was not sent to the Oscars. It’ll be hard to not compare it with other gangster films, considering that the whole thing seems to be one big Scorsese homage, but I’ll try. And comparing this film with Black Friday, Dev.D, Gulaal or even the first Gangs of Wasseypur is too pointless, so I won’t bother.
What do they of Bombay know, they who only Mumbai know?” tweeted Siddharth Bhatia (@bombaywallah), channeling CLR James’ dictum about cricket. The statement is key to understanding Bombay Velvet; based on Gyan Prakash’s Mumbai Fables, the film is a recreation of 1960s Bombay, a tale of equal parts aspiration and corruption, of the giant land-grab in the name of development that changed the map of the city and the lives of its people. (Manhattan, not Shanghai, was the model then.) It is the story, in a way, of how Bombay became Mumbai.
Johnny Balraj (Ranbir Kapoor, looking uncannily like Raj Kapoor, trying in vain to invoke some internal De Niro), our protagonist, is a man in a hurry. He starts the film as a young kid escaping Partition, coming to the city of dreams with a woman he calls his mother, looking to start a new life. Of course, there’s no work to be had and his guardian becomes a prostitute while Balraj embarks on a career in petty crime with his friend Chiman (Mishra) and bare-knuckled prizefighting. His pluck and courage gradually attracts the attention of senior gangsters, and he moves up the ranks to become primary enforcer and front-owner of the titular nightclub for Kaizad Khambata (Johar, a flamboyant debut, but not really a convincing antagonist), helping Khambata indulge in some upward mobility of his own: becoming the right-hand man of mayor Romi Patel (Basu, as bland and unexpressive as he was in Madras Cafe), the most powerful man in Bombay.
Rosie Noronha (Sharma) has also come to Bombay to flee; in her case, she’s escaping the clutches of an exploitative music teacher in Portuguese-held Goa. She wants to sing for the movies, but settles for a career as a cabaret singer at Bombay Velvet after being sent to spy on Johnny for Jimmy Mistry, Khambata’s rival. Inevitably, Johnny and Rosie fall in love. What draws them together, however, is not explored; in the proud tradition of Bollywood, hero stalks heroine, who is reluctant at first, but eventually gives in. Kapoor and Sharma do share a chemistry of sorts, a weird energy in their scenes together—like the time they share a bath, or when she hits him with a chair while he’s on the phone with Khambata—but neither character is sufficiently believable in themselves for the viewer to get behind their unlikely relationship, especially through the convolutions of the second half, in which Kashyap threatens to subvert the usual tropes of gangster films before inexplicably doubling down and upholding each of them.
The message to Johnny and Chiman is clear—they might have come a long way from running a protection racket on the docks, but there is a glass ceiling for street hoodlums in the stratospheric world of respectable crime.
Taneja blames Thelma Schoonmaker and Prerna Saigal’s editing for the film not reaching its full potential, adding that “crucial scenes of romance between Rosie and Johnny weren’t allowed to breathe” in the fast-paced opening half hour. He’s got a point, but I think the love story seems superficial because a typical love story is something that doesn’t come naturally to Kashyap. It doesn’t seem to interest him; although their tales are told in parallel, Rosie is not nearly as important as Johnny in the greater scheme of things. Sure, she’s fiesty, won’t get slapped without slapping back, but her job, sadly, is to be a cheerleader for our hero, who hogs all the moral complexity there is to see in the film.
It’s not as if Johnny’s arc is any more original, even if it is more compelling. A James Cagney fan, he wants to be a “big-shot”, to rise high enough to get rid of the taint of the streets. He sees the map of the city being redrawn around him, a large birthday cake being carved up, and he wants a piece. This leads to the best sequence in the film: Johnny and Chiman go to Khambata and ask for their share, a building of their own in the concrete jungle being erected. Do you know what a building requires, Khambata asks Johnny. You have to fill a tender. Oh, I’ll fill it all right, Johnny replies, I’ll fill it till it starts overflowing. Khambata can’t take it any longer; pretending to go fetch ice, he bursts out laughing. Fine, Chiman says, don’t give us a building, give us 30 percent of this company. Khambata calls the company’s owner, who in turn launches into hysterics. The message to Johnny and Chiman is clear—they might have come a long way from running a protection racket on the docks, but there is a glass ceiling for street hoodlums in the stratospheric world of respectable crime. It doesn’t stop Johnny from aspiring to more than he is due, and the tensions this creates with Chiman, who realises he and Johnny aren’t equals either, are much more interesting than their predictable machinations against Khambata and Co, which are typical of gangster films. It all leads to a badass final fight sequence, but well-shot violence is the least you expect from a Kashyap film.
This superficiality also extends to the setting of the film. After all, the scope of Gyan Prakash’s book was much larger than just the birth of the land mafia. Although Kashyap has won a lot of praise for bringing alive Jazz-Age Bombay, the city is only a supporting presence in the film. As in Wasseypur, Kashyap tries to reduce massive sociological change into a series of smaller power games being played by ruthless operators without dwelling on the human impact of the changes. (Yes, mill workers got shafted by owners looking for a quick profit, but the only union leader in the film is a mere pawn in the central conflict.) The detail involved in the recreation of the city and its times is admirable, but unlike Sankar’s Chowringhee—set in Jazz-Age Calcutta—the contradictions between the opulence of Bombay Velvet and the realities of the times are never explored. In fact, Bombay Velvet seems just an extension of the vaudeville halls of Prohibition-era Atlantic City in Boardwalk Empire (a gangster television show, not a movie), down to Varun Grover’s stand-up act, which reminds you of Stephen DeRosa’s Eddie Cantor in the show.
It is this superficiality, this lack of substance, this absence of soul, that makes Bombay Velvet an underwhelming mess, not some prejudiced hacks who say it is one. Of course, that doesn’t mean it is as bad as Gabbar; the sign of Kashyap’s talent is that even his spectacular failures are as good, if not better, than the godawful tripe we call our mainstream cinema.