Bombay Velvet: What Do They Talk About When They Talk About Ambition?

In one of the early scenes in Anurag Kashyap’s latest, Bombay Velvet, its hero, Johnny Balaraj (Ranbir Kapoor), steps into the cage. He’s in there to fight, but he is not in it to win; he wants to get beaten up. Johnny’s recently been rattled by a personal loss, and he doesn’t know how to cope—he needs to externalise his pain. And what better way to own his loss than being beaten up in a fight? As Johnny enters the cage, it reverberates with the name of the fighter he’s up against—“Japaani”— who presumably frequents the venue. Their fight begins with Japaani landing a few blows on Johnny’s face. It’s obvious that Johnny is no match for this guy, but the larger question is something else: Will Johnny put up a fight? And it’s a fascinating set-up because the man orchestrating the drama behind the scenes, Bombay Velvet’s director, Anurag Kashyap, is someone who likes to torment his heroes, leaving them to struggle with and suffer the inequities of the world. But Bombay Velvet’s leading man, Ranbir Kapoor, is a star in his own right, and this film, consisting of Bollywood’s A-listers, is Kashyap’s most expensive (presumably one of the reasons it doesn’t have any cuss words). A few seconds later, Johnny gets up and lands a powerful blow on Japaani’s face. And then another, and another; however, Japaani soon overpowers Johnny and pummels him to the point that he struggles to get up. It’s a lovely, little scene that has strains of Amitabh Bachchan’s films of the ’70s—an everyman (played by a star) trying to be a hero but falling short of being heroic. This scene also tells you a thing or two about the kind of filmmaker Kashyap may morph into.

Bombay Velvet opens much like Gangs of Wasseypur did: to an archival footage of the town, where the film is set. And it makes one wonder that had Kashyap not been a director of fictional films, he would have possibly been a fine journalist or a documentary filmmaker. His films are immaculately researched, and he has a knack of melding his film’s world with the quirks of its characters. In Bombay Velvet, however, Kashyap does a fine job of delineating and detailing the film’s world, but not its characters, because, similar to the initial portions of Gangs of Wasseypur I, here he sees them less as people and more as … characters. He can’t wait for them to get into action—to set the narrative in motion—but before that he doesn’t feel it’s important enough to contextualise and concretise their pain, longing and desire.

Consider, for instance, Rosie Noronha (Anushka Sharma), who escapes an abusive relationship in Goa to come to Bombay. She meets a photographer who clicks a rather saucy picture of her that gets published in one of the popular tabloids of Bombay. A few scenes before this, Rosie is introduced to us as someone who is both passionate about and has a talent for singing. Why will she then want to get a picture clicked for a tabloid? Is she also interested in being a model? We don’t get an answer or, worse, a hint of it. (As we get to know later, this scene merely exists to highlight a latent sinister side of her boyfriend, Johnny.) Rosie also quite abruptly and effortlessly moves in with Jimmy Mistry (Manish Choudhary), an influential newspaper editor—but, again, why? Kashyap doesn’t think it’s important to answer that as well. You expect someone like Rosie, who carries the scars of a past abusive relationship, to be a little level-headed about her choice of future partners, but she is, for some bizarre reason, not.

Sure, a filmmaker is not expected to always to spell out the motives of his characters, and one of the fundamental elements of film noir is the mystique of its female lead (something that was effortlessly brought to life in Ashim Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely, and it worked because Ahluwalia was confident enough not to explain his heroine even one bit throughout the movie), but here’s the thing about Rosie: we soon get to know that she’s not enigmatic at all. Later on in the film, we understand that Rosie is like any other heroine you meet in Bollywood movies—someone who wants to live and die for her hero. So, in that case, why not keep her simple? Rosie’s complications don’t amount to anything, because they don’t help us understand her better. You sympathise for characters when they become people; Rosie is just a bunch of superfluous adjectives.

Then there’s the hero of the film, Johnny. Quite early on, we know what he wants to become: a “Big Shot”. That moment of epiphany comes to him while he’s watching Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties (starring James Cagney and Priscilla Lane). You wonder why. Before this scene, Johnny is just a small-time hustler, desperate to earn quick money. But wanting to be well-off is one thing, and aspiring to be a Big Shot is another. Why does Johnny want what he wants? What is he after? Money? Fame? Power? Or all of all these things? What is the scale of his ambition but, most importantly, what propels him to be a murderer? We don’t have an answer.

Both Johnny and Rosie lack a centre around which their world revolves. It’s really difficult to understand, or warm up to, such characters who don’t even know who they are.

Bombay Velvet

And finally the film’s villain, Kaizad Khambata (Karan Johar)—an influential media mogul who is the owner of the popular tabloid Glitz. It’s interesting how Johar’s Khambata is introduced: After he’s foiled Johnny’s attempt to rob him in the bank, he walks towards the former’s car. Everything about Khambata in that scene points towards a very stereotypical idea of a homosexual man: be it he carrying a wad of notes in a handbag, to his walk—slow, careful and twisty—to his general sense of being; they tell us that this guy is unabashedly effeminate. But then Khambata, from that point onwards in the subsequent scenes, doesn’t exhibit any of those mannerisms. He does size up Johnny and makes a pass or two at him afterwards, but his conduct’s changed now. So, the logical question is, why introduce Khambata via traits that he doesn’t even have? And, again, the question that’s screaming for an answer in scenes like these is this: Who exactly are these people? And why are their traits a function of screenwriters and filmmaker’s whims?

Or maybe, if you look closely, you will eventually find an answer. These cardboard cutouts appear so because they want to be Cool. That is their sole raison d’être. Which is perhaps why there is no real attempt to show how, and why, Johnny and Rosie fall for each other, be it via dialogues, moments of hesitancy, or silence, because that requires these characters to be real; it requires the two to be vulnerable; to risk something; to open up to each other. But Kashyap wants his leads, and possibly every character (with the exception of Johhny’s childhood friend, Chimman (expertly played by Satyadeep Misra)) in the film, to be Cool. And, frankly, there’s nothing flagrantly wrong with that. Kashyap is one filmmaker who does Cool better than any other Bollywood filmmaker (you only have to see that fascinating chase sequence in Gangs of Wasseypur II, underscored by the ingenious Chi Cha Leather song, to understand what Kashyap can achieve when he is in his elements), but for that to happen, your film and characters need to be at least consistent with their idiosyncrasies. Here they are not. Johnny and Rosie coming together—via the song Behroopiya—appears contrived, because we don’t get a fair sense of the kind of people they are (which, by extension, means we don’t know what love does or means to them). So when, in the later portions of the film, we see the two of them waxing eloquent about love and their readiness to pay its price, those lines just don’t ring true. 

Also, it’s confounding that a film like Bombay Velvet, which centers around an everyman being sucked into the murky world of the rich and depraved, doesn’t feel it’s important enough to comment on the moral compass of its leads. So Johnny kills a tabloid photographer, in front of Rosie, in the course of altercation, and both of them move on as if nothing happened. Rosie does look appalled for a moment, but in the very next scene all’s good between the two. It’s difficult to believe that a crime as horrific as that goes unquestioned by her—someone who is neither a criminal nor shows signs of being one—that it doesn’t change the dynamics of their relationship even one bit. Does love turn ordinary people into callous robots? I am not so sure. (It can be argued that since Rosie might have herself killed a man in Goa, so she’s become inured to violence, but the fact is, Rosie’s was an act of self-defence, while Johnny’s is an act of cowardice. Rosie’s indifference to Johnny’s crime seems weird.) Films, of course, shouldn’t be moral science lectures, and their characters can do whatever they feel like, but we need to know how Bombay Velvet’s characters, especially Johnny and Rosie, react to these crimes, because they don’t belong to this world. They used to be perfectly ordinary folks who got embroiled in situations they couldn’t wrap their heads around. When you are willing to show the depravity of your world in unhesitating strokes, why shy away from showing what bearing it has on its perpetrators and bystanders?

So the important question is not what Bombay Velvet is, but what it is trying to be. I am not even sure if the word “Bombay” in the title befits the film, because nearly nothing in it evokes Bombay. (And no, shoehorning a plot point about the city being made out of land reclaimed from the sea doesn’t quite cut it.) The gentleman’s club in the film looks like a thinly veiled imitation of one of the clubs in Las Vegas and, really, what’s up with its characters wearing suits all the time? You can still understand Johnny wearing a suit, because, well, he’s the manager of the club, but what explains journalists, cops, gangsters—practically everyone—in the film suited up? Is the answer to that question, too, just like the answer to nearly every other question in the film, this: Because wearing suit spells … Cool? And it’s this bit about the film that is most upsetting and jarring, even infuriating. Bombay Velvet is not, as its unending promotions led us to believe, a film about the changing fortunes of Bombay. It is a clichéd, formulaic film that doesn’t know where it belongs, or is too sheepish to acknowledge where it wants to belong.

And to make things worse, Bombay Velvet’s dialogues contain none of the bite and wit that lines in Kashyap’s films are usually known for. One critical scene has Khambata telling this to the head of the workers’ union, “Har cheez ki keemat hoti hai. Aap apni keemat bataiye. (Everything has a price, you quote yours).” It’s baffling how pedestrian most dialogues in Bombay Velvet sound. Most films of Kashyap in the past, even though failing to come together at the end, have sparkled because of razor-sharp lines, and moments of absolute brilliance; Bombay Velvet can’t make any such claims.

Bombay Velvet, much like most Kashyap films, is densely plotted and, although that has, in his previous movies, come in the way of the stories he wanted to tell, it’s not much of a problem here. But what a densely plotted film can’t afford to have is this: plot holes. You can’t piggyback on a serpentine plot, keep distorting it to your convenience, just so that the scenes can reach a fitting end. In the film’s climax, for instance, Khambata shoots Rosie, then fires a bullet at Johnny, and as soon as he tries to fire another one he finds out that his gun has run out of bullets. Khambata is the same guy who sent Chimman, armed with a Tommy Gun, to bump Johnny off. He also had a couple of hit men lined outside Johnny’s room to do the job in case Chimman failed. Now why will the same guy choose to confront Johnny—in a situation where he is clearly calling the shots (he’s tied Rosie; his henchman is beating Johnny)—with a gun that only contains two bullets? This tiny plot turn is all the more baffling because we know Khambata as someone who carefully plans his moves and likes to be in control. It would have still been forgivable had this scene been the only instance in the film where common sense was flung out of the window in favour of a more “cinematic” finish, but that’s not the case. Bombay Velvet has similar scenes aplenty where characters frequently behave out of character.

But, finally, what’s even more off-putting about the film is the way it ends: by telling us what happened to Rosie (as if she’s a character in a documentary), and the transformation of Bombay (which appears pointless because, as argued above, this is not a Bombay Film—it simply uses the complex history of the city to sell a generic plot). These lines intend to send us home with the feeling that we saw something “real” and, hence by that account, valuable. Curiously, Johar’s Khambata, unlike Rosie, based on a real life figure, Russi Karanjia, the editor of the famous Bombay tabloid Blitz (Khambata’s tabloid is called Glitz), doesn’t find a mention. But, of course, none of that matters. What really matters is pleasing the God of Cool. And Bombay Velvet has at least got that sorted.

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