Ambition can be a cruel thing: blinding, deceptive and bellicose. It can mean adulation and reverence for an artist while at the same it can produce sharp reactionary criticism. Imaginably worst of all is the euphemism ‘ambitious failure’ expressly for a film director who may have spent years on a project only to see it evaporate into the ether of cinematic memoirs. Anurag Kashyap is a risk taker, someone who has been disillusioned with a parochial mainstream Indian cinema. To date his oeuvre sings from an alternate hymn sheet since no one film is alike. Kashyap’s continuing impact on mainstream Indian cinema is substantial, serving to contest the traditional paradigm of stars, genres and narrative storytelling that has so often plagued Indian cinema. Although there is a complicated debate regarding the definition of middle cinema, much of Kashyap’s films have straggled such a middle ground, taking up a space contentiously dubbed the ‘Hindie’ film. Far too many Indian directors play safe.
Kashyap’s latest film Bombay Velvet never lacks ambition. It is his most mainstream film to date, featuring an ‘A’ list cast, hefty budget, studio backing and a glitz not far removed from high end Bollywood cinema. With Bombay Velvet, Kashyap is reaching for a wider audience than ever before (an audience who admittedly do not understand him as a director nor see him as an auteur) deploying a postmodern potpourri of Hollywood filmic intertexts (Kashyap borrows the device of factotum magazine writer Sid Hudgens (Danny De Vito) from Hanson’s L.A. Confidential who acts as a sort of omniscient narrator with his acerbic commentary) and riffing on classic Bollywood tropes to articulate what should have been a very compelling story indeed. We are told that Bombay Velvet was bit of a dream project for Kashyap except didn’t they say the same things about his crime opus Gangs of Wasseypur (2012)? To get past such hyperbole, one is faced with a broader problem; a script lacking in confidence to flex the edges of writer Gyan Prakash’s reclamation of Bombay’s netherworld. Why this project makes for perfect cinematic interpretation is not hard to see. It is a Bombay that everyone knows about unconsciously through film, mythologised in Indian cinema over the years, undeniably hypnotic in its pull and equivocally realised by Kashyap with a spectacular, unmarked stylised finesse. It has the swankiest opening titles to an Indian film in years. Aesthetically the world of Bombay Velvet is constructed with a real zing and we should not overlook the distinguished work of cinematographer Rajeev Ravi (Kashyap’s regular DOP), production designer Sonal Sawant and music composer Amit Trivedi.
This is some consolation for a film that suffers from a discordant script, failing to capitalise on developing the potential of many likeable characters and narrative strands (a Bombay jazz scene that goes under-explored is a mystery) into something gripping or a coherent whole. The creative liability with casting ‘A’ list stars is the star baggage they bring with them. Kashyap knows better than most that stars should be used cautiously. Both Ranbir as masochistic Johnny Balraj and Sharma as Rosie, the fatal moll, look the part, with a striking costume design, but they are in my view woefully miscast. Sharma is painfully wooden at times while Ranbir is out of his depth especially when throwing a punch. He lacks the swagger of a wannabe gangster and both actors struggle to convince that they could come from and belong to such a sordid milieu. Furthermore, not enough screen time is devoted to cataloguing the rise of Johnny Balraj. We don’t root for Johnny in the way we have rooted for other low life criminals in the past and the very idea of sympathising with the anti-hero never really transpires into an aspect of the genre paramount to our conflicted audience position as a spectator. I’m not advocating Kashyap should have gone for non professionals but Ugly and Black Friday is evidence enough that he produces his best work when casting relatively unknowns or underrated actors from whom he can get some unexpected work. Karan Johar as Khambatta, a sort of glorified middleman, is surprisingly good but then his character emerges as just another superfluous Bollywood villain.
In truth, I wanted more from the incidental characters populating the seedy margins of this Bombay and a far greater ideological engagement with the socio-politics of the time that Kashyap touches on fleetingly. Also, the way the film jumps around haphazardly, speedily ploughing its way through an epic narrative that should have unfolded more organically, pointing to a weighty script that tries to cram in too much. In fact, Bombay Velvet could have succeeded as a high end TV series with each episode focused on developing the backstory of all the characters. One gets the sense that Kashyap made far too many compromises in getting the project to the screen. Sad to say this is a disappointing studio film (raising wider institutional questions concerning the way working under studio constraints can be an anathema to some directors), much like the super vacuous spectacles that Sanjay Leela-Bhansali so often makes. Bombay Velvet is a wax museum without a pulse, a museum that quickly melts into a void of joyless intertextuality, over ambitious homage & self-aggrandisement. Moreover, I would not consider the film a misfire. Instead it needs to be positioned as part of Kashyap’s evolution as a filmmaker and his willingness to take on new challenges in trying to innovate, hybridise and fuse together authorial preoccupations with the demands of an ever changing commercial Indian cinema. In many ways, this is Kashyap’s Bollywood intermezzo, an overly cinephilic film and if anything it articulates a sensibility about his own tastes, influences and understanding of the traditions of populist Indian cinema.