“Maybe the way out is to leave Bombay,” says cabaret singer Rosie to beau Johnny Balraj, a fledgling gangster, in Bombay Velvet, a Bollywood crime film with a few musical numbers now playing in theaters. The couple is embroiled in the dirty dealings behind a major land-development project. But maybe if they leave now, they can leave with their lives.
“You know what’s outside Bombay?” Johnny replies. “India. Starving, naked India.”
[jump] The line is lethal – blackly comic – and captures the essence of this period gangster film from Anurag Kashyap. Today’s vibrant India is a far cry from Velvet’s 1960s India – a time of socialism and slim chances, where deprivation and desperation are the modes of existence. In this India, Bombay – that westward-facing metropolis – is the only place to make it, the only way out.
We meet Johnny (Ranbir Kapoor) when he’s still poor, in the darkness of a cinema hall, mesmerized by James Cagney’s bootlegger in the Roaring Twenties. By the film’s end, Johnny wants nothing more than to be a “Big Shot” like Cagney.
He gets his chance when he meets Khambatta (Karan Johar), a flamboyantly menacing tabloid publisher, who gives Johnny an assignment. In time, Johnny becomes Khambatta’s right-hand man, fronting his nightclub, the Bombay Velvet, and clearing the way for shady property deals involving land to be reclaimed from the Arabian Sea. Meanwhile, Johnny also falls in love with the Velvet’s singer, Rosie (Anushka Sharma), but little does he know that Rosie, too, has a part to play in the real-estate intrigue.
Velvet has epic ambitions. It draws deeply from the classic American gangster films of the ’30s and later film noir, which both critiqued and – per Scorsese, caricatured – the American Dream. (Indeed, unlike Bollywood underworld films, Velvet adopts the iconography of Western gangster films: flashy suits and fedoras, tommy guns and waxed motorcars.) In transposing many of the genre elements and images onto Bombay (including Prohibition), Kashyap evokes and critiques something like an Indian Dream – a notion with resonance today, in that new land of opportunity. In other words, violence and corruption are nothing more than alternative ways to pick yourself up by the bootstraps.
This corresponds with a recurring motif of dialogue in the film regarding aukaat. Aukaat is one of those untranslatable Hindi/Urdu words that arises out of a class-stratified social context; it means one’s position, status, or worth. The term is used most reliably to remind someone of his or her place. Early on, Johnny says to Khambatta that he wants to change his aukaat – so that he’s worthy, or qualified, for the finer things he wants. It’s an act of indomitable will, echoed in the act of man reclaiming land from the sea.
There’s also an origin-myth aspect to Velvet, depicting, like the classic Chinatown, the Faustian cost to building a great city. Kashyap has an obvious love for old Bombay, which he depicts nostalgically, romantically, but with an eye for the profound, moving detail.
And, yet – yet – Velvet leaves you disappointed. Despite the potency of the material, the pieces don’t add up to more than their sum. It’s almost as if the film is corrupted by an excess of passion. There’s so much Kashyap wants to show and say that plot lines and characters wind up sketchy. Also, the narrative tangles in the second half, and the film tries to make up for it by carrying on for at least a half-hour too long. Despite the feverish pace, despite the plenitude of action, Velvet comes to feel surprisingly under-wrought.
Notwithstanding its significant flaws, Velvet is still a film to see, because there’s so much to experience. Kashyap’s voice – among Bollywood’s most distinctive and subversive – is there. Amit Trivedi’s jazz soundtrack is one of recent Hindi cinema’s finest. The dialogue is whip-smart. And the world that Velvet conjures is enchanting: You get why you can’t just leave Bombay.