Martin Scorsese is thanked in the opening credits of “Bombay Velvet,” but that’s far from the last time this splashy Bollywood gangster spectacular pays its respects. As it charts the corrupt historical development of Mumbai into a Western-styled megalopolis, Anurag Kashyap’s garish but engrossing film reflects the transition through blatant hat tips to Hollywood crime cinema, ranging from Jimmy Cagney star vehicles to Scorsese’s own underworld sagas. The result — co-edited, no less, by the latter’s right-hand woman, Thelma Schoonmaker — may lack the charging formal brio of Kashyap’s 2012 Cannes sensation “Gangs of Wasseypur,” but it’s clear why the pic has already achieved substantial international distribution. Its Locarno festival date could usher in a second wave of cinephile appreciation.
“Our love story will be epic; our life, a smash hit,” our hero informs his paramour toward the end of a sprawling narrative that has already seen its fair share of drama writ large. It’s a line perfectly representative of a script that’s bigger on suds than subtlety, and hyper-conscious throughout of its medium — its every character living in a movie of their own making. When another states that “life is not ‘Double Indemnity,'” he’s only partially correct: Life, at least as “Bombay Velvet” knows it, simply follows a different frame of genre reference, as Kashyap packs proceedings with unveiled allusions to gangster-cinema touchstones. A recurring line of dialogue is appropriated from “The Roaring Twenties” (itself excerpted onscreen), a climactic shootout slavishly restages Brian De Palma’s “Scarface,” and so on and so forth.
Some may see this as idle pastiche, though it aptly reflects the characters’ own painstaking attempts at occidental self-styling: Young street punk Balraj (Ranbir Kapoor, grandson of golden-age Bollywood idol Raj) is rechristened “Johnny” when he begins work as a lackey for a sharp-suited local crime lord, ultimately managing the American Art Deco-style jazz club that gives the film its name. (Not for nothing, in this ersatz world of spangly imitation, does “Bombay Velvet” also sound like a cut-price brand of gin.) A sizable portion of the film’s heavily knotted plot, meanwhile, revolves around the aggressive urban planning of Mumbai’s city center in the 1960s and 1970s, whereby land was reclaimed from the sea for an overtly Manhattan-aping CBD.
Over a terrific opening credits sequence — an elaborate production number dizzyingly julienned by Schoonmaker and original editor Prerna Saigal, shot in shimmying, Campari-filtered style by Rajeev Ravi — Kashyap seems less inspired by vintage potboilers than he is by the jittery postmodern artifice of “Chicago.” And if the film turns out to be less of a full-time tuner than this intro suggests, it’s for no lack of savvy in Amit Trivedi and Amitabh Bhattacharya’s slinky Hindi torch songs: The musical mood board here is no less era-melding than the cinematic one.
Following that punchy salvo, the pic’s establishing reels are its saggiest, detailing the childhood trials of the principals in decade-hopping fashion. Raised rough in the city’s dusty social fringes, hot-headed Johnny finds a lifelong ally in the more circumspect Chimman (Satyadeep Misra) and develops a taste for bare-knuckle combat that will follow him into adulthood. Over in Goa, meanwhile, honey-voiced Rosie (Anushka Sharma) is taken from her family by an abusive svengali, eventually fleeing to the big city to pursue a singing career. Through a complicated chain of unsavory circumstances, with nude photographs a skeleton in at least two characters’ closets, Johnny and Rosie wind up both working at Bombay Velvet in the mid-1960s — he as a lackey to slick club owner and criminal kingpin Khambatta (Karan Johar), she as the club’s resident chantoosie.
As handsome knuckleheads and smoky sirens are wont to do in the movies, the two fall hard and fast for each other. The subsequent course of true love, of course, could hardly run less smoothly: Blackmail plots, false identity, murder and a few bouts of good old-fashioned cage fighting collide to fill 148 uneven but undeniably eventful minutes, crescendoing to a bullet-riddled climax. If it’s practically an exercise in minimalism relative to the five-hour assault of “Gangs of Wasseypur,” Kashyap’s storytelling somehow seems less bullishly controlled here. It’s also more propulsive than it is moving: Johnny (played by Kapoor less in a Cagney vein than with a lunkish hint of prime Stallone) is too dim a protagonist to wholeheartedly root for, while his romance with Rosie is a shallow, backlit business. We’re in a world, after all, of platinum-plated character types, not actual people.
It’s the high-gloss realization of that world that affords many of the pic’s most delicious pleasures: “Bombay Velvet” is an extravagant canvas for both production designer Sonal Sawant and costume designer Niharika Bhasin Khan, one on which even apparent anachronisms look calculated. Kashyap is besotted with the iconography and material trappings of Hollywood gangsterism — showroom-fresh cars, gleaming weaponry and slyly draped evening gowns, all spattered with blood amid the glitter — but equally attentive to the earthy Eastern remnants of a city still determining its identity.