Locarno Film Review: ‘Bombay Velvet’

Anurag Kashyap's Bollywood ode to Hollywood gangsterism may trade in pastiche, but is very much its own creation.

Ranbir Kapoor, Anushka Sharma, Karan Johar, Satyadeep Misra, Manish Chaudhary, Kay Kay Menon, Shaanti, Siddhartha Basu, Sandesh Jadhav, Vivaan Shah, Vasundhara Kaul. (Hindi, Portuguese, English dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2979920/?ref_=nv_sr_1

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.

Locarno Film Review: 'Bombay Velvet'

Reviewed at Locarno Film Festival (Piazza Grande), Aug. 10, 2015. Running time: 148 MIN.

Production: (India) A Fox Star Studios presentation of a Phantom Films production. (International sales: Fox Star Studios, Mumbai.) Produced by Vikas Bahl, Vikramaditya Motwane. Co-producer, Vivek B. Agrawal.

Crew: Directed by Anurag Kashyap. Screenplay, Kashyap, Gyan Prakash, Thani, Vasan Bala. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Rajeev Ravi; editors, Thelma Schoonmaker, Prerna Saigal; music, Amit Trivedi; lyrics, Amitabh Bhattacharya; production designer, Sonal Sawant; art director, Sameer Sawant; set decorators, Kazvin Dangor, Rose Maria Tharakan; costume designer, Niharika Bhasin Khan; sound (Dolby Digital), Kunal Sharma; supervising sound editor, Zahir Bandukwala; re-recording mixers, Justin Jose, Sreejesh; visual effects supervisor, Kunal Ahuja; visual effects, Prana Studio; choreography, Ashley Lobo; associate producer, Ranjan Singh; line producers, Ainsley De Silva, Tanvi Gandhi; assistant director, Deepika Gandhi; second unit director, Vasan Bala; casting, Mukesha Chhabra.

With: Ranbir Kapoor, Anushka Sharma, Karan Johar, Satyadeep Misra, Manish Chaudhary, Kay Kay Menon, Shaanti, Siddhartha Basu, Sandesh Jadhav, Vivaan Shah, Vasundhara Kaul. (Hindi, Portuguese, English dialogue)

More Film

  • Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell

    Film Review: 'TINY: The Life of Erin Blackwell'

    “Streetwise,”  the classic and haunting 1984 documentary about homeless street kids in Seattle, is a movie that’s now 35 years old. But for anyone who has seen it, the children it’s about — drifters, hustlers, squatters, thieves, prostitutes — remain frozen in time. And none of them was ever more memorable than Tiny, the 14-year-old [...]

  • Animation Studio Fire

    Revenge Motive May Have Sparked Kyoto Animation Arson Attack

    Japanese media is speculating that revenge was the motivation for the arson attack on Kyoto Animation which killed 33 people on Thursday. Investigative sources quoted by Jiji Press on Friday said that the man in custody had a grudge against the studio. “Since [the studio] stole my novel, I poured out the liquid and set [...]

  • Terminator: Dark Fate Gabriel Luna

    'Terminator: Dark Fate' Cast Proud of Latinx Representation in Latest Installment

    The stars of the Tim Miller-directed “Terminator: Dark Fate” stormed the stage of San Diego Comic-Con’s Hall H on Thursday, but it wasn’t until after the panel — which included appearances from Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton — that Natalia Reyes, Gabriel Luna and Diego Boneta reflected on what makes the upcoming installment in the [...]

  • It

    Producer Sues Warner Bros. Over 'It' Film Adaptations

    A producer who developed the original “It” TV miniseries sued Warner Bros. on Thursday, alleging the studio breached his contract by making the films “It” and “It Chapter Two” without him. Frank Konigsberg and Larry Sanitsky were running Telepictures in the early 1980s when they acquired the rights to the Stephen King novel. They developed [...]

  • Animation Studio Fire

    Kyoto Arson Attack: Animation Community Mourns Colleagues

    Thursday’s deadly attack on Japan’s Kyoto Animation studios left many in the animation community shocked and horrified by the loss of 33 of their colleagues. Another 36 people were injured in the attack, which was Japan’s deadliest ever. A suspect was arrested after pouring a flammable liquid inside the building, which caught fire and trapped [...]

  • Nicolas Cage

    Film News Roundup: Nicolas Cage's '10 Double Zero' Completes Financing

    In today’s film news roundup, financing has been secured for a Nicolas Cage police drama, feature drama “Topside” is unveiled and the late Tom Snyder is getting a tribute from his daughter. FINANCING COMPLETED DCR Finance Corp. has signed a deal to complete the financing for Nicolas Cage’s upcoming crime drama “10 Double Zero.” The [...]

  • Matt Damon and Tom McCarthy Team

    Matt Damon Teams with 'Spotlight' Director Tom McCarthy on New Film (EXCLUSIVE)

    Even as buzz grows for his upcoming race car drama “Ford v. Ferrari,” Matt Damon looks to keep the pedal to the metal: the A-lister is set to star in the Participant Media feature film “Stillwater” with Tom McCarthy directing. Damon attached himself in May, and the package was quickly acquired by Participant, who previously [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content