Sunday, September 6, 2015

Bombay Velvet—Of Walls, Cages, And Big Shots

Much has already been written on Anurag Kashyap's magnum opus Bombay Velvet. The film has been dissected to death, and there is not much left to say. I had watched the film when it had released, and I really liked it a lot, notwithstanding the opprobrium that the film was getting. I did not write about it, thinking I will wait for the DVD version to better analyze it. The DVD came out, and I watched it again, and this time, too, I liked it. But the problem is I don't know what to write. I am not adept at reviewing Anurag Kashyap's films, because of my severe lack of knowledge of Hollywood films, particularly, of the Martin Scoresese genre, from which Bombay Velvet takes its inspiration. Sir Rangan has already written a splendid review of the film, so, there is nothing new to write for a novice like me. I like to write on mainstream Bollywood movies more than anything else, and given Anurag Kashyap's penchant for indie films, I don't think I can do full justice by writing on the film. I cannot full explain why I liked Bombay Velvet, though trying to write a few points on the film below.
  • At one point in the film, a character says that Bombay was once called a golden bird, perhaps, that was the reason that throughout the film, there was a peculiar golden tinge. It was also given to distinguish the film's setting from the present day. Just as old photographs have a sepia tinge, the film wanted to reflect on the time passed by. 
  • There is a central theme in the film where the characters want to climb the social ladder, and become more powerful. This theme of power is not only reflected in their actions, but also subtly expressed using sexual references. Kaizad Khambhatta (a terrific Karan Johar) is gay, and is called a 'fruitcake' by his rival. He is married to a woman and has no qualms in using her as a honey-trap. His rival Jimmy Mistry (Manish Chaudhari) shares similar traits as Khambatta. He marries a rich man's disabled daughter so that he can take his money, and run his newspaper to advance his nefarious designs. If Khambatta is gay, Jimmy cannot perform in bed, as Rosie (Anushka Sharma) hinted at. In a way, both these men are lesser of men, as a sexual prowess is believed to be one of the essential characteristics to be a powerful 'man'. Then, comes in Balraj (Ranbir Kapoor). Khambatta looks at Balraj's penis and names him Johnny, a slang used for a man with a big cock. At one point later in the film, Rosie jokingly threatens to cut his penis, and says that he would clap like an eunuch on the streets. The irony is that Johnny might be adorned with an over-sized male anatomical part, but he has to work for effete impotent men, such as Khambatta and Mistry, to become a 'big shot'. The film's focal point is on a negative of a photograph of a politician in a compromising position with Khambatta's wife. Women are used as baits to trap them. These 'big shots' might be powerful but still they are weakened by one organ. Call it a co-incidence of fate, much before the film was released, Anurag Kashyap and Kamaal R. Khan were engaged in a battle of words related to a similar topic. Art imitating life, of life imitating art. It is funny how life works sometimes.

  • There is another interesting aspect in the film where geography mirrors some characters. Rosie runs away from her abusive teacher, and comes to Bombay. She is from Goa which was under the Portuguese control, and the Portuguese committed atrocities on the citizens, who wanted to get freedom from Portugal. In this way, Rosie and Goa share the same characteristics—beautiful, abused, captive, and trying to be free. At another point, the film says that Bombay was made by reclaiming the land between seven islands. Everybody wishes that Bombay becomes the Manhattan of India. Bombay banega mahangar. In this way, the aspirational vision of Bombay to become a metropolis mirrors Johnny's dream of becoming a big shot. Thus, both Johnny and the city of Bombay share a similar dream. It is, also, absolutely befitting that Bombay is also known as the city of dreams. However, both have to constantly fight to reach that dream but ultimately they will lose. Johnny is defeated by the Khambattas and the Mistrys, the city of Bombay is defeated by the nexus of politicians and industrialists. While Johnny is dead, the city of Bombay is sold to the powerful. Look at present day Bombay, where it is no longer called Bombay, it is Mumbai. It is home to the world's largest slum, and where the nexus of politicians and builders has taken over the entire real estate. It was supposed to be Manhattan and Shanghai, but the city can't even withstand a torrential rainfall. Bombay lies battered and defeated. No wonder Anurag Kashyap is leaving the city to move to Paris. 

  • I was also intrigued by the metaphor of a cage in the film. Johnny has this masochistic attitude where he goes and fights with a wrestler in a cage, and repeatedly loses to him. The cage and Johnny's repeated loss is a metaphor for the fight that a common man has to fight to become a big shot. Unless one is born rich, he is always stuck in a cage and is defeated like Johnny always used to lose in his caged-fights because, as the song says, "Hey aam hindustani teri kismat kharaab hai." This cage theme is repeated when Johnny says to Rosie that outside of Bombay lies a naked, starving India. It is as if Bombay is a cage that does not allow outsiders to enter in it easily. In the same, the club Bombay Velvet is a cage which only allows the rich and the powerful to come. In the final moments of the film, Johnny and Rosie are again trapped in a hotel room for days and they cannot go out because death awaits them outside. It is as if they are trapped in this cage, from which they cannot escape. The only way to come out is through the pipes on the walls of the hotel. There is the concept of walls and boundaries that the characters have to climb to get power, but the city of Bombay does not allow to do that easily. At one point, Johnny is dressed in the finest of white blazers, but just when he comes out of the car, his blazer gets torn and he had to take it off. Khambatta calls him a waiter when he saw Johnny without his blazer, a stark reminder that if you try to 'fit' in it, it won't let you do so easily. 
  • At another point in the film, a stand-up comedian jokes that since the English have already left the country, the communists are trying to fight the Englishmen, the people who speak English. We see this reference again later when Khambatta tries to break the friendship between Chinman (Satyadeep Mishra) and Johnny. Khambatta takes the reference of Jinnah and says that partition did not happen because Muslims wanted their own land, but it happened because Jinnah wanted to rule. If India had remained one, Jinnah would have never become President or Prime Minister. Just as English used the concept of divide and rule to create a wedge between India and Pakistan, the Englishman in the film, Khambatta, uses the same policy to break the friendship between Chinman and Johnny. Continuing this theme, I was curious that the name of the wrestler in the cage was 'Japani'. I am not able to come up with a convincing reason for it. At one point, Johnny remarks that one day he will bomb Japanese head. Was that a subtle metaphor for the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan, so could that mean Japani belonged to the forces of evil as Japan was called during the World War? Because eventually Japan lost the war; here too, Johnny wins over him in the end despite getting mauled every time before. Or could this be the reason? 

  • Somehow, the movie kept reminding me of Varun (Ranveer Singh) in Lootera. At one point in the film, Johnny says that everyone in the world used him to advance their interests. He wants to be a big shot one day. Similarly, in Lootera, Varun had said, "Mera zindagi me istemaal sab ne kiya, pyaar sirf tumne kiya." Varun, too, wanted to create a masterpiece some day. Both Johnny and Varun have shades of Dev Anand in them, and both the films seem to be inspired by Baazi. 

  • One of my favorite lines in the film was when Jimmy threatens Rosie ans says that if she did not give him the negative, he will expose her. It is an interesting play of words if you think about it :)
  • Rosie is inspired from Lorna Cordeiro, and the film is dedicated to her. Every man she has met in her life abused her. Whether it was the whipping teacher, the shady photographer, or the cigar-chewing Jimmy Mistry, all the men she met in her life wanted sexual favors from her. It was Johnny who cares for her, and loves her. She says it was Johnny who taught her to hit back. There is a wonderful scene when the two engage in a fight. He slaps her, and then, she slaps him back. She even hits him with a chair. Traditional Hindi film heroines of the era took suffering quietly. In no particular connection, a poster of Meena Kumari's Main Chup Rahungi is shown outside a brothel. But, Rosie is not going to remain quiet, she has learnt to hit back.

  • In addition to Lorna Cordeiro, the film is dedicated to Samita Sinha. Anurag explains the connection with Samita here
  • My issue with Bombay Velvet was that there was no suspense created in the movie. In the sense, for example, when Rosie is supposed to be dead in the bomb blast, immediately, after that it was revealed that she was not killed but she ran away with Johnny. Then, what was the point of creating this elaborate sequence of bomb blast? Why does she go back to her own mock funeral? It could have been revealed in the end that she was not dead but the film does not create that element of mystery and drama. At one point, we see that Johnny is watching James Cagney's The Roaring Twenties. The film inspires him to become a big shot. We see Johnny watching the film in a theater and the scene of James Cagney being shot, after which he dies. So, we know this is exactly what will happen to Johnny, too, in the climax. These all elements took the away the film's suspense, and it became to drag in some parts. If one knows the history of Bombay, then, this would be a far more enjoyable film. For instance, the song Sylvia is inspired from the case of Nanavati and Sylvia. Having read Salman Rushdie's fantastic Midnight's Children, I had some knowledge about Bombay; however, for an uninitiated viewer, it could be a bit confusing. Some readers have commented that the film's original reel was nearly five hours long, but the editor cut it down, perhaps, that might be the reason for some of the disoriented sequences. If only, we could get the entire reel.

  • In terms of performances, Bombay Velvet is a far, far superior film. Karan Johar is a revelation. There is this mean and vile streak in him, as seen in his TV shows, and in that one scene in Luck By Chance. The film uses him perfectly. Ranbir is very good, but somehow, his hairstyle looked terrible, and it kept reminding me of his mother. Anushkha Sharma is not so good in the songs, it seems she was struggling in them. In contrast, Raveena Tandon is superb in the songs. Amit Trivedi's music is simply terrific. I love Behrupia, much more than Dhadam Dhadam.
  • In the end credits, the film reflects the ultimate irony. It says Nariman Point, one of the the world's premier business districts, is named after K.F. Nariman, who vociferously fought against the Reclamation. The other irony is that of all the people, the only honest person in the film, Inspector Vishwas (Kay Kay Menon), whose name means trust, doffs his cap as if paying tribute to a thief's struggle and his death. 

The film may not have worked for many, but the kind of criticism it received was somewhat unwarranted. Perhaps, it was the burden of immense expectations that became the film's coffin. At one point, we see that there is a Mark Twain quote in Rosie's diary. It says, "Do something every day that you don't want to do; this is the golden rule for acquiring the habit of doing your duty without pain." And, that is the golden rule everyone should follow to do their duty. 

Dialogue of the Day:
"Hum sehra ki tarah, 
Tum baadal ho mera,
Baarishein dhoondti dhadam dhadam, 
Darbadar ghoomti dhadaam dhadaam."
— Rosie Noronha, Bombay Velvet

P.S.— Apologies for the bad writing :(

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