One of the many interesting bits in Anurag Kashyap's detailed epic crime saga Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) was how technology (mobile phones, pagers, refrigerators) was used in its visual narrative to tell about urbanization and the changing times in the story that sprawled over sixty years. Reading visuals from colonial era and its remains, and interpreting stories of urban cosmopolitanism and industrialization from them is what makes for most of the parts of historian Gyan Prakash's non-fiction Mumbai Fables (published in 2010)- which claims to be "the book behind the movie Bombay Velvet".
Bombay Velvet, Kashyap's latest, is set in the heady post-colonial world, stories about which Prakash has written in his book. But saying that it is the book behind the movie would not only be unfair but also untrue, because what the movie takes from the book is very much in the public domain: the Backbay reclamation scam, the strikes of communist mill workers, the jazz scene of Bombay; and the characters: Blitz tabloid's Russi Karanjia and his rival D F Karaka from Current. It is in how the film subverts them and alters the fact to the minutest detail (like, "The Last Page" column by Indian screenwriter K A Abbas alongside a titillating pinup- which also forms one of the subplots in the film- was a part of Blitz; here, it is of Torrent). The book celebrates the populism of Blitz and Karanjia, whereas, in the movie, we meet Jimmy Mistry (Manish Chaudhary), the editor of "Glitz", as a grey character with hideous intentions. Though, in reality, Current's Karaka, despite of being a capitalist, battered the development plans, its roleplay as Kaizad Khambatta (Karan Johar) of Torrent, in the film's world, is a part of it. So saying that the book is behind this movie is like saying that a certain History textbook about World War 2 is the book behind Inglourious Basterds.
The film's principal characters, Balraj and Rosie, like almost everyone in the city are immigrants. Balraj, brought up in the poverty of a brothel aspiring to become a "big shot" like those filmy heroes, is a product of the same mould that Kashyap borrowed from Martin Scorsese. Balraj even does a kind-of "You talkin' to me?". But his courage to bluff, dreams of excess and his arc meet that of Tony Montana from Scarface. (Also, both come to their respective cities through sea routes as a result of political dislocation). In a world that wants to be so true to the nitty-gritty of history, he is an embodiment of cinematic liberalism in that world, unlike Rosie who is so surefooted real and rooted. Whereas he frequents into street-fighting-- a profession Bombay streets never really saw; she comes to the city escaping from the oppressive Portuguese rule in Goa to join one of those jazz troupes that dominated the city night-clubs during that era. She is no Geeta Bali from Baazi (1951) or Sheila Ramani from Taxi Driver (1954) who would seduce her customers or flirt with them. She is, instead, shy and gets intimidated when any of her audience members approaches her. With these characters in hand whose relationship work like that of between fiction and reality, their love story could fly. But they are burdened to tell a history- a history of what is buried under the high rise on the lands of the city that we reclaimed from the sea. And this burden is so heavy that it makes the entire film, which was staged so monumentally, collapse.
The reason of this collapse is overwriting: Too many subplots mended together to form one thick plot without realising that each one of it is coming across as too flimsy. It does get denser in its way but fizzes out when the film relaxes in its leisurely pace. Who is conspiring whom and how, then becomes a tediously confusing thing to remember. Like watching Gangs of Wasseypur required a family-tree handy, this one needs a plot-graph. The writing process for both the films have been same: One story idea worked upon by a team of four writers including Kashyap himself. The brilliance of minimal storytelling and wit is on display in this one too. Like, in the opening scene of Gangs..., a phone is intentionally left unanswered to let the assailant caller assume that no one is alive to answer the phone, one standout scene here takes this logic farther when after an attack the phone is answered and no one from the either side speaks, yet both gets their message. This not only weeds out the possibility of a cliché but also pushes the economy of storytelling to a new edge.
But in this pushing of edge, has the mark from where it started off been misplaced? I mean, since when did Kashyap get so consciously serious and heavy-handed in his storytelling? A sticky figure (the emcee in the night-club) as a source of comedy is never Kashyap's idea of being funny who has this penchant of finding humor in the most unexpected places. A casual "Ruk ja na yaar" (Please stop, friend) amidst a tedium chase sequence in Black Friday (2006) was a great comic relief; the high-on-testosterone buffoon gangsters in Gangs... were a constant deal of humor. This film gets its breath of fresh air when Khambatta had to take an excuse to not laugh in front of Balraj (whom he has rechristened Johnny) and has to step out of the room to do so (Johar is lovely in this scene, maybe, because that elitist smug comes naturally to him). He walks back into the room all serious again. This is exactly the tone of the film: Hey, you can't be laughing, you are amidst the greatest-conspiracy-story-ever-that-made-this-city.
The level of detailing in Bombay Velvet runs so deep that one can come up with a set of pop-culture quiz questions from the film itself. I did chuckle when one clerk at the tabloid office speaks in South Indian accented English telling the presence of South Indian immigrants in the city doing white-collar jobs (which was the political agenda of Right-winger Hindu nativist party Shiv Sena then). The placard reading "You don't have to be crazy to work here, but it helps" from Karanjia's office is intact in its recreation. And the building where the conspiring murder with a planted bomb takes place is ironically called "Jeevan Jyot" (The Light of Life) which was also the name of the building where the naval-officer Nanavati fired a round of bullets at his wife's lover Ahuja. This incident was covered so extensively by the Blitz that it seeped into the pop-culture and so in one of the Rosie's songs in the film- "Sylvia" (named after Nanavati's wife).
The film, in its climax, is routine Kashyap from the Gangs of Wasseypur. He plays it all cool with an action sequence with Tommy Guns, and a jazz piece in the background makes it really cool. His romanticism with Tommy Guns goes to such an extent that there's even a joke about it set up before the action. Before his act of coolness could even end, the seriousness bug creeps in again and the Tommy Gun is dropped to deliver an end with the similar poetic justice as that in GoW. [Spoiler Alert] Just like Ramadhir Singh was sitting on a toilet commode that Faizal Khan used to clean in his childhood to earn coins, Khambatta is sitting under the same dome of Bombay Velvet club that he gifted to 'Johnny' Balraj. Except that the guns aren't blazing this time.