Last week, when I interviewed the team of Bombay Velvet, Karan Johar described director Anurag Kashyap as ‘a mess, a glorious mess’. He could’ve been talking about the film. Bombay Velvet, which starts out in 1949 and ends in the 1960s, is admirably ambitious. Parts of it are glorious, but it’s also undeniably a mess.
The script draws upon Princeton historian Gyan Prakash’s book Mumbai Fables and journalist and author Naresh Fernandes’s writings on Bombay’s Jazz Age. Anurag and his co-writers, which include Prakash and director Vasan Bala, layer this with references to James Cagney and American gangster films of the 1930s, film noir, movies like LA Confidential and Chinatown, which tell the backstories of cities and, of course, with references to Mumbai’s own colorful history. So prohibition, tabloid wars, real-estate scams and the creation of Nariman Point are threaded into the plot. At the centre of this tangled web is the love story of Johnny Balraj (played by Ranbir Kapoor) and Rosie Noronha (played by Anushka Sharma). He is a street tough. She is a nightclub singer. Both have been damaged by abusive childhoods. This is not a story that can end happily, but while it lasts, it soars to Trivedi’s incredible Hindi jazz songs. However, all the skill on display can’t camouflage the disjointed, choppy screenplay. The narrative moves so abruptly that none of the characters is given time to develop. There is almost too much plot, and yet it isn’t gripping. Key plot points pop up and then randomly disappear. The climactic sequence has power and poetry, but it feels like too little too late. Bombay Velvet had the potential to be the definitive Mumbai noir. But the centre does not hold.