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Sunday, 17 May 2015

Velvet, but Far from Soft

Spoiler-free Content

Here's a film that is as refreshingly different from its contemporaries as Bollywood allows one to be. Directed by Anurag Kashyap, Bombay Velvet is the crowning of his artistic vision, his magnum opus, a film that's been in the works for close to a decade and also the one on which he's bet the biggest in terms of scale and budget.

The film's first quarter is probably its worst, but also its most necessary. The plot is driven forward a little too hurriedly and the film falls prey to a couple of Bollywood's favorite tropes -- the immigrant mother who solicits herself to feed her son, and the prodigy who was sexually abused as a child and escapes to the city after ridding herself of her captor only to be taken advantage of again. But these developments, one quickly following another, set the canvas for the rest of the film to then fill out. Rosie's arc in particular informs us on why her character later seems to find little joy in singing. And while many have been quick to blame Anushka Sharma for Rosie's lack of pizzazz on stage, I thought this was deliberate on Anushka's part and definitely not something she failed to pull off. The fact that Rosie is easily and often distracted during her performances reiterates this.

Many have noted Scorsese's seminal works as the film's inspirations, but perhaps a better comparison would be Baz Luhrrman's Gatsby. Both are a commentary on the social classes that money or lack thereof creates, and depict the familiar struggle between old money and new. And both will probably be remembered more for their rich visuals than for their story.

Ranbir Kapoor effectively captures the angst and hunger of a street rat, constantly struggling to rise above what society deems him worthy of. There are decent performances from the rest of the supporting cast as well, but nothing that they're likely to showcase as the highlight of their career. With one exception.
The absolute revelation of Bombay Velvet is Karan Johar. In him, Kashyap finds someone who is not only perfect for the part of the genteel Kaizad Khambatta but is also a blue-blooded Bombay thorough-bred, who understands the city's elite like few others. Be it while commenting on the sartorial choices of Johnny and Rosie or while sneaking out of the room only to let himself giggle freely at Johnny's interpretation of tender, Johar plays his character with glitzy aplomb.

Amit Trivedi's score feels completely right for the film, and sets the tone beautifully throughout. Fifi, another wonderful remix by Mikey McCleary, certainly warrants a few more listens after you've seen the movie. The film's most euphoric moment for me was when Johnny comes out all Tommy guns blazing, with Trivedi's rendition of Whiplash blaring in the background.

All in all, Bombay Velvet is a momentous film for Bollywood. While not as visceral as some of Kashyap's earlier work, Velvet sets a benchmark for period dramas and neat, understated acting. This is definitely not a film that I would ever regret watching in the theater, and one that you should at least watch for yourself before deciding whether you like it or not.

A word of caution

In the off-chance that you're pumped about watching the movie after reading my review, here's a disclaimer -- going into a movie like this expecting to have your mind blown is probably the quickest way to ruin it for yourself.

Even as I write this, Bombay Velvet has been labeled disappointing by fans and critics alike for a reason best explained here - On Bombay Velvet: How internet is killing the movie and the curse of being Anurag Kashyap. I can understand that the film isn't for everyone but an audience that doesn't let cinema like this breathe and reap at least some of what it has sown in terms of expenditures, later has little right to complain about the ennui brought about by Bollywood's usual trite fare.

So, go in with qualified expectations, sit tight as the plot unfurls and then let yourself be wooed by the cinematic experience that the film is. This is certainly not a film to be missed altogether or seen through torrents.

Spoiler-filled observations

  • I loved how real Johnny's reaction to Rosie's photo was. The photo was far from scandalous, and I was glad that Johnny too saw it as such. It would have been a letdown if the film's climax hinged on him being outraged by something so clearly vanilla.
  • Once it was established that Johnny's skirmishes in the steel cage are to satisfy his masochistic tendencies, Kashyap could have skipped one bout or two, especially since they're all between the same two fighters.
  • Why Rosie comes back to attend her pseudo-funeral is beyond me.
  • The scene where Khambatta shoots Rosie was gold.
  • The intended meta scene was where Glitz refers to Khambatta as a fruitcake. But KJo's presence has a slightly detrimental effect on the denouement of the film as him gasping while Johnny "stabs" him makes it look as though the two are engaging in some coitus, albeit it from the front.
  • While the commissioner shooting Johnny in the end and saving Mayor Quizmaster's reputation in the process was probably a natural culmination for the film, I couldn't help but wish for a happier ending. But meh, this is a minor gripe courtesy the romantic in me.

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