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Gangster Squad

Gangster Squad

The reason why Bombay Velvet didn’t work is because it borrows too many elements from Hollywood mafia counterparts — without getting into the heart of the characters

By Vir Sanghvi

Published: Fri 12 Jun 2015, 1:51 PM

Last updated: Wed 22 Jul 2015, 3:59 PM

ANOTHER TIME, ANOTHER PLACE: Anurag Kashyap, recreated 1960s Bombay in Sri Lanka for Bombay Velvet (poster above)—a ploy that didn’t quite work
ANOTHER TIME, ANOTHER PLACE: Anurag Kashyap, recreated 1960s Bombay in Sri Lanka for Bombay Velvet (poster above)—a ploy that didn’t quite work
If you follow Hindi cinema, then you’ll probably know about Bombay Velvet. Made on a massive budget, packed with big stars and helmed by the highly-respected director Anurag Kashyap, Bombay Velvet was expected to be one the year’s biggest movies. It was backed by a big Hollywood studio (Fox); it was shot on locations and sets that had been recreated at great expense in Sri Lanka; and it marked the return to the screen — after a comparatively long absence — of Ranbir Kapoor, possibly the hottest young star in Bombay.
Preview audiences loved the movie. The studio was said to have been delighted with the finished product and both stars (Ranbir and Anushka, cast against type) were enthusiastic about Bombay Velvet’s prospects.
But, as you probably know, everyone was wrong. The film was a washout at the box-office within a day of its release and will now rank among Bollywood’s biggest flops.
So what went so wrong with Bombay Velvet?
Frankly, I have no idea. Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman (Marathon Man, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) coined the expression, “Nobody knows &anything” to encapsulate what he had learnt in the course of his career. What Goldman meant was that nobody understands the box-office. ‘Surefire hits’ turn into box-office disasters and small movies that nobody had any expectations from become massive successes.
Everything Goldman said about Hollywood is true about Bollywood — only more so.
But when I did go to see Bombay Velvet — long after it had been declared a flop — I wasn’t terribly surprised by its box-office performance. I couldn’t for the life of me see how anyone expected the film to be a hit (easy to say with the benefit of hindsight, I guess!).
At least some of the hype surrounding the movie centred around the period setting. Though the film begins in the years after India became independent in 1947, the bulk of the action is set in 1969. As much of Bombay looks nothing like it did in 1969 (though many parts of central Bombay have not changed that much), Kashyap built a replica of 1960s Bombay in Sri Lanka and shot the movie there — or so the publicists claim. It is unusual for a Hindi film director to go to so much trouble and so Kashyap’s quest for perfectionism led to some of the interest the movie evoked before its release.
The problem — at least from the perspective of somebody who grew up in 1960s’ Bombay — is that so much of the period detail is wrong. Plainclothes policemen in Bombay in 1969 did not dress like salesmen at an upmarket branch of Bata. They did not wear white shirts and white trousers with ties. An inspector in the crime branch would not have worn a Homburg-style hat. And it makes no sense for the police commissioner to dress up as a sub-inspector at a time when his juniors are all in fancy plain clothes.
As for the plotline, it is faintly ridiculous. For all of the 60s, two rival Parsi tabloid editors were the talk of Bombay. One of them, Dosu Karaka ran Current (called Torrent in the movie), a right-wing, pro-American weekly. The other, Russy Karanjia, ran the left-leaning and vastly more successful Blitz (called Glitz in the picture).
Bombay Velvet captures the rivalry between the editors without ever understanding how these weeklies actually worked (at one stage, the Glitz editor even shouts, “Stop the press”, a phrase no Indian editor has ever uttered). In the movie, Karan Johar, who plays the Karaka figure, is a camp-villain and murderer with so much influence that he is part of a scheme to reclaim the sea at Nariman Point. The Karanjia figure (called Mistri) comes off better (he doesn’t actually kill anyone) but only marginally so.
So here’s my question: why try so hard to recreate 60s Bombay if you have so little understanding of how the city was actually run?
The answer to that question is probably the same as the reason for all the period inaccuracies. Kashyap has no real interest in 1960s Bombay. He had set out to make a gangster movie of the sort that Martin Scorsese or Brian De Palma would make. And to give it the canvas of, say, Scorsese’s Casino or De Palma’s Scarface, he has created an imaginary city and decided to pretend that it is 60s Bombay.
Fans of the gangster-movie genre will recognise the tribute and the lifts: the Al Pacino-in-Scarface persona that Ranbir adopts; the scene with the Santa Clauses that comes from so many Hollywood movies (such as Robin And The Seven Hoods); and the settings that remind you of Casino.
And, judged as an effort to make a gangster movie, Bombay Velvet is an honourable failure. It does not work, of course. But that is not because it is improbable (since when was that a problem for a Hindi movie?).
It doesn’t work because nobody cares about the central characters. Anushka is miscast and misdirected. And Ranbir is never likeable. It is true that Pacino in Scarface was also desperately unlikeable. But the day has still not come when what works in Hollywood also works in Bollywood.