If organized crime is inevitable in a big city, which kind of crime syndicate is preferable: one large, powerful entity that operates without violence or several smaller gangs engaged in perpetual turf wars? Such is the question one police officer ponders in Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai.
Said police officer is Agnel Wilson (Randeep Hooda), the man responsible for investigating organized crime in Mumbai. When Wilson assumes his post in the mid-’70s, the criminal underworld is run by one man: Sultan Mirza (Ajay Devgan).
Sultan, who only needs one name, grew up an orphan on the streets of Mumbai. As his love for the city grew, he realized that Mumbai was being destroyed by gangs fighting over small portions of the smuggling business. As he rose to power, Sultan successfully divided the city among the biggest crime bosses, enabling them to conduct their illegal operations without harming innocent people. The gangsters — Sultan especially — quickly gain a more exulted reputation than either the government or the police.
Sultan’s Robin Hood-like reputation and his movie star girlfriend make him an appealing target for Officer Wilson. Little does Wilson know just how easy he had it with Sultan in charge. The climate begins to change with the rise of aspiring crime boss Shoaib Khan (Emraan Hashmi).
Shoaib’s background couldn’t be more different from Sultan’s. As a child, Shoaib turned to petty crime as a way to get a rise out of his police officer father. His father would discipline Shoaib by slapping him, further encouraging Shoaib to act out. He failed to develop a sense of empathy and embraced violence, adding a sinister edge to his dreams of surpassing Sultan.
Admiring Shoaib’s sense of courage, Sultan brings Shoaib into his inner circle. It’s a mistake that costs him and all of Mumbai dearly.
Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai, despite its flashy ’70s gangster backdrop, is a character study. Director Milan Luthria takes the time to show how Sultan became so beloved and why he’s so different from Shoaib. When Sultan slaps Shoaib, the significance is clear.
Devgan is in his element. He radiates an aura of controlled power, imbuing Sultan with benevolence and the authority over life and death simultaneously. In a white suit and sporting a mustache, Devgan already looks like a time traveller from the seventies.
The film could be shorter, but quality performances drive the story along. The easiest scenes to remove would be the song-and-dance numbers. It seems as if every movie about gangsters has to have a scene at a club after the main character makes his first big score. Shoaib’s dance club debauchery montage is unnecessary.
The movie’s subtitles are its biggest problem. At some moments, they are so poorly translated as to be confusing (and they disappear in a key scene at the movie’s end). I’m still trying to make sense of: “Till a horse is not beautified, it looks like a donkey.”