Bombay Velvet is a great-looking film held together by an unstable linchpin: its charismatic but problematic lead character, Johnny Balraj. Ranbir Kapoor is mesmerizing in the role, but Johnny can’t shoulder the story’s weight.
Johnny and his best friend, Chimman (Satyadeep Misra), grew up picking pockets on the streets of Bombay (now Mumbai) during the years after partition. As young men, Johnny puts his penchant for fighting to use, earning extra cash as a brawler. Imported Hollywood gangster movies show him a more glamorous, exciting life than the one he has. Johnny tells his friend, “I’m going to be a big shot, Chimman.”
The guys start out working as the muscle for a mobster named Khambatta (Karan Johar), who puts Johnny in charge of Bombay Velvet, a nightclub that provides cover for Khambatta’s illicit deals. Johnny falls for the club’s star jazz singer, Rosie (Anushka Sharma), a woman who’s been used by men all her life.
Khambatta’s illegal operations are set within Bombay’s evolution into a powerful global business center, but there isn’t enough historical context provided for international audiences to really get a handle on what’s going on. There are subplots about communists versus capitalists and union protests that aren’t fully explored.
I didn’t realize for about an hour that Khambatta ran a newspaper in addition to being a gangster, and that his chief rival, Jimmy Mistry (Manish Chaudhary) — who plants Rosie in the club as his mole — is another newspaper man. Did newspaper owners really have such powerful connections back in the day in Bombay? Is the story even realistic? It’s hard to tell from the context provided.
The nightclub itself is gorgeous, the kind of fancy supper club that now only exists in movies. The music is catchy and evocative. The gowns that Rosie performs in are works of art. Overall, this is a really beautiful film, never more so than during violent shootouts.
Sharma is great as a woman who is damaged but not broken. Kapoor is a coiled spring, his lithe frame suiting a character who has survived thanks to his scrappiness.
As exciting a character as Johnny is, he doesn’t quite work as a believable lead in this kind of film. He’s too impulsive to entrust with the power he’s given as the face of Bombay Velvet, a face sporting perpetual bruises at odds with the fancy clothes Johnny wears.
Much is made of the fact that Johnny isn’t book smart — the subtitled translation of Johnny’s slang into appropriate English colloquialisms is outstanding — but he’s not street smart either. He doesn’t understand the game the big shots are playing, so it’s impossible for him to work the situation to his advantage. When the elites don’t capitulate to his bullying, one wants to ask him, “Did you really think that would work?”
In other gangster movies, Johnny would be the dimwitted sidekick whose short temper gets him killed. It’s as if Joe Pesci’s Tommy in Goodfellas switched roles with Ray Liotta’s Henry.
The audience’s avatar in Bombay Velvet is Chimman, who looks at his friend with a combination of devotion, concern, and pity. (Misra’s restrained performance steals the show.) He knows how good they have it compared to their old life, and he knows where they are in the pecking order.
One suspects that, if Chimman were the alpha in the friendship, maybe he and Johnny could eventually become big shots. But he’s not, and they are both doomed by Johnny’s groundless ambition.