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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.
Insightful review as always, Kathy. But I was eagerly awaiting your assessment of KJo’s performance as a villain. Surely he’s worth a couple of sentences 😉 ?
I thought the less said the better, Amin. 😉 The last thing I ever needed to see was KJo wearing shorts.
“but there isn’t enough historical context provided for international audiences to really get a handle on what’s going on. ” – Oh don’t fret. Even we locals who actually know a little bit of the history of Bombay have no idea what the context was supposed to be. And wha?? Didn’t like Karan Johar’s giggling? Highlight of the film that was…..
Ha ha ha!
Good review Kathy. I was severely disappointed by the film. I didnt care for any of the characters. Also the ending was very predictable.
I agree with you about Ranbir’s performance though it’s a shame that his character was not fleshed out properly.
The film has disastrous collections in India as compared to the budget of the film. It is slated to lose over 75% of the investment.
I thought the film was too crude for the family audience and too flashy for the masses, in the end satisfying no one.
A loss of 75%, Vivek?! Wow. I thought the epilogue was especially dumb.
Disappointing. Kashyap shouldn’t get so much money for production. It clearly makes him lose objectivity. I’m sure if they gave him a couple of handhelds and a crew of 50, this movie would’ve been EPIC!
What sucks, Shah, is that I like where a lot of the money went. The costumes and sets are really pretty spectacular. Creating a compelling main character is (theoretically) free, and that’s where Kashyap and his crew went wrong.
Because of auto traffic on Thursday (Tampa Rays playing Yankees in St. Pete ), appointments on Friday, Rangers hockey game this afternoon, I had to put off seeing Piku. Now it looks like I’ll have to do a double – Piku and Bombay Velvet in one day.
Is it me – or are we in the midst of a retro surge in Bollywood. Bombay Velvet, and before that Detective Byomkesh Bakshi/ I sort of like to see what the directors can do with it visually – so it isn’t great news to read that in the case of Bombay Velvet – it is clearly style (and look) over substance.
Thanks, Mike. This is the year for period films and thrillers. I suspect part of Piku‘s success is that — as a contemporary family film — it stands out from everything else that’s been offered in recent months.
I just watched the film and highly disappointed of this magnum opus where settings, costumes look visually stunning and spectacular minus strong story. It has too many loopholes and flaws which resulted it the biggest disastrous movie of Mr. Kashyap till today. The biggest blunder was to cast KJ who just looks alike a card board character, a digital performer.To my surprise why he used to send his wife as honey trap when he could`ve easily afforded any other girl/call girl to trap his rivals. His wife too never objected to his evil plans nor any relationship shown between them. Well, there are plenty of unanswered and half cooked incidents. Had Mr. Kashyap put more research and minor details to the story along with his co writers, he wouldn`t have been thinking to run away from this complete failure.
“To my surprise why he used to send his wife as honey trap when he could`ve easily afforded any other girl/call girl to trap his rivals.” That’s a good point, Rajeev. If the only reason was so that Johnny could tell Chimman (in essence), “Hey, if he’s willing to pimp out his wife, imagine what he’ll do to us,” then that’s not a good enough reason to include it in the movie. It just doesn’t make sense. Do the politicians that get trapped not realize that she’s his wife? Have they never seen her with KJ’s character before?
Ha ha ha so true Kathy and you”ve explained it so clearly now. I am much relieved…:)
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As a somewhat new Bollywood follower (1-2 years), this was – unfortunately – the first Bollywood film I saw in the theater. My disappointment was compounded by the fact that I love Anushka & Ranbir, and with my love for the music of the time period, I thought there was no way I couldn’t like the film. It was beautiful like you say, but the story just wasn’t there and I ended up not caring at all about any of the characters. Thankfully I’ll be seeing Piku this weekend!
What a bummer for a first Bollywood theatrical experience, Monica! I hope you have a much better time watching Piku. [I think you will. 🙂 ]
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Interesting review Kathy!
I like the way you introduce things 😛
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