Bombay Velvet (2015): Anurag Kashyap's sprawling period piece with an excess of style over substance

Karan Johar shines in his acting debut

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review

By Murtaza Ali

Featured in IMDb Critic Reviews

Bombay Velvet, Film Poster, Directed by Anurag Kashyap, starring Ranbir Kapoor, Anushka Sharma
Bombay Velvet (2015) - By Anurag Kashyap
Our Rating: 7.0
IMDb Ratings: 6.4
Genre: Drama
Cast: Ranbir Kapoor, Anushka Sharma, Karan Johar
Country: India
Language: Hindi
Runtime: 149 min
Color: Color

Summary: Set against the backdrop of ambition, love, greed, and jazz, Bombay Velvet is the story of one ordinary man who goes against all odds and forges his destiny to become a 'Big Shot'.

Bombay Velvet is a period crime drama film directed and co-produced by renowned Indian filmmaker Anurag Kashyap. Bombay Velvet, made with a whopping budget of INR 80 crore (800 million), marks a departure for Kashyap who over the last decade has succeeded in carving a niche for himself in Hindi cinema with low budget, highly unconventional and genre-transcending films like Dev D, Gulaal, and Gangs of Wasseypur. Based on historian Gyan Prakash's book “Mumbai Fables,” Bombay Velvet stars Ranbir Kapoor, Anushka Sharma, Karan Johar, Kay Kay Menon, and Manish Chaudhary in major roles. The movie presents the larger-than-life tale of a small-time but ambitious gangster Johnny Balraj, who would stop at nothing in a bid to realize his dream of becoming a “big shot” in the elite social circles of the 1960s Bombay, and his lady-love Rosie—an aspiring Jazz singer  with a heart of gold.

Ranbir Kapoor as Johnny Balraj in Bombay Velvet, Directed by Anurag Kashyap
Ranbir Kapoor as Johnny Balraj in Bombay Velvet
Given the humongous scope, both in terms of sheer ambition as well as in a commercial sense, Kashyap seems to have put a lot on stake with Bombay Velvet. Here is a willful filmmaker walking on thin ice. A major concern with a big budget film is that the creative freedom must take the back seat. The filmmaker is forced to let go of the selfishness one usually associates with an artist. At each and every stage, he must be willing to make compromises vis-a-vis indie filmmaking wherein the director has the creative luxury an artist so badly craves for. While tackling a commercial endeavor, the best that a filmmaker can do is to try and strike some kind of a balance between his own creative aspirations and the commercial expectations of those funding the project. Of course, it’s easier said than done, for even a slight error in judgment can make things go awry. The more ambitious the scope, the lesser are the chances of success. Like it happens with Bombay Velvet: Kashyap aims for glory but falls short by some distance.

Anushka Sharma as Rosie in Bombay Velvet, Ranbir Kapoor as Johnny Balraj, , Directed by Anurag Kashyap
Anushka Sharma as Rosie in Bombay Velvet 
While it would be a bit farfetched to describe Bombay Velvet as a cinematic success, it would also be unfair to deem it a failure. Yes, it’s a mess of a film but a mess that’s way more alluring than the trash that Bollywood churns out day in and day out. Then why complain? Well, because we expect better from Kashyap! This critic for one is devastated by the very thought of what it could have been had a filmmaker of Kashyap’s caliber brought his a-game to the table. Kashyap's love for cinema and his ear for music are praiseworthy. The tone of Bombay Velvet is set from the word go: it opens up with some stock footage showing the early days of the city of Bombay (now Mumbai) which is immediately followed a jazz number featuring Raveena Tandon donning the ‘60s retro look. In the view of this critic, the movie touches it highest point during the early scene that shows a young Rosie, in Goa, hum a melodious song in Portuguese. The combined effect of the very song and the mystical background music (reminiscent of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s films) created a sense of magic for a few fleeting moments that, alas, couldn’t be recreated in the latter scenes.

Karan Johar as Kaizad Khambata in Bombay Velvet, Directed by Anurag Kashyap
Karan Johar as Kaizad Khambata in Bombay Velvet
Bombay Velvet features several exceptional shots but there are as many bad ones as well. Perhaps, Kashyap seems to have forgotten about the legendary American filmmaker Howard Hawks’ saying that “a good movie is three good shots and no bad ones.” In order to truly appreciate Bombay Velvet, one needs to be madly in love with movies, for it pays endless tributes to yesteryear films and stars with Film Noir and Classic Hollywood influences abound. Kashyap's fascination for all things cinema is evident in each and every frame. The scene which shows Johnny Balraj sitting in a film theatre and watching Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties (1939) is an instant classic (it certainly gives us a hint about Johnny's future). There is another epic scene wherein Johnny, unloads two Thompson submachine guns, holding one in each of his hands, on the assassins sent out to kill him à la Tony Montana of Scarface (1983). Then there is a sequence which depicts Johnny relaxing in an opium den (a scene that’s highly reminiscent of a similar scene in Sergio Leone’s magnum opus Once Upon a Time in America). The fact that Johnny starts off as a prize fighter and at one point in time also works as a longshoreman for a smuggler reminds one of Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy from Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954). On the other hand, we have Rosie who is a perfect mix of a femme fatale and a mobster moll.

Kay Kay Menon in Karan Johar's Bombay Velvet, Investigating Officer, Directed by Anurag Kashyap
Kay Kay Menon in Karan Johar's Bombay Velvet 
Make no mistake! Johnny Balraj is just not greedy for money and power like John Dillinger or Tony Montana. Johnny is driven by a sense of feral insanity (he is both barbaric and cruel) from the very onset. He is more like Cody Jarrett (James Cagney’s character in White Heat). Both Johnny and Cody are psychopathic criminals with a mother complex. Perhaps, that’s why Johnny comes across as more dangerous and less likable. Ranbir Kapoor looks daring and a bit over-the-top as Johnny Balraj. But, if it were Cagney he was trying to imitate then he certainly got it spot on. Of all the actors from the Hollywood’s golden age, Cagney is the most unique mainly because of his over-the-top acting style. It’s something that the great Stanley Kubrick took a note of when he made Jack Nicholson essay the role of Jack Torrance in his psychological horror masterpiece The Shining (1980). It certainly caught Kashyap’s attention as well. Anushka Sharma is a natural when it comes to playing bold feministic roles and in Bombay Velvet she plays a jazz singer to a tee (she seems to have perfected the act of lip syncing). As Rosie she is a treat for the sore eyes and those responsible for her wardrobe certainly need to be commended. While Karan Johar’s menacing portrayal of the business magnate Kaizad Khambatta is the movie’s real highlight, Kay Kay Menon is solid as ever in the role of a no-nonsense cop. Another actor who deserves a special mention is Manish Chaudhary for playing the part of a prying journalist Jimmy Mistry. 

Karan Johar as Kaizad Khambata, Ranbir Kapoor as Johnny Balraj, in Bombay Velvet, Directed by Anurag Kashyap
A Still from Karan Johar's Bombay Velvet 
Overall, Bombay Velvet is a sprawling period piece with an excess of style over substance. The film suffers from poor market segmentation and targeting for it may prove to be a bit too overwhelming for the masses and at the same time the aficionados may not find it too appealing to their palates, despite all its merits. The movie captures the period detail with painstaking accuracy.  Kashyap’s morbid obsession for the grotesque and the macabre just doesn’t seem to let go of him. The movie gives us glimpses of the evolution of Bombay into the financial capital it is today and the scandalous roles bureaucrats, politicians and businessmen played in shaping up its map. Bombay Velvet is far from being a quintessential Anurag Kashyap but given its commercial scope it will certainly be able to reach a wider audience than most Kashyap films. The music, sets and costumes ooze with a hitherto unattained degree of resplendence, especially in the context of India cinema. Bombay Velvet is not an easy film to appreciate for the masses, mainly because of its excesses. It would take a diehard cinema enthusiast to truly enjoy it. The movie is quite high on violence quotient and those with weak hearts would find certain sequences quite disturbing. Nonetheless, as a mere exercise in style, Bombay Velvet is a commendable attempt but its prospects at the box office appear to be rather bleak. Recommended only for cinema enthusiasts!

Readers, please feel free to share your views/opinions in the comment box below. As always your feedback is highly appreciated!  


Bombay Velvet (2015) Trailer

James Cagney - White Heat (1949)

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  1. I am so glad to hear that, Bindu!

  2. The movie started well but stretched too much. Found it painfully long.

  3. A pleasure reading you, thanks,
    Waiting for the release of Bombay Velvet in France. Anurag Kasyap was made Chevalier dans l'ordre des arts et des lettres in 2013 at Cannes. A future for this film outside India ?.

  4. I am sorry to hear that... it's certainly a difficult movie to watch and of course the run time doen't help the cause!

  5. Thanks for those kind words (must also thank you for bringing that typo to my knowledge). I have just learnt that Anurag Kashyap is permanently moving to Paris as he feels that he wants to make his films where people have lesser boundaries, where he can actually push himself (which is not possible in Bollywood). I certainly feel that Bombay Velvet has a lot of potential to do well overseas as people outside India will be able to relate better to it!

  6. Chandan Kumar DekaMay 18, 2015 at 1:38 AM

    today only I see the movie n I must say....u dissect it very right way. I like Ranbir's performance most. The story line have nothing much new to offer, but the execution and styling is something watchable. Average in terms of Anurag's stranded, bt far better than most of recent bollywood commercial success.

  7. Glad you agree with my overall assessment!

  8. I watched it on Friday itself and really enjoyed it! Its really disheartening that it's getting not so good reviews by the lousy critics... Good to read ur review!!! coz I now know why I enjoyed it! I have to say though that Ranbir has done a great job, right to the character...not over the top I wud say!

  9. Thanks for agreeing with my point of view on the movie, Roopa... it was the characters demand to be over the top and so in a way your are right, for Ranbir did everything he was expected to do. If you would watch White Heat, you would notice what James Cagney character achieves there is not much different from what's expected of Ranbir's Johnny Balraj.


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