Why Bombay Velvet cannot be deemed a cinematic disaster?

A Potpourri of Vestiges Feature

Bombay Velvet, Film Poster, starring Ranbir Kapoor, Anushka Sharma, Directed by Anurag Kashyap

Anurag Kashyap's Bombay Velvet was destined to be a commercial failure from the word go. Given its humongous scope, both commercially as well as in terms of sheer ambition, Anurag Kashyap had put a lot on stake with Bombay Velvet (made with a whopping budget of INR 800 million). The movie marked a departure for Kashyap who over the last decade had succeeded in carving a niche for himself in Hindi cinema by making low budget, highly unconventional and genre-transcending films like Dev D, Gulaal, and Gangs of Wasseypur

Simply put, here was a willful filmmaker walking on thin ice. A major concern with a big budget film is that the creative freedom is forced to take the back seat. The maker must let go of the artistic selfishness right from the onset. At each and every stage, the maker must be willing to make compromises unlike with indie filmmaking wherein the director has the creative luxury every artist badly craves for. The best a commercial 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 happened with Bombay Velvet: Kashyap aimed for glory but fell short by some distance.

Ranbir Singh as Johnny Balraj in Bombay Velvet, directed by Anurag Kashyap
Ranbir Singh as Johnny Balraj in Bombay Velvet
Going by the Murphy's Law, it didn't take long for Bombay Velvet to fulfill its destiny. Not only did it prove to be a test of patience for the uninitiated viewers, it also proved to be a nightmare for its makers. Give the scale of catastrophe, it might take some time for Anurag Kashyap and company to come out of its shock. But, just because a film fails at the box office doesn't necessarily mean the film is bad in pure cinematic terms. As a film, Bombay Velvet relies too heavily on a viewer's understanding of the world cinema. It expects its audiences to be well versed with classic Hollywood films and stars. Perhaps, in order to appreciate Bombay Velvet, one needs to be madly in love with movies, like Kashyap himself. His fascination for all things cinema is evident in each and every frame of the film. Consider the scene which shows Johnny Balraj sitting in a film theatre and watching Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties (1939). It may be an instant classic for a sophisticated viewer but certainly not for the uninitiated. There is another scene of great intensity 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 the china town opium sequence 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. Yes, it's all pretty breathtaking if only one can relate to it, else it's a dud! 

James Cagney as Cody Jarrett (left) and Al Pacino as Tony Montana, collage
James Cagney as Cody Jarrett (left) and Al Pacino as Tony Montana 
Now let's focus our attention to Johnny Balraj's caricature. Johnny Balraj is just not greedy for money and power like John Dillinger or Tony Montana. Johnny is actually 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 was 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. Yes, Bombay Velvet is 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. We only complain because we expect better from someone as talented as Kashyap. We don't expect him to let his ambition get the better of him. Remember how he had managed to pull it off with Gangs of Wasseypur despite all odds? He could have done something similar with Bombay Velvet had he not abandoned his roots. All these years he had been successful because he never tried to compromise on his movie's raw, indigenous appeal. Yes, his films have always had a lot of cinematic flair but the raw intensity of the films spoke for themselves: be it Gulaal or Dev D. That's precisely what lacked in Bombay Velvet. There have been reports that he had originally envisioned a 4-hour-long period piece but had to ultimately give in to the studio pressure. Maybe we could have had a better movie! Maybe not! 

Raveena Tandon in Bombay Velvet, Directed by Anurag Kashyap
Raveena Tandon in Bombay Velvet
All being said and given what we have, Bombay Velvet nonetheless comes across as a sprawling period piece but one with an excess of style over substance. Among other flaws, the film also suffers from poor market segmentation and targeting: It's suicidal to cast A-list actors in experimental films. Yes, Bombay Velvet, at the end of the day, is an experimental film; whether it's by chance or by design can be a subject of debate. Bombay Velvet captures the period detail with painstaking accuracy. Kashyap's love for cinema and his ear for music are praiseworthy. Kashyap’s morbid obsession for the grotesque and the macabre just doesn’t seem to let go of him. The movie does give 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. Alas, no parallel could be established between Johnny's rise to power and Bombay's evolution as a city! The music, songs, sets and costumes ooze with a hitherto unattained degree of resplendence, especially in the context of India cinema. While the acting is decent all around, some of the secondary caricatures are not properly sketched. Bombay Velvet is not an easy film to appreciate for the masses, mainly because of its excesses. Even a diehard cinema enthusiast will find himself being pushed to the limit in order to fully appreciate its cinematic spirit. Nevertheless, as a mere exercise in style, Bombay Velvet is nothing short of a commendable attempt and hence it cannot be deemed a cinematic disaster.

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

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  1. Subhasish ChakrabortyJune 30, 2015 at 2:09 AM

    I don't agree with certain things you said, like it's style over substance, it's a mess of a film etc. Or that it could be better etc. If substance is conveyed stylistically, it doesn't mean substance isn't there. In fact, Bombay Velvet's problem could be, there's too much of substance. Too much of story, too much of information and incidents for average cine goer to bother about or capture. I know it's become fashionable to term Bombay Velvet as a "Glorious Mess" but on the contrary, if you spend some effort watching the movie again, you'll realize that it's actually very precise rather than being a mess.

    I completely agree with you that the movie didn't have a product market fit with the Indian Audience uninitiated in World Cinema or noirs. I've watched the movie twice in theater and the craftsmanship and quality of film making in Bombay Velvet is unmatched for contemporary Indian films.

    The most unfortunate aspect for this film has been the criminal critique it has got and the social media negativity which ultimately caused its commercial failure.

    I think Bombay Velvet's technical brilliance will inspire a generation of film makers, but its commercial failure will set Indian Film Industry by a few years by scaring away the trade side of the film industry.

  2. First things first... Let me begin by thanking you for sharing your thoughts in such great detail! I can see that you have done a thorough research of your own before reaching all those conclusions that you have shared above. I must tell you that there are not many cineastes around who have been so receptive of Bombay Velvet. And, in a way, it's really sad. Now, I see where you are coming from... the social media throbbing that the movie got certain proved to be detrimental to its commercial prospects.. I mean I have seen horrible films doing exceptionally well at the box office. When I had reviewed it on my blog after watching it first-day-first-show, I received comments from some European viewers who were quite excited about the movie. I knew that the the cinematically educated Western audiences will be able to appreciate the movie more. But, I didn't know that the Indian audiences will completely reject it.

    Even if I do agree that the movie has loads of substance to offer to the sophisticated audiences, it doesn't change the fact that at many instances the style ends up overshadowing it (not always though and it's something that most audiences can easily notice) but that doesn't necessarily is a bad thing. I have a feeling that Kashyap was working under some pressure enforced by the Studio and although he did manage to pull it off eventually, it nonetheless did interfere with his creative process. I still feel that Kashyap could have made a much better film in less than half the budget had he settled for less popular actors than Ranbir and Anushka.

    Let's hope that the movie gets its due in the years to come and, like you said, it goes on to inspire the coming generations of filmmakers! Also, I strongly believe that Kashyap will rather sooner than later succeed in answering his critics, once and for all.

  3. Hi Murtaza, thanks for your detailed reply. It's great that you make the point that Bombay Velvet is not a cinematic disaster. It's a film which deserves some good writing from across the globe and I'm very happy with your thoughts on it.

    Here's my own post on Bombay Velvet which I published sometime back - http://coldspark.blogspot.com/2015/05/bombay-velvet-is-hindi-cinema-ready-for.html

    I have mixed feelings about India's current film scene. On one hand, I'm really happy that we have film makers like Anurag, Dibakar, Sudhir Mishra, Vikas Behl, Rajeet Kapur, Vikrmaditya Motwane making the kind of films they are making. On the other hand, I feel sad that the kind of critics we have shaping public opinion through major TV channels and the internet, are letting our film makers down. A film like Bombay Velvet succeeding in Box Office could have changed the rules of Commercial cinema in India. The film needed utmost support from the established critics. But instead, the criticism that the film got, was plain criminal. I wonder what people like Rajeev Masan or Anupama Chopra would have said if we had the misfortune of them reviewing Satyajit Ray or Ritwik Ghatak's works. They would have undoubtedly found huge problems with their work too!!

    One of the things I can't accept regarding popular Indian film critics is how while criticizing a film, they critique filmmakers, rather than their work. Instead of Anurag, if any other director from India had made Bombay Velvet, all the critics would have given it a 4 star plus. When reviewing a movie, why do we have to compare it with the filmmaker's other films, or come from a judgmental point based on who the filmmaker is.

    I feel filmmakers like Anurag or Dibakar should now work on international projects and not target bollywood audience. However talented Anurag or Dibakar are, they still need to become thought leaders in World Cinema like Ray was, instead of being viewed as Western Cinema inspired Filmmakers. I feel they have it in them to contribute originality to world cinema and I think that should be their next step.

    I don't care about them giving fitting replies to film critics in India. Like Fountainhead's Ellsworth Toohey, the film critics in India will only approve someone's work if it falls within their level of understanding. They reject brilliance which is beyond their comprehension or exposure.

  4. Well, IMHO, Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen are beyond film criticism... they are auteurs par excellence. I don't really think that there's anyone qualified enough to even comment upon their avant garde works. But I do get your point. The problem with most of our critics is they are not really interested in analyzing films... they just seem interested in telling how entertaining a film really is in its conventional sense. They are least bothered about films that are aimed at expanding the horizons for the audiences, Anurag Kashyap often talks about a kind of cinema which is much more than conventional entertainment. He has good understanding of the world cinema, having inspired by the likes of Scorsese and De Sica. Alas, the same can't be said of our film critics. The reason that he is too vocal is why everyone attacked him so viciously when they started to hear these rumors about Bombay Velvet. Either these famous Indian film critics are not aware of what cinema is capable of doing or they seem indifferent to it true power as the ultimate medium of human expression.


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