Reflecting upon a scene to his VFX director, the filmmaker said, "This is the Bombay Velvet club, and only two people are standing near it. There is a puddle. Right now, the club looks normal, but when you zoom in on the puddle, Bombay Velvet expands and becomes monumental in size and effect. This is what Bombay Velvet is!" Anurag Kashyap might be talking about a scene here, but this is what his idea of the film was: a grand and magnanimous gangster drama based in post-Partition Bombay, the city of dreams. Bombay Velvet's release in 2015, a year comprising big hits and blockbusters like Kabir Khan's Bajrangi Bhaijaan and Sooraj Barjatya's Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, was a complete misery at the Box Office. Kashyap, who had previously worked on Satya as a writer and made his magnum opus, Gangs of Wasseypur 1 and 2, had a long-standing ambition to make a neo-noir gangster drama in Bombay and personally, I don’t think it deserved such backlash.
Bombay Velvet starts with a black-and-white montage of 1950s Bombay scattered with people from various industries looking for jobs and daily wage in post-Partition, distraught India. The city of Bombay was considered a hub of filthy rich businessmen who gave out jobs to the downtrodden labourers, also signalling a clear social divide among the masses. And this was when two individuals hailing from similar traumatic backgrounds – that of an abusive childhood – arrived in Bombay. In a series of parallel visuals, we get to see the lives of Balraj (Ranbir Kapoor), who is influenced by street fighting and watching Hollywood noir films like James Cagney's The Roaring Twenties, and aspires to become a "big-shot", and the graceful Rosie Noronha (Anushka Sharma), a singer at the local church where a man falls for her but keeps her in an abusive environment. Bombay entices these individuals looking for love, fame, and power among others, and this is how their paths collide. The same city lures capitalists like Kaizad Kambhata (Karan Johar), the godfather of "Johnny" Balraj, and communists like Jamshed Mistry (Manish Choudhary), who are in a race to "change the map" of Bombay. This soon becomes the love story of Johnny and Rosie, dwelling against the dirty politics of businessmen, corrupt journalists who try to gain ultimate power, femme fatales and cops on the run against the flourishing city of Bombay.
Bombay Velvet (2015); Phantom Films
The script was adapted from Gyan Prakash's 2010 novel Mumbai Fables. The story is narratively layered and draws a lot of inspiration from the West in terms of writing. There are a few moments in the film that feel like you are watching Raging Bull (1980) or The Godfather (1972), like the scenes where Johnny can be seen boxing in a seedy fight club or when working for a local gold smuggler. The template of Bombay Velvet resembles that of Gangs of New York (2002) –skyscrapers and shimmering citylights; no wonder Martin Scorsese is mentioned in the title credits before the film begins. However, the influence of the West is nothing but a pleasant imagery in Kashyap's direction. In a few scenes, I found the writing and dialogues unnecessary, which lead to a dreary screenplay. These might have been filler scenes to depict the unhinged relationship of the two protagonists, but it distorts the flow of the story. For instance, there is a scene where Rosie hits Johnny and he becomes furious and hits her back. This leads to a distasteful but friendly duel between the two characters which further leads to nothing.
I did also like some beautifully written scenes. For instance, the penultimate action sequence, which involves Johnny and his best friend Chimman (Satyadeep Mishra), starting with a heated discourse where Chimman questions Johnny's credibility as his best friend and this leads to trash-talking between the two. A disgruntled Chimman leaves, and Johnny follows to please him. Meanwhile, there’s a shootout at the Bombay Velvet club and Johnny is taken down with all guns blazing from the opponent. Chimman comes to the forefront and takes down the goons and sacrifices his own life for Johnny. This is a whimsical scene of love and loss of a meaningful friendship. The camera goes into slow-motion; light fades and the audience contemplates at Chimman's death. It is a poignant sequence and even the climactic sequence pales in comparison.
The set design of the Bombay Velvet club; Fox Star Hindi’s Youtube
Despite a generally tried and tested script and a huge ensemble cast, I enjoyed the film mainly because of the pre-production and music. These two aspects are inherently indicative of Kashyap's eight years of ambition. His Bombay Velvet is essentially about the city of Bombay, and it was important to build the aesthetics of the 50s and 60s Bombay to make it look as realistic as possible. When scouting for suitable places to build majestic sets of the streets and fancy clubs of the jazz-era city, producers Vikramaditya Motwane, Kashyap and Vikas Bahl stumbled upon Vivek Agrawal (also a co-producer) who suggested that they create their sets on this massive area in Sri Lanka he knew about. And this was where all the magic happened. Sonal Sawant, the production designer, travelled along with her team of 600 crew members across nations and started working on the sets. The massive Bombay Velvet club, the squalid local bars, street fighting clubs, brothels and red-light areas – everything was created and administered by this crew. It took them ten months, from April 2013 to March 2014, to build and establish the entire Bombay city in Tissamaharama, Sri Lanka, which spreads across nine acres of land. To add to its elegance, the VFX team immaculately modified and turned the green-screened sets into a vintage, sepia-toned Bombay which reflected that decade's quintessence. In an interview by Fox Star Studios, VFX supervisor Kunal Ahuja narrated the process of how an ordinary taxi driver reading a daily newspaper against a green screen was modified into a vintage Air India hoarding with their Maharaja mascot replaced. The set design and the pre-production resulted in every pennyworth of the cinematic experience that we saw; all because of Kashyap's ambition.
The set design for the movie; Fox Star Hindi’s YouTube
To carry the glitz and glamour off the screen to the audience effortlessly, Amit Trivedi's original soundtrack is also the crux of Bombay Velvet. Without jazz music, there is no story. Without jazz music, there is no description and portrayal of the 1960s jazz-era Bombay. Trivedi's music became the catalyst and driving force for the story, and strikingly so. In 2008, when Kashyap was working on his fourth directorial, Dev D, he told Trivedi about his idea of Bombay Velvet and the jazz theme that he desired. Trivedi, after delivering solid work for Dev D, started work on the movie. Kashyap did not want Trivedi to work on any of his other films since he wanted him to focus entirely on Bombay Velvet, which is part of the reason why we got Sneha Khanwalkar's brainchild in Gangs of Wasseypur (I and II). Trivedi listened to a lot of jazz at the time and was inspired by Frank Sinatra and other jazz artists but wanted to introduce the "desi" aspect in the music – like with the track ‘Bombay Jazz’. Other tracks like ‘Dhadaam Dhadaam’ (a personal favourite), ‘Behroopia’, and ‘Mohabbat Buri Bimari’ are evidently of the signature jazz style composed in films of the West.
Kashyap wanted to record music for all the tracks in a live setting with live musicians, finding whom proved to be a tough job in India. The team eventually flew to Prague where they recorded with the Philharmonic Orchestra. Two musicians, James and Nick (as stated by Amit Trivedi in the making video of the film's music), who had previously worked with Don Williams and Hans Zimmer, worked tirelessly to produce the 15-track OST. Trivedi was looking for a voice with an "Asha Bhosle meets Nina Simone" tonal quality, and that's when he found Neeti Mohan. All her song rehearsals in studios were ‘experience oriented’. For instance, Neeti was sent back home during ‘Mohabbat Buri Bimari’ to dress up in a flashy gown and red lipstick so that she could "feel the song" and croon. The result is a beautiful melody with all the hiccups and squeals in place. Trivedi considered the music of this film to be his most challenging work in years. I was quite taken aback when the soundtrack wasn't nominated for any of the award ceremonies that year. Bombay Velvet’s music had a huge impact in driving the narrative in a fast-paced manner and build the plot.
The Prague Philharmonic Orchestra
Bombay Velvet (2015); Phantom Films
But even after such massive scale production with a talented ensemble cast, why did Bombay Velvet fail to mesmerize the audience? There might be several reasons but let's explore two perspectives through which we can see this: the audience and Anurag Kashyap. First, the audience perspective. Bombay Velvet might be very fine-textured and plush on the surface, but there are certain points where the narrative fell short. The film moves at a quick pace but there are sequences where the writing feels like it begins to slack. Even after the editing by renowned editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, the film stretches out to 145 minutes of runtime which, in 2015, might have produced some sighs from the theatre audience even before the film started. When I first watched Bombay Velvet in a theatre as a 15-year-old, I did not enjoy it. This might have been because of our generally short attention span as audience for a Bollywood film. This reason however was not applicable to Gangs of Wasseypur (which released before BV) because Kashyap had decided to cut it into two halves. Today, because of a developed collective notion about longer films, the audience might not mind its length. When I watched BV again in 2020 on a smaller screen, my laptop, I was surprised to find that I quite enjoyed it. After giving the cult-classic Gangs of Wasseypur, and Ugly in 2013, Kashyap had massively impressed the Indian audience. We know how his initial films fared at the Box Office – Paanch never got a theatrical release because of CBFC's objection to the film's violence, drug abuse and bad language. Black Friday premiered at Locarno International Film Festival in 2004 and was ready for screening in India, but again faced controversy and was finally released in 2007 after a 20-month ban. No Smoking is a film I thoroughly enjoyed and was surprised to find that it was made in 2007 – ahead of its time in Bollywood. Anurag Kashyap took an anecdote from Ram Gopal Varma and added it to a Stephen King story to make a surrealistic plot, but it did not perform to well. But, after the immense success of Gangs of Wasseypur, Kashyap seemed to have had gained the Midas touch. As soon as people knew that he was making a crime drama that would be produced on a large scale, the expectations skyrocketed. But Bombay Velvet was the stark opposite of what Gangs of Wasseypur was in terms of story and characters. The latter relied heavily on the Bihar-Jharkhand politics and mafia wars and was blatant and rough in its approach. BV on the other hand had gun-slinging mobsters, corrupt businessmen with illegal businesses fighting for the development of Bombay. In my opinion, akin to Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptation of Shakespearean tragedies in different Indian milieus like Bombay underworld or Kashmir, both GOW and BV have the ingenuity of Anurag Kashyap’s filmography.
Despite the lack of commercial success, Bombay Velvet is not a film that could be deemed as a cinematic disaster. It captures the periodic essence of a city beyond measures. Kashyap's love for cinema and his big-eye vision to achieve the grandiose of Western cinema is commendable. It's not an easy film to be appreciated by everyone equally. Bombay Velvet should probably be seen and appreciated more than it has been in the past – for the filmmaker's vision, for the actors' allegiance, and the sheer scale at which the film was made, and I hope it has inspired a generation of Indian filmmakers to come. As Murphy's Law states, "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong"; and hence we expect Anurag Kashyap to be back with another prominent vision that defies Murphy’s Law.