I am Happy, Mr. Superman (a not-quite-review of Bombay Velvet)

In Ayn Rand’s teen favorite book, The Fountainhead, the uncompromising hero Howard Roark is looking at the Enright House, a building he has designed, when a young photographer notices him, or more precisely the look on his face.

[H]e had always wondered why the sensations one felt in dreams were so much more intense than anything one could experience in waking reality–why the horror was so total and the ecstasy so complete–and what was that extra quality which could never be recaptured afterward; the quality of what he felt when he walked down a path through tangled green leaves in a dream, in an air full of expectation, of causeless, utter rapture–and when he awakened he could not explain it, it had been just a path through some woods. He thought of that because he saw that extra quality for the first time in waking existence, he saw it in Roark’s face lifted to the building.

It’s not surprising that I should be reminded of Ayn Rand while talking about Anurag Kashyap’s movie. Yes, Kashyap is no Roark (no one is Roark, is what teens, who idolize Rand realize when they get their taste of the real world — no I don’t say this in a judgmental way, only through the hindsight of experience). But he is as Roarkish as anyone can be, outside the reel life, that is.

To continue the story, for those who haven’t read the book, that photograph of Roark (mentioned in the above quote) makes it to the tabloid years later, when Roark builds an unconventional temple and gets sued by the client for building a non-temple/sacrilege. The photo runs with a caption: “Are you happy, Mr. Superman?”

Yes I repeat, Anurag Kashyap is no Howard Roark. And Bombay Velvet is no Stoddard Temple. It’s not even Aquitania even — a hotel in the novel built by Roark that gets stalled, and known derisively as “unfinished symphony”, till it finally gets built.

But what strikes me about the movie is how the critics received it, going after it lock, stock, and smoking barrel, as if they wouldn’t get another chance. When all they needed to do was to publish a photograph of Anurag Kashyap, with his oblivious-of-the-existence-of-the-world smile with the caption: “Are you happy, Mr. Superman?”

Are you happy, Mr. Superman?

I watched Bombay Velvet on the doomed first weekend. On a Sunday, the theater was nowhere close to filled. I got a ticket despite reaching five minutes before the start. I went in having deliberately not read any review, although I knew it was already panned by the popular critics (yeah, we have such a thing in India).

On the outset, Bombay Velvet is the story of Johnny Balraj, and Rosie. Both grown up used by people, and abused by life in general, but wanting entirely different things. Balraj, who later on takes the name Johnny to suite a new persona lent to him by Kaizad Khambatta (a parsi businessman — with all the connotations of the word in Bombay of then, and even now — played decently by Karan Johar, against my expectations, although his dialog delivery does make you squirm at times), as the owner of a club — a symbol of the Bombay’s aspirations; Jazzy, and coveted (everyone who is worth anything comes here, says a side character of the club) — is basically a hustler, trying to set his own price, has no compunction  about being used. He’s looking to be a big-shot. He’s ready to pay the price for that. Any price. Rosie, a Jazz singer with amazing voice, and a painful past, and present, is a looking for survival, and love. Yes, it’s love at first sight for Balraj, while a cautious and curious one for Rosie, who’s very much used to being used by men. She’s ready to pay that price for being alive. (Spoiler: when Balraj is in danger, Rosie is even ready to leave it all. Love is good enough for her. But Balraj is already mired into his “big-shot” hunt, and his personal scores, to take a heed. Do you know what is outside Bombay, he asks. And answers: India. Starving, naked India. He will take no less than Bombay).

But as their love story moves ahead, at languid place, the real story emerges in the background — the story of the growth/decay of Bombay. The story of reclamation, of greed, or politics, of class. The Bombay of those who owned it, and the Bombay of those who wanted to be among them, the Bombay of Bollywood movies, of CID inspectors, and union leaders, and editors of tabloids, and smugglers, and prostitutes, and politicians, and businessmen cozying up to them, of refugees, and street fighters …

The problem with Bombay Velvet is that it tries to be everything. The dream is too big to be harnessed, too risky to be pulled off. Kashyap should have just named it Bombay Dream, because that’s what it is. It’s not an authentic history, or a period drama, it is not a love story, it is not a gangster movie, it is not a thriller, it is not an art film, and alas, it is not a commercial film, while trying to be all of it. Embellished by amazing cinematography, endearing recreation (albeit too glamorous, one suspects) of the city we all secretly love, and all the technical proficiency you come to expect from a Kashyap movie, that dream is a worthwhile retreat for the 149 odd minutes that it lasts.  For me anyways.

One thing Anurag Kashyap has delivered in every movie (with the exception of The Girl in Yellow Boots, because there was just no scope) is a fantastic, even haunting music, irrespective of the music directors. But the best music score to survive outside the context of his movies is probably Dev D. It’s been a long time since they paired up, and Amit Trivedi doesn’t disappoint. Only the soundtrack is very contextual, and hard to survive by itself. But once you have watched the movie, tracks like Dhadaam Dhadaam really light up, and refuse to go away. The peppy Jata Kahaan Hai Deewane (cover of O.P’s song from CID) picturized flawlessly, keeps making you go back to it. The unconventional Sylvia reminds of the inimitable Usha Uthup. The only non-retro song, Behroopiya is a kind of masterpiece that you expect from Trivedi, but the way it’s shot brings the best of Bollywood love songs tradition to the screen. And then there is Mahobbat Buri Bimari. Three distinctly lovely versions in the official soundtrack. Even the relatively benign Naak Pe Gussa is still very very good. The soundtrack is a labor of love, and I pity Amit Trivedi that its launchpad went up smoke.

The performances are pretty much what one expects from Kashyap movie. Anushka, not known for her acting abilities, is fabulous as the public Rosie — while the private Rosie, restrained and fragile is also played very competitively by her. Ranbir’s Johnny seems effortlessly done, although, it’s obvious a lot of effort has gone in. Kay Kay is somewhat wasted, playing a Bollywood CID caricature of sorts, something he can play sleepwalking. Manish Chowdhary, Siddharth Basu, and Satyadeep Misra are more than competent.

It’s the scale which hurt the movie in the end, because unlike Kashyap’s other ventures that never seem to overwhelm the story with other elements (although present for sure), Bombay Velvet seems to have done the mortal sin of letting the story be flooded by the effects. And yet, what has remained with me the day after and later, is still the story, with all its flaws. And I’m very much ready to forgive Kashyap that sin, for the end product, for me, was still worth savoring. The now infamous Tommy gun sequence included. Give me more  of this any day, over the senseless multi-hundred-crore grossers from the khan-club, or the insipid light-hearted comedies made from Bhagat’s books, or it’s equivalents like Tanu Weds Manu Returns. Kashyap’s still my man.



2 thoughts on “I am Happy, Mr. Superman (a not-quite-review of Bombay Velvet)

  1. Tricky foothold says:

    An avid follower of your blog and I seem to agree with all that you post except the Bombay Velvet review.

    To me one of the fundamental reasons of why people like a movie is that they are able to either relate or fantasise to the movie’s plot or characters. It can then be a blockbuster like Interstellar or a engaging romantic comedy like Tanu Weds Manu Returns. You were so right when you say the effects drown the story in BV. When I saw the reviews I wanted to watch it because of the trailer brought home some nostalgia of the old Bombay. But that had some flaws, it had only a glam sham view of the city, the were no haath gaadis, no close ups of double deckers or horse driven Victorias. Besides if you were not from Bombay or have had a close relationship to Bombay in the near past, the period scenery will do nothing for you. Then the plot as you mention does not captivate you at all.

  2. asuph says:

    Thanks for the comment. Good to know this blog still has avid followers, given how infrequently I’m posting here.

    I think what people enjoy could be very different. I don’t even think there is a fundamental reason, or a reason. It could just be a total emotional response, or a total intellectual one. Or somewhere on the spectrum.

    And I understand people not enjoying it. In fact I posted the review at a point when no one would be tempted to watch it because of my review (conceit, I know). I can totally see people being disappointed. I don’t want that.

    But I did feel for the characters. I liked the way the story was told. It did engage me all through. Unlike many movies I see. Tanu weds … didn’t at all work for me. At all. Or PK. I’m that way only.

    And still, despite this postmodern relativism, I can’t seem to believe the critics were entirely without malice here. My prejudice maybe. I’ll like to be wrong.

    Thanks for visiting. And commenting.

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