After carving out a reputation as the highest-profile of the more independent, experimental, and art-minded figures working in the Indian film industry today, Bombay Velvet finds writer/director/producer Anurag Kashyap making his most overt overtures to not only commercial Bollywood cinema, but Hollywood as well. The cast is toplined by major mainstream Hindi cinema names in Ranbir Kapoor, Anushka Sharma, and even filmmaker/media personality Karan Johar (who, though having worked as an actor prior to his behind-the-camera breakthrough in 1998, gets "introducing" billing here); and not only does 20th Century Fox have a hand in the production and its distribution, credited as film editor (alongside Prerna Saigal) is none other than the legendary Thelma Schoonmaker. (Even Schoonmaker's even more legendary regular collaborator, Martin Scorsese, gets a special thanks shout out.) Factor in a storyline in Kashyap's edgy wheelhouse--the rise of a street fighter to a player in the Bombay criminal underworld from the '60s to the early '70s--and the stage seems to be set for the ideal vehicle for him to build his Indian and international commercial cred while still advancing his artistic ambitions.
For a while--specifically, the pre-intermission half--Kashyap appears to be on the right track to accomplishing just that. As richly handsome as the film noir-style period production is, from Rajeev Ravi's cinematography to Errol Kelly and Sonal Sawant's production design to Niharika Khan's costumes to Amit Trivedi's jazzy score, the lushness of the look in no way sanitizes the hard-knock grime of its specific milieu. An orphan taken in by a whore who later abandons him, Balraj (Kapoor) literally fights his way for a living in underground bouts, striving for a chance to become a "big shot" like his idol James Cagney in his movies. A bit of dumb luck leads to Balraj being taken under the wing Kaizad Khambatta (Johar), a newspaper publisher with a number of less reputable business interests. Rechristened by his boss as "Johnny," Balraj comes to run the night club of the title, where he hires and falls into a romance with Rosie (Sharma), a talented singer with an equally damaged past: from when she was a very young girl, her dreams and naivete had been exploited by predatory men from when she was a very young girl. As such, Rosie had, until Johnny came along, been bitterly resigned to using her feminine wiles to make her way in big, bad, bustling Bombay--and her lingering unsavory associations could spell doom for both Johnny and herself.
The fictional Bombay Velvet is inspired by a non-fiction book, historian Gyan Prakash's Mumbai Fables, and Kashyap reflects the factual nature of the source material in his initial approach. His interest is more clearly vested in the byzantine structure of the corrupt Bombay business and political systems of the newly independent India and Balraj's upwardly mobile navigations within it, leaving his love story with Rosie a distinctly secondary concern. In fact, the bulk of the romance's development is relegated to music-driven montages while full, often slow-paced and talky, scenes play out depicting the crime side of the story, from the various backroom deals to Rosie's place as a pawn in this larger game. So when the film returns from intermission and the film soon makes a sharp left turn into being all about the love story and more melodramatic Hindi film conventions and out-there plot twists, it's as disappointing as it is jarring. But even more of a letdown than that fallback into filmi formula is just how poorly Kashyap had laid the foundation for such a transition. Kapoor and Sharma do have a likable screen rapport, but that's despite the fact that their relationship isn't given much depth in the material, those glossy montages having glossed them over. Casting Johar as a flamboyant gangster is inspired on paper and indeed fits for the first half, but when he is eventually called on to convey prototypical Bollywood bad guy menace, he's woefully ill equipped and out of his depth.
Kashyap, having successfully pulled off far weightier films than this, certainly isn't out of his depth, but all the outsize dramatics that end up taking over the film feel less a product of conviction than commercial concession. Consequently, however interesting the overall result may be, Bombay Velvet falls short in satisfying both of its intended cinematic worlds, much less being the best in them.