There are several stories in the western folk lore of selling the soul to the devil. Usually about the devil tempting you with fame and fortune but damning you to an eternity in hell. It usually is about an innocent guy, hard on luck, making a deal when he sees no other option. Bombay Velvet is about one such deal.
Don’t get me wrong, Ranbir Kapoor’s character in this film is no innocent lamb. He is shown dreams of grandeur and becoming a big shot by Karan Johar, but he’s already a criminal. All he’s been offered is a chance to be a bigger, richer one. He didn’t need the devil.
Anushka’s character, though, is not as corrupt. She is more a victim. But she is forced to fall, not tempted into it. The only temptation she falls for is Ranbir. Sent to spy on him, she starts to love him even if it means risking it all.
So this is a love story, a traditional one, about a singer and a gangster. About two powerful men using these love birds as pawns. Soho is this about selling the soul? Zoom out, please and you’ll see Anurag Kashyap selling his soul to make this film.
This is the guy who placed a long documentary about politics of coal mining in Gangs of Wasseypur because he thought that is central to the film. This is the guy who fought with censors for 2 years because he didn’t want to put a smoking sign at crucial junctures in Ugly. This is the guy who took Devdas and made a dark feminist epic. This is the guy who insisted on using foul language because the characters demand it, who made a Black Friday, one of the most brutal takes on terrorism, even though it was stuck in censors and courts for years.
That guy took a political-crime drama about the founding of Bombay, and turned that fascinating idea to a sappy melodramatic love story. Now, there is nothing wrong with a love story. And nothing at all wrong with Anurag Kashyap making it. The problem is that his heart is not in it. There is drama, intensity, and audience interest in the film when Karan Johar playing Kaizad Khambatta is manipulating the game and players, pitted against Jimmy Mistry. There was potential for a story about their pawns, the lead couple taking charge of their own destinies and the pawns becoming players. Instead what we get is an angst ridden hero and a damsel in distress heroine. The story called for a Femme Fatale but what we get is a 60’s era heroine who stands quivering as the hero hits the guy who was harassing her.
This is not to criticize the film too much, though. The performances are stellar. Karan Johar is a find. His understated yet flamboyant menace is breathtaking. Anushka in a badly written role is fabulous. Her pathos in the song “Dhadam Dhadam” is heart wrenching. And Ranbir is a great mix of boyish charm and gangster bravado. Others are great too. The music is stellar. Amit Trivedi shows his versatility once again. And Kashyap certainly hasn’t lost his directorial flair. Two scenes stand out: Karan laughing uncontrollably in one and two players on the opposite side of phone, silent, menacing, weighing each other. The problem is the writing. No punches, nothing offending to anyone, nothing that might offend families or censors. It’s just a bunch of nothing.
This is the surrender of Kashyap’s integrity to please the gods of box-office. He sold the integrity of his story for a big budget and a stellar cast. His deal with the devil of populism. But we all know how deals with the devil go. You always get cheated. You weren’t an innocent down on luck small guy, Mr Kashyap. You have lost a lot of ground with this film.