Life as it ain't

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Bombay Velvet: Ellipses and Environment

Posted by Ronak M Soni on November 15, 2015

Originally published at Mad About Moviez.

Delightful, completely irrelevant, note about circumstance: I went into this movie completely uninitiated; all I knew that there was a new Anurag Kashyap movie coming out some time around now, and that it had Karan Johar. The plan was concocted over drinks at Irish House in Kala Ghoda, and we went to Regal because it was the closest theatre whose prices didn’t leave the insides of our noses sore; for the longest time I was wondering where I had seen the intersection in the movie before. (If this doesn’t make sense to you, I suggest that you resist the urge to find out and let it hit you while watching the movie.)

bombay-velvet-stills-anushka-sharma-singing-songMany Hindi movies have a bit in which there’s a song being sung and we are shown wheelings and dealings relevant to the story. These sorts of scenes have a particular grammar, rather different from normal film grammar. A patron of the dance bar is approached by a lackey; the patron goes out the back entrance and finds his arch-nemesis standing there; the arch-nemesis raises a gun; inside, the former’s right-hand man walks out of the bathroom, looks around, his eyes rest on a particular spot, presumably where the patron was sitting earlier, and then he continues to enjoy the dancing. In this short sequence, we’ve been very efficiently, and effectively, told a story of betrayal and murder. Bombay Velvet is a movie told almost entirely in this grammar – every cause is connected to its effect by ellipses, and it shouldn’t be hard to fill them in.* Apart from being a purposeful and awesome choice on Mr Kashyap’s part, it’s also absurdly hard to keep up; many movies use it for short sequences but it’s incredibly hard to tell a whole story engagingly and well in this style – I was waiting for a lot of the running time for the set-up to end and the story to start, since I just did not imagine that he was doing this for anything beyond set-up.

This style is not strictly new for Mr Kashyap; he’s always been weirdly fond of his ellipses. In Gulaal, the last movie of his that I enjoyed, Raj and Kiran meet and exchange slightly lingering gazes, after which the story chugs on for a while till: they both turn up in a post-coital scene. I thought these sorts of things in Gulaal were very much a weakness, since the movie’s effect hinges on our identification with Raj and in this we are being cruelly yanked out of our involvement in his emotional evolution.

But what is new in Bombay Velvet is that this ellipsis-ising is an integral part of Mr Kashyap’s vision (it doesn’t always work, I’m obligated to inform you, since I’m calling this a review; now, more interesting things). It has three, somewhat different, effects, and they add up nicely to make Bombay Velvet ultimately be some sort of ballad, told in a style that is a hodgepodge of old-timey (American) gangster movies, Bollywood, the sound of tapori slang, and… whatever the type of song is that the movie keeps on calling jazz.**

First, it allows the movie to feed off the rhythms of these songs. There’s a fundamental difference between prose and poetry; it’s the intuition behind the differences between the words ‘prosaic’ and poetic.’ The prosaic is more mundane not because it necessarily deals with more mundane things (unless you think bug-headed women are more mundane than daffodils), but because it deals with them in the mindset we use to deal with mundanity – it’s involved in the details, it’s important for the whole to work that the jigsaw puzzle is completed to the extent that the missing pieces don’t jump out and viscerally affect you. The poetic, on the other hand, is about the mind; details are beside the point, either irrelevant or left as an exercise to the reader. The long and short of all this being that, because he’s ellipsis-ising everything here, Mr Kashyap can let the movie feel like a song, borrowing rhythm and flow from the songs intricately threaded through the narrative.

Another, possibly more important, effect is that Bombay Velvet is a story told, not lived. By not showing you the details of its character’s lives or their transformations, we have no emotional anchor to feel with, no one we feel like we know (I suspect that this was what led one of the people with me to call it ‘so fragmented,’ despite the fact that it has a very distinct and linear narrative). The characters are not so much developed as stated, with them behaving in qualitatively new ways even very late into the movie; two and a half hours in, in a pivotal scene, Anushka Sharma’s Rosie asks Ranbir Singh’s Johnny to make a choice, and I for one had no clue what he would say. This sort of thing is usually a sign of weakness in the telling, a failure of proper character development, and no doubt many people reacted negatively to this. In this case, however, it’s no such thing. It’s completely irrelevant that we don’t know Johnny at all, since this is a story about Johnny, not the story of Johnny.

And why are we interested in a story that’s merely about Johnny? What creates the emotional and dramatic stakes that involve us in the movie? Why, in the climax, did I emotionally, viscerally, tie my good cheer to a particular outcome (with relevant spoiler alert, more on this in footnote***)?

Ranbir-Kapoor-Bombay-VelvetThat brings us to the third, and possibly most important, effect of the ellipses. This story about Johnny Balraj is really a story about the world which includes Johnny Balraj living this story, and therefore about colonialism. Okay, that’s a lot of things to say in one sentence. Let’s go through it more slowly.

Consider the opening sequence (I may have misremembered, but the precise truth of the following is not that important). Raveena Tandon is singing to a club. Then, we flash back to 1949 with a train pulling into a station in Mumbai. A kid and his mom get off, with the kid briefly pausing to survey the fresh new environs. Cut to, another kid is picking an Englishman’s pocket, and then we see that the earlier kid is watching him and his mom, barely audible, is begging for work. Cut to, the pickpocket is being beaten up, hopelessly outnumbered, and the other kid jumps into the fray with barely a moment of hesitation. Cut to, the kids introducing themselves to each other. And so on.

What do we get out of this? What we don’t get is a sense of identification, or for that matter affection, for these kids. They exist, and we’re being told about them. I think, and you may disagree here, that what we get is a sense of world, and a sense of destiny. We’re first told that the kid getting of the train is walking into the world with the club, implicitly leading us to believe that he will end up there. Then, we’re shown that this is a world where little kids pick English pockets, immigrant women beg for work and kids beat each other up. This is literally the flow of information, apart from the fact that we are being shown the reactions of the first kid.

And, throughout its running time, the movie keeps an eye trained at the world around these characters. We are always shown, from the stand-up’s mouth, or by quick cutaways to newspapers and rallies, or even by the plot machinations, that Johnny’s story is merely part of something much bigger than him.

And it’s here, finally, that the specifics of the story make an appearance. The central conflict of the movie is that Balraj wants respect and power, and the world constantly denies him it. He behaves in such a gutsy manner to get it that multiple people give him the opportunity to do bigger and bigger things. This all leads to him trying to mug Karan Johar’s Kaizad Khambatta with a hand posing as a gun, and Kaizad renaming him and making him the owner of the club Bombay Velvet. And then, Johnny Balraj – as he’s now called – helps him and his friends get a huge construction on the freshly reclaimed Nariman point and Backbay going. He wants his share of the profits; Kaizad and co find this funny. And thus begins a feud, in which Johnny has nothing but a hot head, his best friend (Satyadeep Misra’s awesome Chiman) and determination, and Kaizad has the whole system on his side.

Now, a couple of historical notes. A large part of the motivation for the founding of the Indian National Congress was that rich, well-educated Indians had a ceiling; they couldn’t go higher than a certain position in any organisation. And, Gandhi made the Indians following him help in medical care during the Boer war, because he strongly felt that the British were very much a positive influence on the world.

At various points in Bombay Velvet, people tell Johnny, Kaizad’s been so good to you that he took you from a street rat to the owner of the biggest and most exclusive club in the city, why do you insist on gettting more frm him. Johnny, meanwhile, believes that his services should be rewarded, independently of earlier rewards for earlier services.

Yes, Johnny is a freedom fighter, being oppressed by the brown Babus that replaced the white ones in 1947; and, in the most significant fact of all, he never gives up the name given to him by the brown Babus.

* A tangential reference to fnording political articles feels apposite, even though the similarity is but superficial.

**I asked my friendly neighbourhood musically knowledgeable person if this was actually jazz, and he agrees with my (far less trustworthy) opinion that there’s only a smattering of jazz-y-ness in it. I still liked the songs, though. (Update: I like them less after listening to them on youtube; likely the movie fed a lot into my liking the songs. I emphasise, however, that the extent of my enjoyment of them is logically unconnected to my perception of whether they are jazz)

*** [SPOILER ALERT] Rosie lives! Compared to my feelings about this, I don’t give a shit about Yossarian. I think this is because she’s the innocent woman just trying to live her life stuck in the middle of these larger-than-life tectonic shifts, which means she’s basically a symbol for us.

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