James Ellroy’s mother was raped and murdered when he was 10-years-old. This event had a significant influence on his writing – he wrote about similar young women, left battered on the sides of Los Angeles’ streets, and he wrote about the tough young men who took it upon themselves to bring them justice. It is Ellroy’s stories – particularly his magnum opus, the LA Quartet – that inspired Anurag Kashyap to make Bombay Velvet.
Mothers, and the absence of maternal figures, are what bring its two protagonists to each other. Both Johnny and Rosie, despite their clashing natures – years of abuse have made her demure, and him more reckless than he was already – are similar in way, abandoned by their mothers, and cursed with scars that never really heal. Her first line in the film, which comes almost after 30 minutes, hammers home this deep fear: “Agar tune mujhe akele chhoda, toh kaat dungi (If you ever leave me alone, I’ll kill you),” she says.
Like his idol, Martin Scorsese, who with Gangs of New York made a similarly dirty, yet empathetic film about the history of the city he loves, Bombay Velvet was Kashyap’s attempt to uncover some of Bombay’s more murkier secrets – complete with Parsi gangsters, glamorous jazz clubs, petty gossip rags and shady real estate scams, all staples of Bombay noir.
It might look like a love-letter on the surface, but there’s a nihilism to Kashyap’s Bombay – like there is to Ellroy’s Los Angeles – that usually goes unnoticed. It’s a city that takes no prisoners. This is a theme Kashyap finds himself returning to in several of his films, from Black Friday to Ugly – people come looking for salvation, but usually end up in a ditch somewhere, eaten alive by the living, breathing monster that is Bombay.
In an especially well done early scene, Rosie escapes her tormentor and boards a bus to Bombay, hoping, like thousands of young men and women like her, to find a better life in the City of Dreams. It’s a naive idea, because Johnny has been there all his life, and the city has given him nothing but grief. His only dream is to become a ‘big shot,’ something he decided after catching a screening of James Cagney’s The Roaring Twenties. Kashyap intercuts these scenes, establishing the ambitions of his characters. While Rosie’s more immediate goal is to escape to what she thinks will be a more hopeful future, Johnny knows better. Bombay has trampled on his face and kicked him to the curb, but like Rosie, he hasn’t let it kill his spirit.
More than being a tribute to the city, Bombay Velvet is a tribute to movies. It’s a film made by a man whose entire understanding of the world, and the history of the world, is based on what he has seen at the cinemas. Like Scorsese, from whom he borrowed editor Thelma Schoonmaker to cut his film, Kashyap must relate to what the maestro once said: “Your job (as a filmmaker) is to get your audience to care about your obsessions.”
And Anurag Kashyap is obsessed with movies. So he shot Bombay Velvet like Gordon Willis shot The Godfather, like Tonino Delli Colli shot Once Upon a Time in America – top lit in amber hues, a world in which solitary figures are silhouetted against rainy nights, where every drag of a cigarette is shot with more love than Quentin Tarantino shoots feet, where the nights are soaked in neon and women’s lips appear to have been smeared with blood. He created a Cagneyesque hero with bits of Billy Wilder and Brian De Palma thrown in, and left everyone who watched it as confused as you lot reading this sentence.
He tried to get his audience to care about his obsessions -- he tried to make an homage to gangster movies in the way that Sholay is an homage to Westerns. And in return, everyone shrugged. They accused him of wasting hundreds of crores and tarnishing the reputation of Mumbai, not Bombay, thank you very much. They accused him of having corrupted promising stars such as Ranbir Kapoor and Anushka Sharma – who, by the way, gives an outstanding performance in the film (her body language alone is worth dissecting). After the opening weekend, heck after the opening day, the message was clear: Audiences would much rather watch them dance around trees than brandish Tommy Guns.
In hindsight, Bombay Velvet never stood a chance. It was a movie caught between two world, inaccessible to both. There is, however, a chance that a few years down the line, people appreciate it for what it is.