Anurag Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet – Falling Short of Expectations
In an effort to make a film that combines the sensibilities of the American crime drama with the Indian social and personal drama, Kashyap created a text that is flawed both logically and emotionally.
Bombay Velvet is a beautiful film with lovely songs, jaw-dropping costumes, and polished performances, but they are all in the service of characters who make no sense, and whose relationships to each other make no sense, and therefore also in service of a narrative which, again, makes no sense. To some degree this may be a problem with the international flavor of the production. It was written and directed by Anurag Kashyap, but edited by Thelma Schoonmaker and inspired by American crime novels and film noirs. Kashyap’s attempt to merge two separate sensibilities resulted in a conflicted and unclear presentation.
In Indian films, traditionally, the audience sees all the major points of a character’s life from birth up to the present moment within the first few minutes of the film, and as their situation and motivations change throughout the film, the audience is treated to explicit monologues explaining the changes, or beautiful visual metaphors explicating their feelings. As Sheila Nayar points out in her article on Indian film and oral narrativity, this is standard practice in oral cultures and oral story-telling; characters need to be clear for the audience to relate to them and to understand their actions.
In contrast, in novelistic or ‘literate’ stories, the characters are slowly unpacked over the course of the tale as the audience learns more about them and is able to go back and view their earlier actions with this new information. This happens in a real way when reading a story rather than hearing it as the reader has the ability to flip back and forth in a text and study different parts of the narrative, while a listener can only hear the story once, start to finish. Hindi film functions as an oral narrative, showing everything once, start to finish, and making it clear to the viewer. In fact, in those few exceptions when new information is revealed late in the story, the audience is often treated to a flashback in which they are able to view the original scenes again with this new information in place.
In this film, Kashyap attempted, and failed, to combine the literate and oral film tradition. He begins with the standard childhood prologue for all the main characters; however, he shows only small disconnected parts of their childhoods which fail to fully explain their later motivations or make you care deeply for the characters. Hours later, well into the meat of the plot, a tossed off comments serve to fully contextualize the scenes. By that point in the film, the audience should have been fully invested in the characters, and instead we are only now learning pivotal information.
At other times, Kashyap gives us too much information. We don’t need to both see the characters react to something and then later have them tell us how they reacted to something; the acting and the close-ups and the songs are already telling us how they feel, there is no need to insert dialogue to serve the purpose the visuals already did. Kashyap also gives us too little information by trying to avoid the emotional monologues that are the traditional way of explaining complex emotions and situations in Indian film, while also failing to include the more natural dialogue scenes which Western films often use for the same purpose. The end result is that the main characters are a group of people who we, the audience, have watched grow up and go about their lives–we see everything they do and know everything they feel–and yet it is impossible to relate to or understand them.
This inability to understand and relate is particularly striking in regards to Johnny Balram (Ranbir Kapoor), our ‘hero’, with whom we are expected to sympathize despite his despicable actions. This is even more dramatic in regards to the main female character where Kashyap apparently felt it necessary to give Rosie (Anoushka Sharma) a horrific back-story because he did not believe that the audience would otherwise be able to ‘excuse’ her bad acts. These terrible acts mostly relate to her being willing to fight to defend herself and daring to have some degree of ambition.
Meanwhile, the hero’s childhood is not nearly as damaging, but the audience is expected to forgive all his later behavior on that basis; for example, his anger and distrust towards women based on issues with his mother which, in comparison with the problems in Rosie’s childhood, are fairly minor. Kashyap’s assumption that the audience would have a greater natural sympathy for the male main character than the female is so extreme in this case as to unbalance the narrative. However, for both characters, while he showed the events which, potentially, triggered their later actions, he never fully sells the audience on the thought processes that take them from point A to point B, and therefore fails to gain our sympathy for his characters.
In an effort to make a film that combines the sensibilities of the American crime drama with the Indian social and personal drama, Kashyap created a text that is flawed both logically and emotionally. Using the Indian narrative trope of focusing on characters and emotions primarily and plot and process secondly, combined with the American crime drama aesthetic in which process is shown above all and characters are oblique and opaque in many ways, he created a film primarily about character and emotion in which the characters and their emotions are never discussed or clarified.
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