Thoughts on Anurag Kashyap ~ halfway through Bombay Velvet

I am about halfway through Anurag Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet (2015), and wanted to talk a few things through before I finish the film.

bombay-velvet-reviewI’m going to be honest about this: I started watching the film because Ranbir Kapoor is so dreamy and found out that Kashyap directed it after consulting IMDB when I realized that the film was stylistically different from the typical Bollywood fare (this revelation struck me about twenty minutes in). Kashyap has been involved with a number of different Bollywood films, those that seem to work around the Bollywood formula and not within it, and I am not surprised whenever I find his name attached to projects that fall under the Hindie umbrella. He co-wrote the screenplay for Satya (1998) and wrote and directed the absolutely amazing Gangs of Wasseypur (2012). He even has a writing credit for Talaash (2012).

When I say that Kashyap works around Bollywood, what I mean is that he uses the Bollywood formula as an extension of his films, and does not adjust the narrative of his films to conform to the expectations of the typical Bollywood audience. This, I have heard, is risky in an industry where song and dance numbers are integral to the Bollywood identity and are in and of themselves an art form that is both part of and separate from the films. Musical sequences are released before films in advertising campaigns, and are consumed by audiences that may or may not ever see the film. In this way, they are critiqued as part of and apart from the film, and maintain an identity that is tied to, yet separate from the films for which they are made. I have noticed that musical numbers have taken a more realistic feel in some recent films. For example, a song begins as background noise in a restaurant; a stage performer begins her song, the dialogue between the characters comes to a close as the chorus picks up and the volume of the song increases. Cue the romantic splash sequence. Song over. Back to ‘reality’. Sometimes they dance at the bar while the song is playing and sometimes they dance in the streets to the same song, but the song is a part of the actual experience of the characters, and is not from a separate reality. Kashyap tends to use music in this way. In Gangs, songs are heard at funerals where they are performed by a live singer, and also score the film beginning as ringtones or as background television noise where gradually the volume increases, and the audience watches events unfold to the beat. In Bombay Velvet, songs are performed by jazz singer Rosie (Anushka Sharma), and when Rosie stops singing, the music stops. For Kashyap, music is not an escape from reality or the motivation for a fantasy sequence, it is incorporated into the reality of the film. Which says something in an industry where suspension of disbelief is often essential. In this regard, it is obvious that Kashyap takes inspiration from Western cinema.

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In Gangs, Bollywood as an element of Indian culture comes up throughout the film. Faizal’s wife’s eyes glaze over as she becomes lost in television melodrama. Amitabh Bachchan films are often referenced by admiring tough guys, but a footman also admits to seeing Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (The Big-Hearted Will Win the Bride) in a theatre. A family gathering around the television for Kyunki… Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi… is interrupted by gunfire. It all comes together when Ramadhir Sing says, “Every fucker’s got his own movie playing inside his head. Every fucker is trying to become the hero of his imaginary film. As long as there are fucking movies in this country people will continue to be fooled.” Kashyap sees that film is often an escape from a harsh reality, and thus he attempts to ground his own films with the very grime that people are looking to escape. Bombay Velevet is so stylized, but when  Johnny gets his face pounded in, the blood and filth don’t disappear when he walks away from the cage. This is exactly what enables us to see right through the jazz esthetic, the flapper dresses, the art deco facade that might trick us into believing that the film will provide an escape from our humanity. It won’t. He won’t allow it.

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Jab Tak Hai Jaan (2012)

ImageIn Jab Tak Hai Jaan director Yash Chopra takes us back to London for his directorial finale. The story begins in a flashback, with Akira Rai (Anushka Sharma) reading the journal of military officer Samar Anand (Shah Rukh Khan) which describes how he fell in love with Meera (Katrina Kaif) in London some ten years before. Samar and Meera begin their relationship when she asks him to teach her a Punjabi song for her father’s birthday and he, in turn, asks her to teach him good gentleman’s English. After a night of wild dancing, he tells her that he loves her, and with a kiss a seed is planted and Meera is faced with a dilemma: she is engaged. She asks Samar to pray with her and ask Jesus to help her remain strong so that she doesn’t “cross the line” and go against her father’s wish for her to marry her friend Roger. A timely visit with Meera’s estranged mother follows, and we learn how she was able to find true love only after following her heart and leaving her family behind. Meera decides that she too should do the same and admits her feelings to Samar. In true Bollywood style, song and dance highlights their romance while the pair paint the town red. The affair comes to a close when Samar is hit by a car while excitedly riding his motorcycle and shouting ‘I love you’ to Meera as she heads to explain her decision to father. She watches as paramedics struggle to save him, and offers to sacrifice her love for Samar in exchange for his life with a prayer. Having lost his love and his passion for life, Samar returns to India determined to prove to both god and Meera that he is in control of his destiny, and becomes known as ‘the man who cannot die’ while defusing bombs for the Indian Army. A documentary on the famous bomb diffuser for Discovery Channel and his friendship with its director, Akira Rai, brings him back to London where he is hit by yet another car, and the subsequent memory loss from the accident brings Meera back into his life to help with his recovery. There is, of course, a love triangle, more drama, and some personal revelations which bring the film to its conclusion.  

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 The love story is unlike any other Bollywood films I have seen, as the hero’s adversary isn’t a strict father or a villain, but God, or rather, his lover’s relationship with God (more specifically, Jesus). In fact, the film almost entirely lacks the presence of any family at all, with the sole exception being Meera’s father, portrayed by Anupam Kher (a personal favorite of mine). I think that because of this, certain things are allowed to take place in Jab Tak Hai Jaan that wouldn’t necessarily work in other Hindi films. The romance, for one, is very western, and there is no hinting around premarital sex, as Samar and Meera are shown rolling around in bed together, eating and dancing in their underwear, and having romantic liaisons on a rooftop. I have to admit that I was completely caught off guard by these Imagescenes, as I have been immersed in Bollywood cinema as of late and have become more conscious of sex on screen that I might ordinarily take for granted. However, this is done very well in Jab Tak Hai Jaan, and I find that the presence of actual kissing brings their chemistry to life. When Samar kisses Meera in the station you can see him blushing as he backs away, nervous, yet self-satisfied. I felt nervous. Excited. If emotions are the driving force of Hindi film, then Jab Tak Hai Jaan has hit the nail on its head. 

 As is the case with just about all Bollywood films, there are several aspects of Jab Tak Hai Jaan that aren’t meant to be taken literally (see Bollywood for the Not Yet Initiated). The scene where a blonde European actress depicts Meera during her childhood as she prays to Jesus that she not be married to a dark skinned Indian man, for example, is not meant to suggest that Meera was actually white when she was a child, but is a comedic display of her Britishness. The other misrepresentations of British culture should also be taken with a grain of salt -a fishmonger might not necessarily be the best person to buy foie gras from, but perhaps this is meant to paint Samar as a jock of all trades- because these scenes don’t impact the progression of the plot, nor do they affect the emotional exchange between the film and its audience (which I believe is at the heart of Hindi cinema). We should suspend our disbelief and accept them not on the basis of a misrepresentation of ‘reality,’ but as a subtle metaphor that doesn’t have a significant impact on the film on the whole.

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SRK does an excellent job of separating Samar in London from Samar the military officer while putting across that we are still seeing the same character throughout, even if they come off differently down to their very physicality. Samar is full of life in London, and his excitement comes across with his passion to succeed (working multiple jobs to build his life) and his love for Meera. Whereas In the military, Samar’s passion turns in to utter determination, and his hardened exterior reflects the emotional baggage he carries. SRK’s performance is more subdued than some of his other roles where he can come off as self-aware and camera-aware and turns the charm all of the way up (consider his performances in Chennai Express for contrast). Katrina Kaif is great as Meera, a wealthy NRI who grew up in London, and she seems to fit in with the landscape in a way that Samar does not, which makes sense given that Kaif herself was partly raised in London by a British mother and an Indian father. Meera walks and talks like a cosmopolitan, and is emotionally restrained but is able to let go and open up in just the right way when she does. The pair make a convincing couple, which makes it all the more difficult to watch Meera ask Samar to leave London: his

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 anger and her anxiety come across superbly, and his feelings here set the stage for Samar’s military persona, making it apparent that he has absolutely nothing to lose. As for Akira Rai, I didn’t find that the role complimented Anushka Sharma’s ability as an actress, though I do feel that she did the best she could do with what she was given. It isn’t that Akira is all that bad, and even though her free spirit and passion for life is meant to conjure memories of Samar in London, I found that her character lacked dimension, and because of this, I couldn’t sympathize with her. This being said, I felt that the film was well cast, all around. 

The departure from the Bollywood formula may have impacted the reception of Jab Tak Hai Jaan, with its inclusion of premarital sex (and not to forget Shah Rukh Khan’s first onscreen kiss), but the film did make my heart skip a beat, and, as I have mentioned before, the ability to connect with the audience on an emotional level is the very essence of Bollywood. I believed in their love and I believed in their frustrations, and because of this, I feel that Jab Tak Hai Jaan is a solid culmination to Yash Chopra’s body of work: a love story that goes straight to the heart.