Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Once Upon a Time in Mumbai

Once Upon a Time in Mumbai
Director:  Milan Luthria

Music:  Pritam
Year:  2010

Duration: 135 minutes


Coming to town this week in Bolly Bangkok is the sequel to the above film, Once Upon a Time in Mumbai Again. So I thought it would probably make sense for me to watch the first one and I was able to track it down. I am glad I did because now I can save a few hours of my life and about 200 baht ($6) by skipping out on the new one like an unpaid debt. Anytime you see a film title beginning with the words Once Upon a Time it instills in you certain expectations of a quality film with previous titles such as Once Upon a Time in the West, Once Upon a Time in America, the Once Upon a Time in China series and even the Once Upon a Time in Triad Society films were pretty darn good. It should be hallowed ground. But Once Upon a Time in Mumbai is much more like well-ploughed unfertile ground that had me wondering how on earth this became a “Super Hit” at the box office. When I then later perused some reviews of the sequel and literally every one of them painfully trashed it I thought I would give myself a break by not seeing it. So sorry, I have no review of the new film but there are plenty of them online. But I do have a fairly negative review of the first film and there are not a lot of those it seems.

This is a gangster film that moves at the pace of an old fashioned pen pal correspondence in which the dialogue is both so turgid and faux poetic that you feel like these gangsters should be writing commercials for hair products. Do Mumbai gangsters really constantly talk in aphorisms, metaphors and similes? Their thug followers must have to go to night school to understand them and their girlfriends must want to just slap their faces at times and ask them to speak like a human being.  But this is the sort of dialogue that Bollywood has always thrived on and if it were not for the fact that these were uneducated nasty criminals I would be all for it, but in a gangster film? Really? Maybe in Mumbai gangsters have to read the great Bengali poets to climb the ladder. What, you can’t quote Rabindranath Tagore when you are extorting a businessman? Back to peddling drugs on the street till you can. But though the dialogue struck me as absurd the real problem in this poorly structured crime drama is that there is very little crime, very little mayhem, very little action and absolutely no tension. Basically nothing happens. It is a crime film that you can take mom and dad to and then take a nap. I kept praying for Joe Pesci to show up and hammer somebody.

I gather from the reviews that the story is based loosely on the lives of two real gangsters back in the seventies, Haji Mastan and Dawood Ibrahim. The filmmakers go out of their way to deny this in a notice upfront that can be translated roughly to “Please don’t kill me for this movie. I have a wife, children and many servants to feed”. Haji died back in the 90’s but Dawood is very much alive though in hiding.  You can find biographies of both of these men in Wikipedia and it makes for interesting reading. More so than this film. Haji was big into Bollywood films, financing them and on a friendly basis with many of the stars and in fact he married an actress. Ibrahim was more into money and violence.

A young boy metaphorically washes ashore in Bombay (as it was called back then) from his hometown of Madras. He quickly gains the nickname of Sultan, Sultan Mizra and like a flash he goes from a boy smuggling things in his mouth to becoming the biggest smuggler in the city. He is not just a smuggler, he is a Superstar Smuggler loved by all but the police and probably some of them as well for his charitable ways. If he were doing this now he would be able to host his own reality show, Celebrity Smuggler. Played by Ajay Devgn (who somehow managed to lose an “a” in his last name since I tuned out of Bollywood for a while. There is a reward if anyone can find it) in his typical solemn glassy eyed manner in which every expression change seems to physically hurt him. I am sure it has been said many times that Ajay has a strong resemblance to Huckleberry Hound but in truth Huckleberry is a little more expressive. Ajay stares a lot. But he does so with a steely menace that must work well with cocktail waitresses working for tips. Where is my Manhattan? Sultan likes the movies; especially ones starring Rihana (Kangana Renaut) who he romances (i.e. stalks) with a piece of guava that he forces the vendor to raise the price to 400 rupees or else he would continue to spout bad dialogue to him. He wanted to impress Rihana with how much he spent on her. Wow. 400 rupees. That is almost $8 these days. Maybe more back then and at any rate it works. Maybe I will try that with a durian some day.

On the other side of the ledger is an up and coming psychopath Shoaib Khan (Emraan Hashmi) who gets in the good graces of Sultan by taking a few whacks from a shovel to his head that barely faze him. Totally off the charts crazy, he still manages to romance the lovely good girl Mumtaz (Prachi Desai) with a song and some stolen jewelry. She is clearly in need of some serious counseling for loving this guy who is about as charmless and graceless as a sleazy rattlesnake. As he moves up the chain of command you know that eventually he will be going for the number one spot. We know this, everyone in the audience knows this but Sultan is perhaps too busy working on his opus as he dashes about town in his white linen suits and his white Mercedes to notice and when it comes, wow! No not really. More like a oh, ok. End of movie.

My rating for this film: 4/10
The Trailer:

The Song Parda which is a neat little retro number.

which reminded me of this classic Helen song from Caravan that also evokes Monica.

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