In pulp fiction, few characters can parallel the benevolent don. He is an outlaw, rebel, smuggler and killer. But he has heart. Ghettoized men and women admire him and depend on him for cash and protection. In public consciousness and criminal lore, he swims in apocryphal waters—and is difficult to hate outright. In Milan Luthria’s Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai, Sultan Mirza (Ajay Devgn) is one such don. He arrives in Mumbai as an adolescent runaway from Tamil Nadu, slogs at the docks, which earns him some money, and goes on to rule over a smuggling fiefdom—smuggling, mostly gold, watches and transistors.
The film has a disclaimer right at the beginning denying the maker’s earlier claims that Sultan Mirza is a celluloid version of Haji Mastan—the reformed smuggler who became a politician—in order to appease Mastan’s family who took producer Balaji to court. The disclaimer speaks volumes. Sultan is, of course, Haji Mastan whose life is the stuff of Mumbai underworld annals, and therefore public knowledge.
The other man in this drama is the petty thief and son of a police constable from Dongri, Shoaib (Emraan Hashmi), who cockily challenges policemen when he is a toddler, falls in love with the power that oozes from a gun—and with a pretty and docile jewellery salesgirl played by Prachi Desai. He becomes Sultan’s kingpin.
Sultan is in love with Rehana (Kangna Ranaut), the quintessential 1970s gun moll. She is a Hindi film star who becomes Sultan’s lover. The story is narrated in flashback by Agnel (Randeep Hooda), a steely cop who, while taking on the two men heads on, unintentionally rocked Mumbai’s establishment.
The story by Rajat Aroraa (story, screenplay and dialogues) is pretty simple. There are no digressions, layers or intertwining of strands like masterpieces of the gangster genre. The violence is for the weak-hearted. The flunkies are not quirky fringe characters who idolize as well as abhor their bhais. Aroraa focuses on the simple drama of a popular, big-hearted bhai’s fall after his wily and ravenous protégé exploits his trust to adopt ways that Sultan’s conscience does not allow him to do. Shoaib is an unintentionally funny man in the story, his self-obsession and wry humour evident in some great one liners. Sultan divides the city into five parts, and ensures all the city’s smugglers have their domains; Shoaib calls Mumbai Sultan’s Draupadi. The film’s dialogues take the film a notch higher. They have the kind of crackling, street wit reminiscent of those which characterized roles that Amitabh Bachchan played in his early angry young man days. There’s a direct reference to the superstar in one scene when Rehana tells Sultan a film could be made on his life and the young and bright star Amit could play the role: “He has the same eyes that you do.”
The throwback to the 1970s is immensely enjoyable. Costumes, such as multicoloured nylon shirts, body-hugging saris and white bell-bottoms, nightclubs shimmering with disco balls and fuchsia wallpapers, and of course, R.D. Burman sounds—the retro groove is tastefully and arduously evoked. An entire love scene is a cute ode to the shirt Dimple Kapadia wore in Bobby.
Devgn’s last major role as a mafioso was in Ram Gopal Verma’s spectacularly crafted Company, which was inspired by the story of Dawood and Chhota Rajan. He is a natural in don roles, fitting into Haji’s shoes perfectly. His eyes speak louder than his words, a trick that the actor has often overused. Here it defines the role. Devgn gives the character a groovy swagger and quiet dignity.
Hashmi has a tough task on hand. How do you play the role of a man who exists in everybody’s imagination, the most written-about don in India’s underworld history? Hashmi is in character in most parts and plays the role convincingly—lending it the kind of stealthy menace that portraits of Dawood Ibrahim evoke.
Ranaut has tried really hard. She has developed acting acumen over the past few years. The character is that of a feisty woman who knows her mind—and Ranaut has grasped her. In most scenes, she is only a doll, Sultan’s arm candy, and her costumes and make-up are more important than what she says. Prachi Desai, who showed promise in Rock On!!, is adept and in character in the few important scenes she has.
Luthria is a technically accomplished film-maker. None of his earlier films—he has directed many, including some memorable ones such as Taxi No. 9211—have the stamp of greatness; most of them being formulaic, big-budget films. Here, with good writing and performances, Luthria’s talent for great shot compositions and his control over the medium shows. Some visual flourishes are impressive—the film’s end shot, for example, smacks of Hollywood cool.
Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai is a fun ride. Don’t expect ingenious gangster opera; but it has the sizzle and glaze of a well-cooked Bollywood masala movie.
Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai released in theatres on Friday.