Friday, August 6, 2010

Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai

Just like its not-so-unique title*, the plot of Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai is not anything we haven’t seen before: a gangster film. Inspired by real-life events, the film’s plot unfolds through the eyes of police officer, Agnel Wilson (Randeep Hooda), whose failed attempts at thwarting the rise of the city’s underworld continue to gnaw at him 18 years later. He tells the story of Sultan Mirza (Ajay Devgan), a smuggler whose longtime black activities on sea routes, undying allegiance to the poor, and shrewd strategizing among his peers once earned him the reputation of the most influential and untouchable gangster around—until he took in young and ambitious newbie Shoaib (Emraan Hashmi) as part of his crew; with larger-than-life dreams and no moral compass to speak of, Shoaib’s desire to rule the entire city soon surpassed his loyalty to Sultan, threatening not only their relationship, but the entire dynamic of power in Mumbai.

Director Milan Luthria’s film has opened to mostly rave reviews that tout it as part of producer Ekta Kapoor’s triumphant comeback to Bollywood, so perhaps those of us who came away underwhelmed are missing something? Not that it’s some kind of unwatchable nightmare, but I wouldn’t go around enthusiastically espousing it to everyone I meet, either. Instead, Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai lands firmly in middle ground—numerous aspects could have made it great, but eventually don't deliver to the fullest, producing a film that is just—there’s no other word for it—“meh".

For instance, Rajat Arora’s dialogue has its moments of ingenuity, especially during the blossoming romance between Sultan and his arm-toy Rehana (Kangana Raunat), but after about halfway into the film, slips into “over the top” territory—think a lot of characters entering rooms and delivering melodramatic one-liners with all the macho energy as they can muster before turning on their heels and making their exit with equal gusto. Music director Pritam puts together a number of mellow, melodious numbers; yet they are quickly forgotten due to a throbbing background score which, though apt for the genre, was used so repetitively that it ended up featuring in my dream last night.

As far as cast is concerned, Ajay Devgan is the only one who truly soars in yet another effortlessly convincing performance as head honcho Sultan; Hooda as Agnel and Emraan Hashmi as Shoaib are just adequate in their roles as the dejected police officer and aspiring don, respectively. And as gangster films typically leave little room for substantial female characters, Kangana and Prachi Desai predictably have little to do in roles that were probably only created to provide that all-important eye candy.

The film can take pride in its recreation of a decade that many younger audiences are unfamiliar with. Whether it is the nature of underworld operations or the culture and fashion inspired by Bollywood’s emerging “masala film” era, the set design, costumes, and general “look” of OUATIM provide an intriguing glimpse into 1970s Mumbai.

However, the film’s eventual downfall is its pace, which starts off steadily enough, but post-intermission seems to decelerate to a depressingly dragging tempo. The result: a product that is at least half an hour too long, filled with excessive drunken outbursts and unnecessary, incomplete side-plots.

Ultimately, Once Upon a Time…'s lengthiness and overall mediocrity hardly makes it the best tale ever told; for now, we’ll take comfort in the fact that it is just one of the inexhaustible, multitude of stories that Mumbai has to offer.

*Once Upon a Time in China. Once Upon a Time in America. Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Once Upon a Time in the West. Apparently, all the cool kids have done it.

**No joke, there’s an angry little musical refrain that showed up every. two. minutes. Those of you who have seen the film already, you have got to know what I’m talking about.

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