The Mumbai underworld has been fertile soil for gritty Bollywood movies. Directors on a slump often return the well to reestablish their credentials; indeed, there are some directors like Ram Gopal Verma who have found success almost exclusively in this genre. The familiar territory of the Mumbai underbelly and its colorful characters have made it easy for scriptwriters to capture authentic gangster dialect and mannerisms and set up gripping conflicts, all the way from Parinda in 1989 to Kaminey in 2009.
Director Milan Luthria, known previously for pale Bollywood remakes of Hollywood B movies ( Chori Chori, Kacche Dhaage), also reaches for the real life drama of the Mumbai mafia to give his sagging reputation a boost, and the magic of the underworld rubs off on this movie as well.
But Once Upon … is no Satya. Rather, it is a somewhat sanitized version of the conflict between Haji Mastan and Dawood Ibrahim that played out against the backdrop of the Bollywood industry in the 1970s, a period brought out with great care by the film’s designers. The dialogues are cleaner, and a touch florid, as in a play. The violence is muted and the characters larger than life. The plot is quite predictable to anyone familiar with the story arcs of mafia movies, but the editing is tight, and this makes the movie less tiring than you think it would be. Competently directed, Once Upon is a far more palatable movie for the family audience than previous movies on the subject have been.
Adding to its mainstream value is a stellar cast – Ajay Devgn plays Sultan Mirza, the gangster with the heart of gold , with his usual panache. Kangana Ranaut, as his movie star love Rehana, displays her amazing chameleon-like ability to look entirely different in different roles. Her diction and voice modulation need work, as do those of most Bollywood heroines, but she is well cast and performs competently. Emraan Hashmi is perfect as Shoaib Khan, the young upstart, chafing at the constraints set up by Mirza, and itching to prove his worth and supersede the king. Randeep Hooda as ACP Agnel Wilson, the police chief who unwittingly sets off a train wreck of events, is excellent as ever.
But because of the conscious attempt to create an epic of sorts, the movie ends up losing a little bit of the grit and the dirt that give Mumbai movies their realism. Instead, as the name suggests, Once Upon a Time in Mumbai is a fairy tale, albeit one without a happy ending.
My rating : 3 out of 5 stars.
Note: I’ve heard that Haji Mastan’s children have tried to stop the screening of the film. Given how positively the film treats the Sultan Mirza character, that is a bit of a mystery.