Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai

First, borrow a title stem, ignoring that it’s been used many, many times, then localize it to your own neck of the woods. That’s what Director Milan Luthria and screenwriter Rajat Arora did. But they weren’t done with just that. They added a few pinches from Scarface. and a bit of subtle flavorings from The Godfather minus the grand flourishes and operatic touches. They gently simmered this masala and with an occasional stir, they let it cook for two hours and 14 minutes, and then, their recipe called for it to be served up piping hot. This dish is – Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai.

A July 30th, 2010 release from India, it is now available on DVD, or you can rent it via Netflix. This is the simple and often told tale about how a criminal rises from poverty, including the loss of his entire family in a flood, to the top of the heap in crime – in [name your own city]. In this case it is the metropolis once known as Bombay.

It is just after the Indian independence in the late 1940’s. We meet an orphaned boy – those nasty floods in Madras wiped out his home and family, and somehow he washed up on the docks of Bombay.

Working for 25 cents a day, he somehow rights himself. He’s nameless until a homeless woman calls him Sultan in return for a charitable gift from him. Twenty five years later, he has risen in the Bombay underworld to a position of prominence.

His byword is “When friendship is available, why choose enmity?” He is now called Sultan Mirza and he has just brokered the peace among the top criminal families just as Don Corleone attempted in The Godfather.

Mirza divided the city into four quadrants to keep the four families happy, and to avoid bloodshed over control of the turf – which he said was “just making the police’s job easier”. He retained the control of Bombay’s waterfront and sea-lanes for himself.

Ajay Devgn as Sultan Mirza

Played by Ajay Devgn, Mirza is smart, fearless, and above everything else, he’s charismatic. Dressed always in white in the typical ‘leisure suit style’ from the seventies, he cut a dashing figure. He set his sights on a Bollywood movie queen, and won her love.

Just as Tony Montana did in Scarface, Mirza rose to the top of the heap. He and his men were smugglers. They didn’t deal in drugs. What they acquired and made available to the city were things that the government didn’t allow. Mirza was well loved by the citizens and the police couldn’t make a case against him.

Enter ACP Agnel Wilson. That stands for Assistant Commissioner of Police. Wilson was a straight arrow and as honest as they come. His first foray against Mirza ended up a disater. Mirza’s actress girlfriend asked to meet with him, and then next thing Wilson knew, he has been smeared across the front page of every paper in town as a cop who took a bribe. It wasn’t true. Once the dust had settled, it was clear that he had been set up. But the upshot of the event was that it made Wilson acutely aware of how dangerous Mirza was.

Emraan Hashmi as Shoaib Khan

He needed another plan. On staff of the police was a constable, Sub-Inspector Khan whose son Shoaib Khan was a guy in his early twenties, who was running wild in the streets. Mirza decided to use Shoaib as a way into bringing down Mirza. It was a good idea with one fatal flaw. Shoaib was not so interested in being an honest citizen – instead, he wanted everything that Mirza had. The gold, the glitter, the women, and most of all – he wanted the power.

There’s your set up.

Okay, the film worked for me. The amount of violence was severly toned down compared to Scarface and The Godfather. This time it was more about plotting and planning, making friends in the right places, and being bold and brash.

Devgn is solid. Actually he’s far better than that. He’s played this kind of role before – the gangland chieftan who outmarts everyone, the popular criminal who the common folks see as a Robin Hood type of figure, and a tough guy with enough ruthlessness to makes his foes afraid of him.

Then there’s the fact that the women in his films always fall over themselves for him. But his excellence in this film is the small touches – like the nuances of how he carries himself, or how a single look could wither anyone even thinking of something other than agreement.

His opponent Shoaib Khan is played by Emraan Hashmi. I’ve seen him in one other film, but I’ve read that he usual plays romantic leads. I think he was just okay at best. I mean I can’t find any highlight to his performance. But somewhere he was liked as he was cast with Vidya Balan in The Dirty Picture, which was an international hit which oped just a few months ago in December,. I’ll have a review of that coming in the future.

The third lead is ACP Wilson, the cop, and his role is performed by Randeep Hooda. You like him as the cop, but you’re going to wish he was smarter. In an unusual framing device – Wilson is the narrator, as well as being the cop in the middle of the two hoodlums.

The story moves smartly most of the time, and the look of the film is fine. There’s a couple of catchy tunes – no the gangsters don’t sing, but they’re on screen in a few of the songs.

If I were to find fault – I’d say that the women get something on the shorter end of the script in terms of the size of their roles. Having said that, the script isn’t top shelf either. You might find yourself waiting for more action in between the ‘speeches’ given far too often by Mirza, and Shoaib, and even ACP Wilson.

Still, the period flavor of the 70’a – the clothing, the cars, and even the hairstyles was spot on. The film has some intense and gripping suspense when you’re not sure of what will happen, and on that note, I’ll rate the film at three point five zero.

While not an award winning film, it is worth seeing. Check out the trailer: