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Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai review: A riveting story

Once Upon A Time in Mumbaai
Milan Luthria
Ajay Devgn, Kangana Ranaut, Emraan Hashmi, Prachi Desai, Randeep Hooda
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There’s not much to dislike, really. Here a slick product with great acting, and a gripping storyline set to a thumping background score.

Stories about two warring gangsters whether set in the ‘70s or the present time somehow roll out predictably in our films. There’s the god-like leader who gives a cheeky brat a real chance at proving himself. The brat, as envisioned, turns out an asset (just like Vivek Oberoi’s character in Company, interestingly also pitted against Ajay Devgn). As per pattern, the newbie eventually transforms into his mentor’s nemesis.

The film is set in the ‘70s and ‘80s to replicate an era that seems to have been the inspiration for this story. For this was the time when dreaded smuggler Haji Mastan and protege Dawood Ibrahim ruled Mumbai’s underworld (though a carefully worded disclaimer squashes any resemblance).

As for the viewer, they might experience a sense of deja vu when they see Sultan (Ajay Devgn), a smuggling kingpin battle it out with his trusted protege Shoaib (Emraan Hashmi). The reasons for their disagreements are fundamental: for all his illegal doings, Sultan is against trading in drugs and liquor (reminding you of a similar conflict in The Godfather), while Shoaib sees no moral issues there. Like in Company, both are in committed relationships that anchor them emotionally.

The film falls into another well-known ‘cop-gangster movie’ trap: the unreal (though very arresting and entertaining) dialogue. Almost every character, from ACP Agnell Wilson (Randeep Hooda) to the bad guys speak in a quaint manner using long-winded phrases to make a point. For example, Shoaib describes his ambition while smoking a cigarette, “Bambai mere neeche, aur mein dhuan ki tarah upar.”

So what’s in it for the viewer? The crackling performances, mainly. Ajay Devgn does the same ol’ mob king drone, but it is to his credit for making the performance fresh and wholly entertaining. Randeep Hooda is impressive, enacting his cop’s role with equal parts intensity and emotion.

Emraan Hashmi is tad disappointing for a role that needed a more brash aggressiveness. Kangana Ranaut is likeable as the gangster’s moll and the romance is treated with sensitivity. Prachi Desai is effective as the hopelessly-in-love girl who dangerously puts blind trust in Shoaib.

Milan Luthria has always been an ace at extracting masterful performances, and that is apparent in this film as well. His execution of the story is immersing as well. For a gangster film, Luthria and writer Rajat Aroraa decide to do away with gunshots and bloodshed. You’ll hardly see any violence or murders.

It’s a talky, verbose gangster film, if you will; concentrating on the simmering tensions between Mumbai underworld’s key players. The director also chooses not to tell too much too soon, letting the relationship between mentor-protege flesh out through the first half. It’s a unique storytelling technique, one that is certainly refreshing for this genre.

Interestingly, Luthria borrows a retro technique, interspersing a disco number with an action scene. And for some subtle humour, Rehana (Ranaut) makes a reference to a “new actor” Amit who’d be perfect for a gangster film on Sultan (referring to Deewar).

Technically, the film is impressive. The background score is rocking, cinematography is quietly effective, art direction and styling is superb.

The screenplay, however, displays some loose ends. ACP Agnell, while reminiscing about the story, regrets his actions that he claims have caused Mumbai to burn. This portion is not explained in detail, leaving the viewer to interpret the most important portion of the story.

Also questionable is the glorified portrayal of Sultan who is shown helping out people, far more than indulging in notorious activities. The film clearly paints a saintly version of the man.

Still for the riveting story and performances, you might want to witness what happened in ‘70s Mumbai.

Rating: 3 stars


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