By Neel Chaudhuri
IT IS 1993 and Mumbai is burning. Additional Commissioner Agnel Wilson (Randeep Hooda) is rescued after a failed suicide attempt. Bruised and brooding, he claims responsibility for the mess the city is in and narrates the story of two men: Sultan Mirza (Ajay Devgn), the erstwhile smuggling kingpin of the city who assiduously worked his way up from a life in rags; and Shoaib Khan (Emraan Hashmi), the hot-blooded son of a policeman, destined by his own will to be the lord of Mumbai’s underbelly. We follow the vicissitudes of these two lives — from Shoaib’s petty thievery to Sultan’s skilful division of the city between his fellow racketeers until Agnel pits them against each other.
A story of cops and robbers in Mumbai could barely be novel fare for a generation gleaned on Ram Gopal Varma. But Milan Luthria’s Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai does a few things rather well. Rajat Aroraa’s screenplay serves you a nutshell plot before the credits; you know the protagonists, you know it is going to end badly and if you stretch yourself, you’ll know why. So having been freed from the grand story arch in the opening minutes, Luthria is able to break the narrative into a succession of setpieces. It is not intriguing plot development but tempo that progresses this film, and in that endeavour Once Upon A Time is hoisted by some fine camerawork and editing. The consistent use of close-ups and the arrest and release of pace reminds you of the work of Michael Mann (of Heat and Public Enemies fame).
It is not intriguing plot development but the tempo that comes to the film’s rescue
It is not the individual worth of the three main characters but how they measure up against each other that matters. At several points though, the dialogue is overwritten, too rife with metaphor and witticisms. The one somewhat derailing section is the romantic sub-plot in the first half of the film, where Sultan woos Rehana (Kangana Ranaut), a prominent film actress. The protraction of this is somewhat ironic as the starlet proclaims that her dream man is one who will win her over in seven seconds.
Devgn and Hooda are effectively restrained but one wishes that Hashmi could hold from projecting the angry young man act in every single frame. Prachi Desai is impressive in an underwritten part as Shoaib’s love obsession, Mumtaz. Pritam’s score of metal riffs and ominous horns works well, though surely there is room for some silence, even around gangsters.