On the surface, 'Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai' is a mob fable, but at its essence, it's a story about a boy figuring out how to be a man--a man who happened to become one of the most wanted criminals in the world.
A court-ordered disclaimer at the beginning of the film says the story is not based on the life of the late Haji Mastan, a 1970s Mumbai smuggler. Mastan's family tried and failed to stop the release of the film, but the obvious allusions to Mastan aren't exactly unfavorable. The character, Sultan Mirza (played by Ajay Devgan), is an admirably bootstrapping, rags-to-riches Robin Hood who helps people the government ignores--to consolidate his power, of course, but he also has altruistic motives.
As always, Devgan oozes cool and his delivery is brilliantly understated. His every subtle gesture--the nod of his head, the crook of his finger, and of course, his famous smoldering stare--is power-packed. He's played this role before--that of a criminal leader with a rebellious underling--in 'Company' (2002). But here, he's less intense, more self-conscious--effectively so.
But the story isn't really about Sultan, it's about his protege gone wrong--Shoaib Khan (played by Emraan Hashmi), a two-bit thief who rises in the ranks of Sultan's organization and decides to usurp him. And there's no disclaimer about the inspiration for this character--Dawood Ibrahim, the notorious leader of the Mumbai underworld who once worked for Mastan and later orchestrated the 1993 terrorist attacks on the city.
The film deals with Shoaib's early days as an arrogant, insolent young man with an explosive temper and no sense of morality. His father is an honest (and therefore, poor) police officer and a weak, ineffectual man who tries to slap his son into submission to no avail. Hashmi, an Indian Colin Farrell who's stepping into the big leagues, nails the role of boyish bully with his baby-face good looks and smirking machismo.
Much of the movie focuses on male potency--namely, Sultan's--or the lack thereof--in Shoaib's father and by extension, the government. Shoaib's hero-worship of the former and contempt for the latter shape his developing sense of manhood. This theme is partly illustrated in Sultan's relationship with Bollywood starlet Rihana (Kangana Ranaut), whom he effortlessly woos and happily loves, contrasted with Shoaib's inept attempts to win over a simple girl, Mumtaz (Prachi Desai). He manages to seduce her eventually--revealingly, by dressing her like an actress in a hit film, and then undressing her. Shoaib's real fantasy is to be Sultan, and he's only romantically successful by aping his role model.
But Shoaib and Mumtaz are never the perfect couple that Sultan and Rihana are, which frustrates Shoaib and makes Mumtaz miserable. Shoaib's floundering is much more interesting than Sultan's smooth sailing, and too much of the first half of the film is devoted to Sultan's boringly conflict-free courtship of Rihana.
The plot is aptly simple and peppered with smart, snappy, and often humorous dialogue. The film captures every detail of the time period--the clothes, the cars, the hairstyles--even the musical score and camera work harken from that era, and it's authentic, not campy. A little trimming of Ranaut's pointless screen time would have gone a long way.
- The Bollywood Ticket: The American guide to Indian movies (Subscribe: The Bollywood Ticket)