Director: Sanjay Gupta
Writers: Sanjar Gupta, Robin Bhatt, Vaibhav Vishal (additional dialogue)
Cinematography: Shikhar Bhatnagar
Editor: Bunty Nagi
Cast: John Abraham, Emraan Hashmi, Suniel Shetty, Mahesh Manjrekar, Prateik Babbar, Kajal Aggarwal, Amole Gupte
An epic story with overwhelming machismo. That's the descriptor on the official trailer of Shootout at Wadala, a film Sanjay Gupta made in 2013. The one thing you can say about the director is that he's consistent. Eight years later, we're pretty much watching the same film. Once again, John Abraham, wearing a tikka and kohl, plays a dreaded Mumbai gangster – here he's Amartya Rao instead of Manya Surve. And once again, Sanjay is fetishizing dons and guns – every second shot is a slow-motion ode to their daring, their outsize testosterone and their unstinted panache. With their tight shirts, bulging biceps and Ray-Ban glasses, these are criminals positioned as urban cowboys.
To this reworking of his own material, Sanjay adds lensing choices and camera angles that echo Ram Gopal Varma; old-fashioned swag and dialogue-baazi that reminds you of Milan Luthria's Once Upon a Time in Mumbai – the presence of Emraan Hashmi aids in that; and a character modeled on Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray. Bhau played by Mahesh Manjrekar is the powerful, divisive politician you've seen in umpteen films including Mani Ratnam's Bombay and Varma's Sarkar. There's also the requisite Ganpati song and an item number by Yo Yo Honey Singh because how can you have a film about Mumbai gangsters without those? In short, the film is oxidized wine in a not-new-bottle.
Sanjay has described Mumbai Saga as his most ambitious film but the ambition seems to be mostly expended on style and set-pieces rather than a coherent narrative or layered characters. The film begins with a gruesome murder on the Mumbai streets in the mid-90s and then flashes back to the events that led to the rise of this lawlessness and of Amartya who starts out as a lower-middle class man who quietly pays hafta to the local goons. But when they mess with his younger brother, all hell breaks loose and he transforms, without hesitation, into a killer on a rampage. Suddenly, he's chopping limbs and breaking bones. And no one in his family seems worried. His girlfriend in fact, smiles appreciatively.
The connective tissue between scenes is so thin that it feels like Sanjay, who also wrote the story, first decided on the scenes he was excited to create and then found a way to force-fit them into a screenplay. There is an elaborate action sequence on an airstrip, another in a Mumbai mandi and another in a bathroom in which Amartya goes up against his arch-nemesis – encounter cop Vijay Savarkar, played by Hashmi. All of these are staged with precision but Sanjay and Robin Bhatt, who co-wrote the screenplay, can't be bothered to connect the dots. Or build tension.
Or give the sketchy characters depth. Motivation is too much to expect but these guys don't even adhere to any internal logic. Prateik Babbar plays the 'Anil Kapoor from Parinda' figure – Amartya's younger brother, a good guy who is inevitably sucked into the bloodshed. But he doesn't seem troubled by the turn of events and instantly becomes trigger happy. Suniel Shetty shows up as a don who doles out timely advice while looking cool on a boat and then disappears. Gulshan Grover, playing a drug dealer, pops in whenever Amartya needs any help. There's a track about Bhau's identity politics – we see him delivering lines like Marathi ko jo tokega, Marathi usko thokega – but we have little sense of how his fiery parochialism shapes the city. And the most bewildering is Vijay. In an interview, Emraan described the character as a "gangster in uniform." In one scene, we see Vijay speak proudly about the number of criminals he has murdered and his favorite place to kill them. But suddenly, in another scene, he turns heroic and gives his juniors a rousing speech on the khaki vardi and how they must honor it.
The writing is a mess and the acting isn't much better. John rages and smashes bodies like he did in Satyameva Jayate. His physicality and presence fill up the frame. Sanjay showcases him like a mythical hero – even when he is doing horrific things with a razor blade, we are meant to admire him. But to build a character, you need more than low-angle shots and slow motion. The only actor who shows some spark is Amole Gupte, playing a gleeful gangster named Gaitonde. This Gaitonde isn't a patch on the one in Sacred Games and the character seems like an underwritten cousin of Bhope bhau who Amole played in Vishal Bhardwaj's Kaminey. But at least he's having fun. The rest of the men are either surly or smirking. They all work up a sweat trying to match John's muscles and his swag. Sunglasses play a prominent role in this creation of coolness. The lone woman in the frame – Kajal Aggarwal – does painfully little.
Mumbai Saga is apparently inspired by true events. I think there is a compelling story here of how the contours and conscience of the city shifted in 1996 and what was lost when Bombay became Mumbai. But Sanjay isn't really interested in that. His aim is to glorify men and guns. But the tools in his arsenal – slick editing, green-toned filters and the painfully loud sound design (there isn't a car in this film that doesn't screech to a halt) are too limited to fill the hole that is the story.
You can watch Mumbai Saga at a theater near you. Don't forget to wear a mask!