Director: Santosh Sivan
Writer: Himanshu Singh
Cast: Vikrant Massey, Vijay Sethupathi, Sanjay Mishra, Ranvir Shorey, Hridhu Haroon
Within five minutes of Mumbaikar, you may find yourself wondering if you’ve been put in a time machine. Not that Hindi cinema in 2023 is particularly evolved — this week’s theatrical release, Zara Hatke Zara Bachke will have you know that being ‘modern’ is to be selfish, and if you’re an independent-spirited woman, love means kindly adjusting to those who think the worst of you — but Mumbaikar feels like it belongs in a video cassette library from the late Nineties. From the boyfriend whose love language is stalking, to token women characters who are irrelevant to the plot, and gangsters who say “apun” repeatedly to establish street cred, all the clichés from vintage Bollywood pulp are here.
More importantly, surely the claim that Mumbaikar is directed by Santosh Sivan (also credited as the film’s cinematographer) is an April Fool’s joke? The man who made Halo (1996) and Asoka (2001); who has been the cinematographer on films as beautiful as Vanaprastham (1999) and Raavanan (2010) can’t really be the driving force of a film that has the aesthetic of cheap television soaps? Except it’s not April 1 but June 2, and the joke’s on anyone who has voluntarily chosen to sit through the ridiculous and amateurish Mumbaikar.
Mumbaikar begins with two thugs attempting to scare a man (Vikrant Massey) in a cafe by telling him they’ll throw acid on the woman they believe is the man’s girlfriend. (Later one of them will have the same acid he brandished in the first scene poured down the back of his own pants, which one of the film’s heroes will use as the premise for an acidity joke. That’s Mumbaikar’s attempt at serving progressive values, thank you very much.) From there the story shifts to Vijay Sethupathi eyeing himself in a mirror, vowing to be the coolest gangster while looking upon stickers of Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone from The Godfather films as well as Amitabh Bachchan and Rajinikanth. As Mumbaikar continues to unravel, we get a job interview, the kidnapping of a child, drinks at a bar, and Sanjay Mishra throwing pleading glances at his assailant in a fight scene, as though he’d rather be bludgeoned by a brick than actually have to plod his way through this film.
That Mumbaikar was greenlit in the 21st century and has such an impressive ensemble cast suggests projects still find their backers and collaborators on the basis of a pitch, rather than an actual script. As a one-liner, Mumbaikar seems watchable enough. It’s about a group of unnamed strangers — policemen, gangsters, office workers, kids, unemployed men — who are brought together by a set of random incidents that show different aspects of life in a big city. By the end of the film, the fact that you don’t know anyone’s name shouldn’t matter. All you need to know is that they feel like Mumbaikars despite their varied backgrounds. Add to this premise actors like Vijay Sethupathi, Vikrant Massey, Sanjay Mishra and Ranvir Shorey, and it promises to be an enjoyable watch. Reader, it is not.
There are no redeeming features to the juddering logjam of awfulness that is Mumbaikar. Himanshu Singh’s screenplay has picked up nothing from the long list of films and streaming shows that have attempted to put together portraits of Mumbai. Instead, we get stilted dialogues and an outsider’s perspective upon the city that is superficial and uninsightful. Singh’s most inventive moment is when a group of gangsters explain to a newbie that if the police catch them, they’re to tell the police that their name is “Mukesh bhai” and if a rival catches them, then the name to drop is “Anil bhai”. You’re supposed to laugh in appreciation of this wink-wink-nudge-nudge reference to the Ambani family.
Sivan also films the city unimaginatively, making Mumbai look like a collection of cheap sets from a television serial and a few characterless exterior shots of a generic city, The visuals give no sense of the chaotic, electric city and neither does Mumbaikar show how the city reveals its beauty, grace and menace in the most unexpected situations and places. The background score by Sahil Amrute is jarring, melodramatic and strips Mumbaikar of all possibilities of elegance. Sethupathi — this is one of the worst performances of his career, and he’s still the most watchable character in Mumbaikar — and debutant Hridhu Haroon struggle with the Hindi dialogues. Tanya Maniktala has little to do other than smile and stare unblinkingly at different men. It’s difficult to tell what Vikrant Massey needs more — a better haircut or a wake-up call that will push him to find more roles like Shutu in A Death in the Gunj (2016).
The best one can hope for a film like Mumbaikar is that it will be forgotten. It’s difficult to see why anyone would want to put their name to such a project and why a platform would want something like Mumbaikar in its stable, especially at the time of its launch. So far, Jio Cinema’s slate has been full, but with Indian titles that range from mediocre to unwatchable, and stand in sharp contrast to international shows like Succession. Let’s hope the platform’s upcoming offerings do more to establish its identity as one that audiences will associate with quality rather than quantity.