Cast: John Abraham, Emraan Hashmi, Suniel Shetty, Mahesh Manjrekar, Amole Gupte, Kajal Aggarwal, Rohit Roy, Prateik Babbar
Director: Sanjay Gupta
Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)
The cops-and-gangsters template of Sanjay Gupta's Shootout films returns in a markedly tempered form in Mumbai Saga, a crime drama set in a crucial period in the evolution of the megacity's violent underbelly. The blood-splattered tale, toplined by John Abraham and Emraan Hashmi, is only intermittently engaging.
The film passes muster especially when it delves into the way political power play impacts both the police force and the criminals that the men in uniform are charged with controlling. Two actors who are also established film directors, Mahesh Manjrekar and Amole Gupte, are cast as two faces of unconstitutional power - the former plays a politician whose writ runs across the whole city, the latter a gangster who brooks no resistance. The two are supporting figures but tend to put the principal duo somewhat in the shade.
Written, produced and directed by Gupta, Mumbai Saga, based on true events, is smartly lensed (by Shikhar Bhatnagar), crisply edited (Bunty Negi) and stylishly mounted. But it falls way, way short of being a being a mellow, meaningful recreation of an era because the script beats about the bush instead of plunging right into it.
Not that Mumbai Saga has nothing at all going for it. It might have been a better film had the writing dug deeper into the workings of the nexus between politicians, entrepreneurs, gangsters and encounter specialists in India's financial capital. As it stands, Gupta's trademark stylistic flourishes cannot paper over the essential flimsiness of the exercise.
Mumbai Saga, which spans a decade and a bit from the mid-1980s to 1995, the year Bombay became Mumbai as a result of a piece of legislation and many of its mills faced closure as big industry stepped in to make a killing from the then incipient real-estate boom, resorts to rather broad strokes to portray a city in flux. The kernel does exist somewhere in here, but the fruit that emerges around it does not acquire the requisite fullness.
The character played by Abraham asks the one that Gupte essays: "Kabhi suna hai andhere ne savera nahi hone diya (Ever hear that night has prevented daybreak?" Good question, but Mumbai Saga isn't about the dawn dispelling darkness; it is about night without end, about one manner of darkness giving way to another.
In a completely different context, another character, the daughter-in-law of an old-style millowner who is against his family business being sold off by his son, throws more light on what is on the way out and what is on the way in: "Guzra hua kal aur aanewala kal dono ko 'kal' kehte hain, humen faisla karna hai humen kaunse 'kal' mein jeena hain (the past and the future are both kal, it is for us to decide which kal we want to live in)." Sounds deep and on point.
But that is about it. It's no more than passable wordplay. The screenplay makes do with skimming the surface of the multiple issues that it wishes to examine. The exploration is neither sharp nor rounded.
The principal human pieces on this chessboard are all too familiar to be of particular interest - and all-powerful politician and rabble-rouser who enthuses his flock to follow him unquestioningly; a mafia don who reigns over the underworld from a prison cell; a tough, daring upstart who challenges the status quo in the world of crime; and an honest-to-a-fault police officer who takes upon himself the mission to clean up the city of its mess.
The sense of history on display here is confined within the simplistic parameters that were marked out by Shootout at Lokhandwala, which Gupta wrote and produced, and Shootout at Wadala, which he also directed. But whoever has ever expected a Bollywood thriller to give us an exhaustive sociological treatise on a city's lawmakers, law-breakers and law enforcers? Once we fix our hopes at realistic levels and decide to savour the surface gloss of the film, Mumbai Saga could be deemed passably entertaining fare.
In the opening sequence, a top industrialist (Samir Soni) is gunned down in broad daylight. The film jumps twelve years backwards to begin the process of bringing the audience up to speed with the genesis of the moneyed man's misfortune.
Out there is Amartya Rao (Abraham), a Robin Hood figure who stands up not only for a pretty girl (Kajal Aggarwal) and his kid brother (played as a grown-up by Prateik Babbar) but for the entire market that is forced to pay hafta to vicious goons unleashed by a guy called Gaitonde (Gupte).
The tables are turned pretty soon as politician Bhau (Manjrekar) takes a shine to Amartya after the latter demonstrates his courage by single-handedly laying to waste Gaitonde's men. The up-and-coming gangster is quickly drawn into the politician's larger plan to cement his hold on the city.
It is not until the halfway mark of the two-hour film that we get to meet the unflappable lawman, Vijay Savarkar (Hashmi), who goes about bumping off gangsters without batting an eyelid. His battle is twofold: he has to keep his own corrupt men in check while he goes after after the empire of crime created by Amartya.
The face-off is so hackneyed for the most part that it is rather difficult to not be turned off. The film throws in a surprise twist towards the end - it relates to Savarkar's background and his true purpose as a cop - that takes the action off the streets of Mumbai to an airstrip for a predictable climactic confrontation where the stunt/action director takes over completely.
John Abraham is usually the one who dons the Dirty Harry guise in such films but crosses but over to the other side here. He goes through the motions with stony resolve. It is Emraan Hashmi who injects some degree of animation into the film. Rohit Roy and Shaad Randhawa, as Amartya Rao's two most trusted men, make the most of the footage apportioned to them.
The actors who make the strongest impression are Manjrekar and Gupte. In fact, the former overshadows everyone else with an undemonstrative but assertive performance. The latter exudes earthy menace mixed with touches of dark humour, helped along a bit by the dialogue writer.
This is an out and out male-dominated film, so Kajal Aggarwal, playing Amartya Rao's girlfriend-turned-wife, has to be content with sporadic scenes in which she makes phone calls to articulate how worried she always is about the safety of her husband. She has a 'voice' but it is only for the purpose of whining.
Mumbai Saga, for all its guts and gore, goes all soggy, and soppy, in the finale. There is a younger brother that the hero is determined to save from harm. Trapped in superficialities and cliched tropes, the film itself could have used a rescue act.