You can probably name a number of films with titles “Once Upon a Time in...” where we go back in time to eras in cities or countries past, with room for plenty of astounding stories to be told, complete with that nostalgic peek in a time long gone. In Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai, writer Rajat Arora and director Milan Luthria bring us back to the 60s to 80s Mumbai, with the city having to taste the onslaught of the Mafia operating from within, carefully carving territories amongst themselves so that they can each operate in their own spheres of influence as mooted by a certain Sultan Mirza (Ajay Devgan), with him forsaking land to his peers and opting for control over the sea routes for his smuggling activities.
So begins the tale of a much respected gangster, well known throughout the city for his no-nonsense approach and honour amongst thieves, yet possessing that heart of gold and compassion in his willingness to help impoverished folks where the authorities can't, himself having started from an almost impossibly poor beginning and working his way up through a variety of con jobs. But one gangster alone doesn't make this the blast from the past tale it got touted to be, with the story enveloping two other key characters, with Shoaib Khan (Emraan Hashmi of Tum Mile) the protege gangster wannabe who looks toward Sultan as a source of inspiration, but possesses a hungrier and larger ambition and an obsession to emulate his idol, and on the other side of the law, ACP Agnel Wilson (Randeep Hooda) who at first thought that taming the city will be a piece of cake, but soon finds himself embroiled in a battle larger than what he alone thought could handle.
It is the intertwining of the lives of these three characters that propel the narrative forward, with the two gangster characters Sultan and Shoaib finding parallels with real life mobsters Haji Mastan and Dawood Ibrahim who reigned over the Mumbai underworld during the same era. It charts their respective path to infamy, with each having to take a different route and approach in terms of what morals they are willing to compromise in their grip for power and ownership of the city, with Mumbai herself becoming that object of desire. The story takes pains to tell how each possesses a certain amount of ingenuity in their dealings as gangsters to make up for the lack of action sequences, while also highlighting their differences that will eventually see them cross paths into foes, with the police willing to take a backseat to see how it will all play out.
As with a typical Hindi film, romance is never left far behind, and ample time is given to mirror the kind of relationships each man develop with their lady love. Kangana Ranaut glams up for her role as the superstar actress Rihana who sweeps and got swept off the floor by Sultan in their fairy tale like whirlwind romance, while that between Shoaib and Mumtaz (Prachi Desai) is almost the exact opposite with a more down to earth relationship riddled with issues since Mumtaz cannot reconcile Shoaib's desire to rise to the top through whatever means possible. Worst of course come the humiliation that Shoaib's initial failure bring about, and that uncontrollable dogged temper that sees him never wanting to get stuck back in the rut again.
So we have a clear distinction before and after the interval, beginning with the measured setting of the pace for the introduction of all the key characters and their respective rise to power, and after that the beginnings of true rivalry formed. Ajay Devgan comes hot off the successful Raajneeti, and his growing screen charisma is never beyond doubt as he chews up each scene he's in. He brings a non-threatening Sultan when he's with the poor masses, and switches to bad-ass routine with ease when he finds himself crossed and betrayed. Emraan Hashmi too holds his own against the heavyweight actor, and his emulation in wanting to be Sultan goes well thanks in part to the costume designers, who work wonders in decking all of them in retro garb, and credit too to making Kangana Ranaut quite the clotheshorse here, whose character unfortunately got forgotten midway.
Randeep Hooda perhaps got the role that elicit the most laughter, because his ACP Agnel has a penchant of speaking through idioms, which of course in a way exaggerates speech. Being a non-Hindi speaker, I'm definite some meanings got lost in translation, but I got the idea since the filmmakers tried their best to bring this sense of stiff, unbelievable dialogue through to the subtitles. In some ways, the look and feel of the film was hyper-realistic, alluding to how certain elements got deliberately fictionalized beyond reality through stylized sequences. The main electric guitar riffs for the theme will also become that ear worm long after the film ends, and got used to perfect glee when it comes on to accompany a swagger or two.
Beginning in the 90s and having the story told in flashback by ASP Agnel, unfortunately audiences will find being left high and dry when the story ends, with plenty of narrative room for another film that will bring us full circle to how it all started. A lot of questions still remain given the events in the last 5 minutes of the film, and this will only, and possibly be addressed should a follow up be made. Otherwise we'll left with quite the cliffhanger, though this isn't reason enough why you should stay away from it. An arresting storyline with a competent cast delivering their roles with aplomb still makes this quite the blast from the past trip worthwhile, with Ajay Devgan continuing to show he can hold down that leading man status.