Saturday, September 20, 2008

Saawariya, or, Moulin Bleu

"Good Lord, only a moment of bliss? Isn't such a moment sufficient for the whole of a man's life?"

--Fyodor Dostoevsky, "White Nights"

Saawariya isn't a very good movie, but it's so beautiful that I kept on forgetting its shortcomings while I watched. In fact, it's such a gorgeous feast for the eyes that I could watch it a million times and not get tired of it. However, movies can, and should, be more than a series of pretty pictures, and in that respect Saawariya fails. It came out in 2007, just two years after the triumph that is Black, and stars Ranbir Kapoor, Sonam Kapoor, Rani Mukherji, and Zohra Sehgal, with Begum Para and Salman Khan in brief but pivotal roles, and despite all the star power it's not difficult to see why it failed.

Based on the Dostoevsky story "White Nights," the movie is narrated by Gulab (Rani), a prostitute who tells us from the get-go that the world in which this story takes place is one of her own creation. As she tells us, she might specialize in selling the illusion of love, but her stories are only about the real thing.

This particular story is about Ranbir Raj, a musician who's just come to the town where Gulab works. He harbors big dreams of success, but currently he's got a gig at a nightclub (the "RK," and I'm guessing SLB decided to use his star's initials as the club name as a predictor of his success--and possibly as a way to liken this movie to the club where his character gets his first break) and a bench to sleep on. Gulab takes an instant shine to this charismatic almost-man, and directs him to a nearby boarding house run by Lillian (Zohra-ji).

Lillian misses her son, Victor, who apparently died or something equally tragic. Almost all of her dialogues are in Hindi, and all of her asides to herself are in English--it was quite fun to hear. Ranbir offers to be her son, and she willingly accedes. Things are looking good--and they start looking even better the next night, when Ranbir catches sight of a gorgeous young woman (Sonam) leaning on a bridge.Her name is Sakina, but he doesn't find that out until he follows her all over town, singing "Masha-Allah" the whole way. (And can I just mention to the people who do the English subtitles that, for Pete's sake, even I know that "Masha-Allah" does not mean, "Gosh, so beautiful." Geez.) He bothers her and forces his acquaintance upon her (apparently this is often the filmi version of courtship) and then saves her from the advances of some drunk guys. She rewards him by sort of agreeing to meet him again the next night.

Ranbir celebrates by going home and singing "Jab Se Tere Naina," in the towel you see above. Ranbir is in incredible shape, but this picturization had me alternately cringing behind my spread hands and laughing for its sheer cheezy voyeurism. (I'm not the kind of girl who dreams about the Hindi version of Chippendales. Perhaps for others this was a fantasy come to life.) Alas for Ranbir--Sakina is waiting for Eid (a Muslim holiday), when her true love (Salman) has promised to return to rescue her from her overprotective grandmother (Begum Para)--a woman so frightened of her grandchild's freedom that she literally pins the younger woman to her clothes so as not to lose her.

And, just like the short story, that's about all there is to the plot. Loneliness, futile passion, and waiting. Sounds like Devdas except in shades of blue instead of red, right? Actually, I've heard this story described as "if Nandini and Sameer had ended up together," and it's surely no accident that Bhansali-ji cast Salman in the role of the absent lover. However, as far as characters go, Ranbir bears a far greater resemblance to Sameer of HDDCS: he's the goofy musician, who thinks that teasing and tormenting the object of his affection (in an immature way, not a stalker way) make for a real courtship. And Salman's character Imaan is far more like Vanraj: solemn, quiet, and concealing hidden depths of feeling behind his set face. And he's wearing kohl! Awesome!

This guy in kohl picture was brought to you by Nicki.

Ranbir and Sonam completely captivated me with their performances. As Nida pointed out in her review of this movie, still photos really don't do Ranbir justice. His face isn't conventionally handsome, but he has screen presence to spare, and a nice voice too, assuming his dialogue wasn't looped (something that I'm always afraid to take for granted with Hindi films). And Sonam glows, especially in the scenes when she remembers falling in love with Imaan. The slowly dawning radiance of her face mirrors the new illumination of her heart--and also features the only daylight to be found in the movie.

Rani's Gulab-ji provides some much-needed earthiness in the film; sassy, bold, and tender by turns, she was my favorite character. And I don't care what anyone says, Rani's one of my favorite working actresses.

Unfortunately, the story is paper-thin, and the songs, while beautiful, are far too reminiscent of Bhansali-ji's previous work. I'm particularly thinking of "Thode Badmash" here:

Shreya Ghoshal's voice is so beautiful. But, doesn't this song sound like it could come from any SLB movie? I dunno.

As far as the sets go: if Moulin Rouge was Baz Luhrmann's ode to Bollywood, then Saawariya is SLB's ode to Moulin Rouge, right down to the windmill that gave the district its name (moulin is French for windmill). Shot entirely in shades of blue--with the exception of the scenes that detail Sakina's love for Imaan--this story happens in a dream world where French, English, and Hindi club names vie for attention in old-fashioned lightbulb signs, where gondoliers bring moviegoers to outdoor showings of classic Hindi movies, where snow can fall without warning and Byzantine icons of Christian saints co-exist on the street with Hindu idols, where every main character is Muslim (except Lillian, clearly Christian) but all the colors are, according to SLB himself, in honor of Krishna.

The dialogues, at least as they're rendered in the subtitles, are ludicrous: about as deep as a puddle and mostly juvenile too. But the symbolism, especially of the safety pin Sakina's grandmother (dressed in widow's weeds reminiscent of Queen Victoria) uses to secure Sakina to her bed, is delightful. There are enough good elements to this film that it should have been better; it is less than the sum of its parts. However, I don't think Saawariya deserved the reaming it got from critics and audiences: it's just that since SLB had demonstrated what he was capable of in the past he was cursed by the measuring stick of his own success.

Well, I don't have it in me to review another SLB movie for a while. I think I'll stick with Jodhaa-Akbar and Baabul for next week. But I promise that one of these days I'll get around to Black and Khamoshi too.

Edited to add: I almost forgot! Well, I did forget, until this morning: Memsaab wrote a whole post about Raja Sen's parody of Saawariya and I got this link from her. It's hilarious, but if you're wondering how the movie ends, it gives it away, so beware before you click play.


  1. I agree that Saawariya is an absolutely gorgeous film, but it doesn't work as a whole. I'm tempted to buy it just for the prettiness factor!

  2. I totally agree with your review. :)

    Very interesting point about Vanraj and Imraan. I never thought about that. I didn't think about Sameer and Raj. Honestly since I've seen all of Sallu's films, it's very rare when he ends up with the girl.

    I have Black and Khamoshi so let me know when you're ready to watch. :)

  3. It's not near SLB's earlier works as we discussed (last week, was it?), but Sonam Kapoor, the sets and music (and Zohra Sehgal!) were a treat to see, good enough for me to like it. As you say, there's only so much one can do with the plot.

    I wonder if the response to it might have been different were it not releasing with Om Shanti Om, which led to a ridiculous media battle of sorts, full of so much hype, one was bound to be disappointed. They even got Ranbir to say, "I'm not afraid of SRK", lol.

  4. Hi Nae! I actually requested it from Nicki because I loved the beauty of the film so much. But ITA, overall it doesn't come together--which is a real pity since the individual pieces of it are so lovely.

    Nicki--thanks! Is it really unusual for him to end up with the girl? I had no idea. Wonder why? Oh, btw, I e-mailed you.

    Hello Bollywood Fan! Sonam Kapoor was a real highlight in this film for me. I thought she did a wonderful job with what she was given and I can't wait to see her again. It's a bummer the film was released opposite OSO; that's a juggernaut I can't imagine anyone winning a face-off with. (And LOL about Ranbir saying that--he should've been!)

  5. I adore this movie, its so flaw-filled but i completely forget about that and think of ranbir and his cuteness, and the cinema i went to where he actually dropped his towel and all the aunties went "Hai Hai yeh kya backwass hai" ohhh SLB! sonam was good, but all she did was laugh and cry but her crazy laughter when her aunt tells her about salman is great scene! I think it completely does capture the story of "White nights" greatly its just sooo blue!

  6. A "blue-film"! No wonder the movie flopped, we Indians take their anti-blue-film stance rather seriously!!! ;-)

    I have seen Ranbir only in Bachna Ae Haseenon and wasnt too impressed. Apart from that fact that he could do with a bit of the famous Kapoor fat and looks way too much like his Mom, his hindi accent seems to alternate between Punjabi and Mumbaiya Hindi! But I have a feeling that he will grow on me eventually, if he does a few more interesting movies like BAH.

  7. Though it didn't worked well in the box office yet i liked that movie.Recently seen the movie BAH where Ranbir worked much well than the debu film Sawariya and i think he has a long way to go.

  8. Rum: that is toooo funny about all the aunties. Did he drop his towel in the DVD? I can't remember (guess if he did it didn't make much of an impression LOL)!

    Bollyviewer: LOL about the blue film. You're right, Ranbir is a skinny guy; I guess in this case my ignorance works in my favor since his accent doesn't register one way or the other. BAH is a really interesting concept despite its failures in execution; I think he deserves props for not sticking to the traditional hero route.

    Saheli: I agree with you, based on what I saw Ranbir almost certainly has a bright future ahead of him.

  9. See Ranbir should have just done right the first time, and jumped to marry Rani the first time he saw her. I mean seriously- that woman looks amazing here- so womanly, so ravishing soso perfect!
    He may as well have realised that he really couldnt measure up to the utterly smoking Salman [I am sosososooo biased!]

  10. Hi Shweta! ITA w your assessment of Salman in this movie--he was super hot! And you're right, Rani was freakin' gorgeous. If Ranbir had been smart he would've leapt all over *her* instead of Sonam... but I don't think we need to accuse his character of excessive intelligence. ;-)


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