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.
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.