Perhaps if I were still a swoony teenage girl, I would have loved this film unequivocally.
All through high school, my boyfriend lived in the next town over from my aunt and uncle, down in Mexico. He would write once, sometimes twice a day. At first, before I taught myself Spanish, I could barely understand what he wrote, so my biology lab mate, Liz, would translate his letters in the lunchroom, as my little freshman girlfriends and I oohed and aahed over the romantic missives.
Were I the same girl, I might have been swept along by the soaring orchestration, the stunning visuals of Saawariya, the peacock-colored Venice-sur-Bharat, streets lined with Moulin Rouge cafes and Urdu script, where gondolas glide past lotus flowers in the water, and giant Buddha heads dot the cityscape. Add all that to the many slo-mo scenes of the very lovely Sonam Kapoor (Sakina) running as her long, flowy garments swirl around her and the rain falls or the fog rises, or golden dust puffs out in shimmers as she beats the Persian carpets she’s woven, and the excess of it all would have been enough. (You can never have too much excess.)
But, sadly, in spite of how much I liked Devdas and Black, and how much I appreciate Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s particular celluloid vision and sensibilities, Saawariya fell short for me.
As the film opens, we hear church bells tolling as we contemplate a Thomas Kincaid-like rendering of the nameless town, a black train chugging along in the distance. Rani’s voice, in the character of local working girl, Gulabji, tells of her first meeting with the “rockstar farishta” Ranbir Raj (filmi progeny Ranbir Kapoor). He’s a sweet, too good-tempered musician come to town to look for work. I don’t know how girls will react to him in India (Sonam Kapoor declared on the BBC Asian Network’s Love Bollywood a few weeks ago that he’s always been the guy the girls fancied at school). Really? To my eyes, I see a mix of Sonu Nigam and Hrithik.
It’s here where we start to notice that SLB has set his film in no particular time period, nor fixed location known to us. We never hear nor see a mobile phone. Raj looks like he’s stepped out of the 1980’s English New Wave music scene, Rani and the other (considerably fuller-bodied and bruised up) hookers wear saris, sunglasses and up-dos that suggest the “˜70s, and the leading lady, a demure Muslim maiden (Sakina) with almost permanently downcast eyes, sports churidars, kameez and a couple of saris, but whatever time period she inhabits, she also has a French manicure.
Ah and then there’s Zohra Seghal. Were it not for the Parsis and the Anglo-Indians, one wonders who they would cast for the quirky, fond-of-a-wee-drop characters in Hindi movies. Here, the wonderful grand dame, who I’ve loved since her early Merchant Ivory work and The Jewel and the Crown, is dressed like an aged, mildly slutty yet religious Fraulein Maria (Sound of Music), sporting a braid across her head, a cross around her neck, and bright red nails. Sartorial issues aside, she’s the strongest actor in the film.
Raj sees Sakina standing wistfully on a bridge one night (we later learn she’s waiting for Imaan, played with great restraint – and fully clothed – by hamara Sallu). Poor Raj finds her bewitching and falls hard for her, but she either doesn’t really notice, or doesn’t take him seriously, or maybe wavers a bit, but anyway, the rest of the film basically consists of us learning a little more about Sakina and her small family and the paying guest Imaan, and the big question of will she and Raj end up together or not. Plus lots of Raj mooning over Sakina, a lot.
And this is where the wheels came off for me: I really didn’t care one way or the other. Raj was such a lightweight, you didn’t get the sense he’d suffer any lasting damage if she didn’t choose him, and Sakina was lovely to watch (even during those dozens of running shots), but again, no great affection or concern stirred for me. Honestly, it was Rani’s character, the sassy Pro-with-a-Heart-of-Gold, who carries a torch for Raj (why, oh why???) who moved me more.
The entire 131 minutes of the film take place indoors on the set, with nary one outside shot. Actually, given SLB’s love of interiors in all his recent films (think HDDCS, Devdas, Black), and the attention to the décor details, it occurs to me that India has its own Merchant Ivory sensibility residing in the heart of the maestro.
See it or skip it?
If the prospect of sitting through two hours of just-so sets and costumes, plus nine (or was it 10?) songs watching a very pretty young woman makes your heart swell with joy, then go for it. If that’s not enough to entice you, then you might wish to walk on by.
PS – stay tuned for my review of Om Shanti Om.