Whatever happened to Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s cinema, where every frame is one of breathtaking beauty? At first glance, it doesn’t seem so odd that Saawariya has neither the silk-and-brocade opulence of Devdas, nor the intense light and shadow of Black. But as the film progresses (all the while creaking at the joints) it starts to look as it everything has been washed out and replaced by dull blacks and greys. Splashes of colour here and there don’t help. The sets are beautiful, no doubt – but the colour palette of blacks and greys with a piping of blue and green, which can be beautiful otherwise, somehow fails to lend poetry to the film.
The set and the characters do not match at all, and it’s hard to appreciate a film when you cannot assign it a certain time frame. While that may be exactly what Bhansali intended, the tale of this nondescript town somewhere in India, whose cobbled bylanes, palatial homes and inhabitants are a curious hodge-podge of Victorian, Mughal and modern day suburbia, does not work. Even the time-period is divided between the 50s and the 21st century and some era in between. There is a street named after RK – obviously Raj Kapoor – and even the grey colour palette and costumes are reminiscent of Awaara and other RK hits.
(My biggest peeve with the film is the director trying to nail its association with Raj Kapoor with a mallet, but I’ll come to that later.)
The story is simple enough – boy comes to town and charms everyone, meets girl and falls in love, girl is engaged to someone else – and is narrated in flashback by a prostitute, Gulab (Rani Mukherjee.) But the protagonists, who are no more than puppets, fail to add anything to the already toy-like ambience. Ranbir Kapoor plays Raj, a wannabe singer who comes to this town and makes it his home; he wins the hearts of Gulab, the other prostitutes and his landlady (Zohra Sehgal) and gets a job singing at the local bar. There seems to be no convincing explanation for development of their interpersonal relationships except for Raj's winsome charm. Then Raj meets Sakina (Sonam Kapoor) and falls in love. Except that Sonam has already given her heart to the brooding, mysterious Imaan (Salman Khan, the only character in the film who seems to have a personality) and looks upon Raj as nothing but a friend. Ultimately, after a lot of cat-and-mouse, Imaan returns home, Sakina returns to him, and Raj goes back to his lonely life.
In addition to the jerky development of the relationships between the characters, the characters themselves are no fun to watch. Both Ranbir and Sonam seem merely two-dimensional. And here’s where I rant about the Raj Kapoor connection – why, why, why can’t Bhansali just stay off the fact that Ranbir Kapoor is a scion of India’s biggest acting dynasty? He’s winsome and talented enough, especially as a dancer, if only the director had just let him be. It’s hard to see Ranbir without comparing him to his father and grandfather, especially when his on-screen character is rather lifeless but tries hard to ape the on-screen Raj Kapoor in every way. His character’s name is Ranbir Raj (Raj Kapoor’s birth name), the street is named RK, he wears his grandfather’s signature bowler hat, his clothes are similar, there’s a scene with Sonam under an umbrella that’s reminiscent of Shree 420 … and as if that is not enough, there’s even a cringe-inducing scene where Ranbir screams his father Rishi Kapoor’s dialogue from Karz to the bar audience: “Tumne kabhi kisi se pyaar kiya?”
(And I would very much like to debate on whether Ranbir Kapoor’s towel-dropping scene was a nod to Mera Naam Joker where Simi Garewal’s character bares her derriere, but I think I’ll skip it.)
Sonam Kapoor as Sakina is suitably beautiful, but like Raj, lifeless. Her character’s bouncing back and forth from being all shy and blushing with Raj to being suddenly breathless and pining over Imaan is too unstable to induce any sympathy. Zohra Sehgal’s crisp theatre-trained British accent and acting experience seems to have gone waste, even though she makes a convincing Anglo-Indian. Rani Mukherjee as Gulab looks the part and shows some spark, but she seems to have been photoshopped in. Perhaps Bhansali was deliberately trying to paint the town chastely in black and white and the prostitutes in a riot of colours, but Gulab and her ilk do not seem to belong to the same time-period at all.
Salman Khan as Imaan, who rather resembles an exotic Tuareg tribesman, with his startling kohl-rimmed green eyes and bulky physique completely obscured in black, is the only one who perfectly matches the sets, melting in and out of the darkness. The rest of it – Mughal architecture, English-style bridge over the river, Kashmir-style canoes and the characters speaking in a modern mix of Hindi and English – just cannot seem to come together, though each element is individually beautiful.
But the film does have its moments. In some scenes, the dark ambience seems to work, and it definitely makes Sakina seem more luminous. Imaan's entry into Sakina's life one black night, as the brooding yet mesmerising stranger who speaks mostly in monosyllables, is well-done and goes with the dreamlike ambience of the town. Ranbir's towel-clad song, after his meeting Sakina for the first time, begins with him standing at the window with towel open and bare to the world, with almost white sunlight streaming in. This short scene is the only one in the entire film that occurs in the morning, and perhaps for that reason alone, seems so alive.
The soundtrack of this film is not really outstanding, but the title track Saawariya and Masha Allah are noteworthy.
The panoramic, dreamlike view of the town, especially in the opening scene and from the clock-tower, with a steam engine chugging away over a bridge, is reminiscent of the land of the Spirits in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. Salman Khan said about the film in an interview that if one were to make an animated film, it wouldn’t be as beautiful. Ironically, this particular scene IS animated!
In the end, it’s just a tediously told film and not even as visually gorgeous as Bhansali’s earlier films. Even Black, which was mostly shadow, was spectacular both visually and in terms of acting. Once again, this debacle proves that a film needs genius, not genes, to make it work.