I haven’t seen many Bollywood movies. It’s quite possible that, were I more familiar with their form and conventions — if the exotic-to-western-eyes spell they can cast were less of a novelty — I’d have a lot less patience with Saawariya and the endless tiny complications that sustain its otherwise threadbare boy-chases-girl storyline over more than two hours of screen time. Then again, were I a Bollywood fanboy, I might be even more enchanted by everything that Saawariya gets right — enough that I’d be less cognizant of what misses.
First things first — Saawariya is a gorgeous film. Shot entirely on a soundstage dressed to resemble a cross between the theatre-set designs of Moulin Rouge and the twinkling exteriors of Ratatouille, it’s lovingly, lushly photographed by cinematographer Ravi K. Chandran. I haven’t seen it theatrically, so it’s impossible to tell how faithfully the Blu-ray version replicates a 35mm print, but the high-definition image looks great, with the blacks gently crushed to better bring out the moodiness of the saturated deep-blues and -greens that dominate the frame compositions, with just the hint of film grain dancing in the background. The performers, too, are uniformly beautiful, with a smooth, peachy glow to their complexions (a remnant, perhaps, of some digital beauty work) underscoring their status as dream travelers in an arty, otherworldly romantic fantasy.
That’s all an elaborate way of saying that Saawariya resembles your typical high-end music video of contemporary vintage, but with a flavor that feels part Mumbai and part Las Vegas. I found it seductive, but if that aggressively sexy, digitally tweaked aesthetic doesn’t float your boat, you’re going to have a harder time forgiving the film’s shortcomings, which are rooted in character. The actors are impressive but have a hard time making the story’s psychology credible.
In his feature debut, Ranbir Kapoor essentially carries the film as Ranbir Raj, a singing-and-dancing variation on the unhappy clown, laughing on the outside but crying on the inside. Ranbir arrives in town with a song in his heart and the clothes on his back and falls hard for local beauty Sakina (Sonam Kapoor, also in a debut performance). Alas, the maiden pines for Imaan (Salman Khan, on screen for only a few moments), the brooding, cold-eyed drifter who left long ago but promised to return for Sakina on the eve of the Eid holiday. What ensues is a decidedly one-sided courtship, with Ranbir shuffling, tap-dancing and crooning his way toward Sakina’s heart, and the can’t-we-just-be-friends Sakina alternately encouraging and rebuffing his advances. Thank goodness for the presence of the similarly beautiful Gulabji (Bollywood veteran Rani Mukherjee), the hooker with a heart of gold who narrates the story and has a clear-eyed view of this troubled relationship. The musical numbers are variably entertaining — Ranbir is a charming presence with moves that suggest a cross between Justin Timberlake and Gene Kelly, but the screen really comes to life when it’s full of dancers, whether they’re the white-clad Muslims populating the town square at the end of Ramadan, offering tiny choreographed moves, or the belly-dancers who back up Gulabji for an especially swinging number later on.
But eventually, you’re stuck with the two main characters. In truth, Sakina seems a little nutty, and Ranbir a little self-regarding. For Sakina’s part, she is devoted to the point of obsession with a man whom she barely knows, and at times she seems to be deliberately leading Ranbir on — even though she intends only to break his heart. And while the smitten Ranbir seems like a charming and emotionally generous fellow, he can also be a bully, as when he responds to one instance of frustration with Sakina by grabbing her, turning her around, and pulling one arm up, painfully, behind her back. Entrusted with the delivery of an important message, Ranbir instead discards it — and although he feels remorse, it takes him most of the rest of the film to own up to his betrayal of Sakina’s trust. Both of these kids have a lot of growing up to do.
Their behavior is frustrating not just because the characters are imperfect, but because what they do too often doesn’t make sense. They’re behaving, well, as if they have two hours and 10 musical numbers to get through, and if it takes a flotilla of cryptic, notional sweet nothings to get there, so be it. But that’s also the source of one of the film’s strengths. In a Hollywood movie like What Happens in Vegas, Cameron Diaz and Ashton Kutcher’s characters can both be scripted and performed like complete assholes, and still nothing will knock the film off its stubborn course to Happily-ever-afterville. In crafting Saawariya, director Sanjay Leela Bhansali and writer Prakash Kapadia seem to realize that both Ranbir and Sakina are spinning their wheels. In a sense, they’re talking past one another instead of listening and investing emotions in each other, and the filmmakers don’t brush off that poor behavior in favor of a storybook ending. Late in the film Ranbir gets a comeuppance from Gulabji that feels just right, and the climax is abrupt but quietly devastating. What keeps it from being a bummer is the sense that Ranbir, at least, has grown emotionally in the process and Sakina has gotten what she needs. In some ways, Saawariya is a film about still having your whole life ahead of you. B