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A case of the blues

 
 

Saawariya

Rating: 1

November 09, 2007

Cast: Ranbir Kapoor, Sonam Kapoor, Rani Mukherjee, Salman Khan

Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali

In a nameless picturesque town straight out of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, a free-spirited dreamer befriends a melancholic girl who spends three nights at the bridge waiting patiently for someone to return. By the time our hero learns that she already has a lover for whom she waits, it’s too late, because over the course of these three nights, singing and dancing with her, teasing and playing with her, he’s fallen deeply in love.

Determined to charm her off her feet and to make her choose him over a man who may never return, his love is put to the ultimate test when she asks him to help unite her with the man she’s pledged her heart to.

Starring newcomers Ranbir Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor as Raj and Sakina, the protagonists in question, director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Saawariya is a glossed-up, all song-and-dance take on Dostoevsky’s classic tale White Nights, and also borrows judiciously from Luchino Visconti’s 1957 film version. But where Visconti’s black-and-white film stays faithful to the story’s intimate set-up and stark feel, Bhansali goes for a larger-than-life, almost kingsize scale, throwing in dazzling colours, opulent sets, imaginatively choreographed musical numbers, a half-dozen references to Raj Kapoor’s films, and the kind of melodrama you can expect only in a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film – remember Devdas?

Well, the problem with varnishing a simple love story with all those embellishments is that the very simplicity of the plot, the fragility of the characters’ emotions is lost amidst all that showing-off. What you get as a result, is a love story without soul.

An expensive and indulgent experiment, Saawariya doesn’t quite work because the writing is flawed and the director doesn’t seem to notice. Once a master manipulator of human emotions, Bhansali now fails to invest in his characters even the smallest dose of believability. Like cardboard caricatures, lifeless and dull, they rattle off ridiculous dialogues trying to sound like they have something profound to say. How you cringe in that scene where Ranbir convinces Zohra Sehgal to lease him a room, or that one in which he likens being sad to losing a boxing match.

There, my friends, lies the biggest problem – Saawariya comes off contrived and fake, and fails to strike a chord. You feel nothing for its characters, at best sympathy for the two young actors trapped in this pathetic, pretentious pap.

Arbitrary, disjointed and leaving too many questions unanswered, Saawariya is easily Bhansali’s most self-indulgent exercise yet. Too busy taking himself too seriously, the director decides he has no obligations to tell us where or when this story unfolds. Is this a period piece, or are we in the present day? Pray tell us, where in the world is this idyllic town — bathed in neon glow and littered with windmills and clock-towers and a Venetian canal in the middle of a town square?

Where prostitutes in colour-coordinated ensembles inhabit every corner and break into song at will. Where street after cobbled street leads to nowhere in particular, and where it rains one day and snows another. Welcome to the fantastical world of Sanjay Leela Bhansali where images speak a thousand words, even if they’re of little relevance to the plot of the film. Gobsmackingly photographed by Ravi K Chandran, what stays with you after you’ve left the cinema are those images after all, picture-postcard images that are embedded in your memory because they breathe more life than the characters do.

Of the cast, the usually feisty Zohra Sehgal hams like she’s trapped between two slices of bread, and throws in an irritating Anglicized accent that comes in the way of your taking her seriously. As Iman, the mysterious stranger who’s vital to this jigsaw puzzle of a film, Salman Khan is mercifully restrained, his two and a half scenes requiring him only to stare fixedly and mumble inaudibly.

Rani Mukherjee playing Gulabji the hooker with a heart of gold, is the only character whose pathos is relatable, and despite the cheesy dialogue she touches your heart with a performance that is inherently earnest.

And now, on to the two debutants – as Sakina, the child-woman going through myriad emotions, Sonam Kapoor manages to hold her own despite the fact that hers is clearly the weakest written role. It’s a wishy-washy character that’s part-annoying part-ridiculous, and it’s unfair that the young actress must wrestle to make sense of such a distinctly unlikable part. Ranbir Kapoor, meanwhile, when he isn’t struggling to ape his grandfather’s mannerisms, displays an an affable charm. Grabbing your attention when he’s dancing on screen, he’s got that star quality to him which is so rare to find.

Like all of Bhansali’s previous pictures, Saawariya too is a visual spectacle. Few filmmakers’ can match his attention to detail, his magnificent use of lighting and colour, and his sharp ear for music. But in the end, it’s not about the sweeping scale or the lilting melodies, Saawariya fails to touch your heart, it’s an exercise in excess. I’m going with one out of five for Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Saawariya, a fall from grace for the country’s most celebrated filmmaker.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

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