Sony // 2007 // 138 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // May 6th, 2008
When he first fell in love...
When singer Ranbir Raj meets prostitute Gulagji, it looks like everlasting love. Yet she knows her place among Indian society and shuns his struggling advances. Then one dark and stormy night, he meets Sakina, a lonely lady making a pilgrimage to a remote city bridge. Turns out, she is waiting vigilantly for Imaan, a former boarder in her grandmother's rooming house. Suddenly, Raj is again head over heels, this time for the sad little princess, and makes it his goal to woo and win her. Naturally, such a rebuff miffs Gulagji, and our hero soon learns that Sakina only has eyes for her faraway obsession. No matter how hard he tries, no matter the advice he gets from surrogate mother/landlord Lillian, he cannot get his potential love's attention. When she asks him to deliver a note to a nearby town where Imaan may be staying, Raj deceives her instead. Will such a strategy finally gain her affection? Or is Saawariya (an "eternal soulmate$quot;) -- impossible for this mixed-up romantic triangle?
If you could only explain a Bollywood movie in one word, "excess" would be a perfect descriptive term. By never pulling back when it comes to costumes, sets, visuals, or vitality, India's film industry creates an output that's like cotton candy coated in several seductive sugars, the fantastically fluffy results further draped in a literal paint box of patinas before finally being corded with filigree and lace. People break into song not out of habit or fantasy, but out of necessity, their emotions so ripe and ripped from the bodice that only a melody can contain their feelings. Such is the spectacled surreality Saawariya walks into. Taking Fyodor Dostoevsky classic short story "White Nights" and giving it an otherworldly green and blue polish, Saawariya gives us the standard romantic melodrama tinged with tragedy, humor, and some incredibly lush settings. There's even a bit of magic realism to keep the inconsistencies at bay. Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, perhaps best known for his 2005 effort Black (partially based on The Miracle Worker and the life of Helen Keller, of all things), tries to out-epic everyone who's ever attempted an old-school Delhi extravaganza. While he gets the visuals right, he misses some of the more meaningful elements of the genre.
First and foremost is the chemistry between our leads. When we first meet our narrator, lady of the evening Gulagji (Rani Mukerji in full va-va-va-VOOM mode), we can't wait to see where her story takes us. Unfortunately, she is unceremoniously shuffled off to the side for the far less endearing (but equally attractive) Sonam Kapoor as Sakina. This character is especially concerning, since all she does is whine and pine for her missing man, Imaan. Carrying on between them is Ranbit Kapoor, looking like a genetic amalgamation of all the Beatles as nightclub entertainer Ranbir Raj. As they interact on what appears to be a lost set from Moulin Rouge (or perhaps a missing kingdom from Disney World Asia), we could care less if our proposed lovers ever get together. We want more of Gulagiji, more of her flirtatious sexuality and devil-may-care attitude. Sakina may be the kind of gal you take home to mother -- or in Raj's case, the maternal surrogate Lillian the landlady -- but Bhansali wants to wallow in tradition. Maybe he could have reconfigured the casting, since there is a clear connection between Ranbit and Rani.
Then there is Dostoevsky's story. As depicted in Luchino Visconti's brilliant La Notte Bianchi, there is a wonderful human narrative to be pulled from this plot. We can accept a woman who wants the man she more or less met and fell for at first sight. We can also give into the pie-in-the-sky impracticality of a young, virile suitor. But something about the way Bhansali -- via screenwriter Prakash Kapadia -- keeps adding subtext to the story just doesn't work. Even elements taken directly from the famed Russian seem unsubstantiated. Still, with music and images as potent as these, Saawariya becomes a hard movie to hate. The songs soar on waves of East-meet-West dynamics, and the performances (by hired singers) really sell their meaning. The choreography is also excellent, and the director really captures the dance moves with old-school MGM style. Everything here is so bright and shiny, so glistening with masterful movie magic, that it's a shame the storytelling lags behind. Saawariya has all the elements to be a great Bollywood classic. Instead, it's a rather good 135-minute tease.
Offered by Sony (who co-produced the $11 million film) in a decent DVD, it's a safe bet that the Blu-ray version of this title is the way to go. While the standard disc boasts a beautiful 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, one imagines the high-def image being out of this world. The hues are so saturated and satisfying that it's like actually living in pigments. On the sound side, we are introduced to an excellent Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that marries atmospheric elements with gorgeous musical orchestrations to create a compelling sonic sweep. The dialogue is also easy to understand, including the rather odd moments when the actors speak English for no apparent reason (the subtitles translate both Hindi and our Western tongue as well). As for extras, there's a passable making-of that focuses solely on the songs. By the time everyone finishes congratulating themselves, however, we get very little of the chorus/verse mechanics. The premiere material is also an example of press-kit puffery. A series of trailers rounds out the uneventful content.
There is no denying the vision on display throughout much of Saawariya. It's what makes Bollywood and its output so cinematically special. But just like a succulent éclair lacking a tasty pastry crème filling, this movie is a little too light and airy to make an impact. It's a fine flight of visual fancy, and not much else.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Hindi)
Running Time: 138 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* "Making the Music" Featurette
* Premiere Night Footage
* Official Site