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Despite all the talk around Sony and Saawariya, perhaps it was for good reason that Om Shanti Om destroyed it in the box office last weekend. At least Rani Mukherjee was there, gyrating and helping Siddarth Puri dance the bad thoughts away.
In most love stories, I root for the underdog. I sit on the edge of my seat hoping and begging that the character who is battling inner turmoil, searching for his identity, yet following true love overcomes every obstacle to get to his beloved. And I sit back, sigh deeply and get upset if he doesn't get her. In Sanjay Leela Bhansali's latest cinematic endeavor, Saawariya, however, because of the lack of character empathy invoked by the protagonists, I was elated when things don't go the way the lovers hope.
Bhansali's creation, based on Fyodor Dostoevsky's short story, White Nights, recounts a tale of unrequited love between Raj (Ranbir Kapoor) and Sakina (Sonam Kapoor). Remaining close to Dostoevsky's own literary creation of a love story developed over four wintry nights, Bhansali bridges Western literature and Indian scenery to create a hybrid film. The main characters include Raj, an orphan, hopeless romantic and hopeful rock star who befriends and sings his way into the hearts of the prostitutes in the red light district, and Sakina, a young carpet-weaver who eagerly waits for her own true love to return. However, it is Rani Mhukerjee who plays the "queen of the red light district," Gulabji, who delivers the most powerful on-screen performance, with her character's quick wit, charm and dance abilities.
The most successful and impressive aspect of the movie was the scenery and set-design. Reminiscent of the sets of Moulin Rouge, Saawariya is almost surrealist. Blues and greens used for building colors are offset by bright red fluorescent lights for shop fronts and bars. The details of lotus flowers on walls and gleaming mosques sprinkled throughout the city (including, of course, the potholes) imply an Indian setting, but because of its dream-like quality, it's difficult to place the location in India specifically. Bhansali is known for his ornate and spectacular sets (Devdas), and this fantastical element may be his attempt to create a film that transcends borders and space, and perhaps even nations. I wonder how much of it has to do with the fact that this was the first Bollywood film (of many to come) funded by the West (in this case, Sony Studios) and whether there was a deliberate attempt to create sets that will be globally attractive to both Indian and Western audiences.
However, against the backdrop of this breathtaking and poetic scenery, the lack of character development and hard-to-believe portrayals ruin the emotional effect of this tragic love story. Ranbir and Sonam, both making their major Bollywood debuts in Saawariaya, give performances that leave much to be desired.
Ranbir's portrayal of the happy-go-lucky, wide-eyed optimist seemed lacking in honesty. From the little we know about Raj's difficult life and upbringing, there are many deeper emotions that one would expect from him, underneath his joyful façade, which rarely surfaced throughout the film. He often fell short in the dramatic moments, acting casual when his character was supposed to be angry, distressed or disappointed. In one particular scene where he finally erupts at Sonam, spewing curses for not loving him, he acts like a young boy mad because he wasn't getting his way, not as a man in pain because of heartbreak. The unconvincing wide-eyed attitude that lasted for a bit too long didn't make me sympathize with him, but rather caused me to gain sadistic pleasure when something went wrong. The only part of Ranbir's performance that was memorable was the song sequence where he danced scantily clad in a white sarong, flexing his six-pack and giving the audience a split-second glance at his bare bottom. Finally, Bollywood is realizing what they have to do to reel in crowds for a sup-par movie.
Sonam doesn't deliver the performance of a heartbroken and despondent lover, as much as she delivers a portrayal of a flighty, almost schizophrenic girl. In one scene, when her aunt finally tells Sakina that she knows her lover will never come back, Sakina oscillates between hysterical laughter and weeping in a way that elicits an uncomfortable response from viewers rather than one of sympathy that tugs at our heartstrings. While, I must admit, this type of portrayal is archetypically "Bollywood," perhaps it's time to break the mold, and who better to do this than a young beauty?
On the other hand, I thank Bhansali for casting Mukherjee, who is the one character who seduced me with her incorrect grammar while speaking English and her lusty dance moves. Mukherjee added some much needed comic relief that was more realistic compared to her fellow actors. And her dancing in the Chhabeela song even trumped the half-clad Ranbhir; the way she winked and gyrated her hips will have crowds in Bombay theaters whistling and singing along.
The film's title, Saawariya, translates into "beloved" but carries with it the notion of being perpetually in love; therefore, it is reserved for the rare lover that stands the test of time and overcomes obstacles as he remains in a continuous state of "being in love." The tagline on the advertisements read: "Her world was waiting for love. His was waiting for her love. And when the two met, what echoed was... Saawariya." Bhansali's cinematic depiction of this ambitious idea, however, falls flat. In the end, I was left wishing it was more aptly advertised as: "We all like it when annoying guys finish last. And bring back the dancing whore!"
Date Posted: 11/16/2007