Sanjay Leela Bhansali is certainly one of Indian cinema’s most wildly inconsistent of filmmakers, having directed pictures ranging from enchanting and sensitive (1996’s Khamoshi and 2005’s Black) to garish and vapid (1999’s Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and 2002’s Devdas). One aspect that never seems to change about his work however is his lack of originality, with all five of his films being either remakes (some unauthorised) or adaptations. Still, this needn’t necessarily be a heavy criticism since the success and appeal of Bollywood itself has never truly lied in innovation, but rather in emotion – escapist fantasies that aim to shift the viewer into an engaging, magical world of highs and to amass hefty amounts of laughter and tears. This world only exists at the tips of Indian screenwriters’ pens of course; reality rarely gets a look-in, but that is generally the point. The result is what counts, that being a damn good time at the cinema halls and when Bollywood’s building blocks of song, dance, melodrama and comedy form a perfect bridge connecting to the heartstrings, it can be an experience like no other. But when those same components simply fail to click into place for whatever reason, the fantasy then holds no magic and the experience can be an empty one which sadly is what occurs in Saawariya (‘Beloved’); Bhansali’s wearisome re-telling of 19th century Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky’s short story ‘White Nights’.
In a nameless town and in an unknown time, a zestful young man named Ranbir Raj (Ranbir Kapoor) arrives from parts unknown and finds a job as a nightclub singer at the swanky ‘R.K. Club’ where he meets the glamorous Gulabji (Rani Mukerji), a prostitute from the local red light district. Left with words of advice on women from Gulabji, Ranbir wanders off into the night and encounters a mysterious, demure girl named Sakina (Sonam Kapoor). Ranbir is instantly attracted, but Sakina is reluctant to speak and runs off. More chance meetings occur between the two and eventually a friendship is formed with love soon following suit, but - true to tradition - the course never runs smoothly as Ranbir learns that Sakina’s heart belongs to another: a man named Imaan (Salman Khan) who left her years prior and whose return she now anxiously awaits.
Stretching thinly plotted narratives to the usual Indian cinema running times of two-and-a-half hours plus is not an unfamiliar task for Bollywood filmmakers and Saawariya is by no means a long movie by their nominal standard, clocking in at an agreeable 137 minutes. Director Bhansali has actually paced and crafted his picture quite well with adequate time allotted to his characters’ progress, story development and musical interludes. Art directors Omung Kumar Bhandula and Vanita Omung Kumar’s dazzling Moulin Rouge!-esque sets - boosted by Ravi K. Chandran’s sumptuous cinematography - are likewise given ample space for lapping up by the viewer yet are never overly showy as to steal too much of his/her attention away from the main proceedings. And while we’re praising the picture’s technique, its other merits deserve kudos in the meantime as well: editing, costuming, makeup and sound design are all of a towering standard equal to any other film industry and a testament to Hindi cinema’s rapid ascension in recent years. It isn’t difficult to understand why Sony Pictures chose Saawariya as the first Indian film to be co-produced and distributed by a major Hollywood backer since it indeed, on the surface, looks to possess plenty of the tools required for the makings of a classic modern Bollywood love story.
But regrettably it isn’t. Not even close. For despite its many positive virtues, they are dwarfed by two glaring negatives – casting and scripting. For Saawariya’s hero and heroine roles, Bhansali has roped in newcomers Ranbir Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor (no relation) who simply possess none of the essential qualities needed for effectively enacting a leading part. Appearing awkward on camera and impeded by a forced dialogue delivery, the two young Kapoors are clearly out of their depth in a massive production such as this that cries out for actors with either more experience, natural talent or just simple self-assuredness. Clueless Ranbir in particular is hampered before he even has a chance to utter a single line by sporting a not-exactly-dashing Ringo Starr hair-don’t, an ill-favoured face stubble/waxed chest combo and turquoise earrings. Sonam does at least offer brief moments of charm thanks to a warm, winning smile, but she too fails to ultimately hold lasting attention and is actually completely outclassed by the performance of actress Rani Mukerji who plays the rather thankless supporting role of Gulabji, the whore. In the few scenes in which she appears, Rani boasts outstanding levels of charisma, beauty and style with her lone musical sequence being a heart-pumping highlight of this otherwise tedious picture. And as for the seemingly peculiar reason as to why Bhansali would cast two green nobodies above a proven hand like Rani? Simple: The young Kapoors have famous dads. That’s Bollywood for you – nepotism rules!
But as I mentioned, Ranbir and Sonam are not the sole reason for Saawariya’s waste of a good budget – Bhansali’s snore-inducing screenplay (co-written by Prakash Kapadia) is equally to blame. And even if performers of a higher calibre had been hired, they too would surely struggle to convey with conviction the trite lines that defile the film’s script (“You need to be hugged” was one low point). As uninspiring as the dialogue is, so too are the unconvincing characterisations of Ranbir and Sakina whose personalities are sketchy and behaviour inconsistent. Ranbir is at times wise beyond his years and at others hyperactively childish while Sakina’s demure nature is abruptly interspersed with moments of giddy abandon. No three-dimensional middle ground offers clarity of the characters’ motivations and a distinct lack of back story of each doesn’t help matters either. As such, their romance – the be-all-end-all of the story – winds up as totally unengaging, leaving Saawariya being little more than a lifeless succession of pretty frames. An opportunity blown and better luck next time for both Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Bollywood itself, which will require a far superior showcase for a future chance at that ever-elusive mainstream recognition in the West.
The Blu-ray Disc
Saawariya isn’t quite the first Bollywood film to make it to Blu-ray – that distinction goes to 2007’s fairly awful Three Men And A Baby rip-off Heyy Babyy, which was released back in March by Eros Entertainment. While Eros have improved the quality control of their DVD output in recent months, their first foray into BD was far from flawless as Heyy Babyy’s transfer was marred by nearly every HD enthusiast’s worst nightmare: the dreaded DNR, wiping away every trace of film grain. Such issues are thankfully absent on Sony’s Saawariya Blu-ray disc however, and we a treated to a gloriously-detailed image that is as razor-sharp as any of the best HD broadcasts I have witnessed. Colours are also wonderfully rendered, rich and deep, while the source itself (which appears to be a digital intermediate) is free from blemishes such as dirt or speckles. One bone of contention I do feel compelled to make though is of the image’s brightness levels which are far lower that what were seen in the film’s trailers and television promos. Obviously this may simply be a director’s preference and having not seen the picture in theatres, I cannot say for sure if the finished film really was intended to look this dark. But viewing this BD’s video, I couldn’t help but be struck by the noticeable lack of detail in black levels during scenes that previously looked so luminous and full of life in their respective TV clips. But giving the disc’s authors the benefit of the doubt, there is no denying that they have given us something beautiful to look at, delivering a visual feast of a platform for beholding Saawariya’s lavish, teal-pigmented art design and fantastical, dream-like imagery.
On the sound front, the Hindi 5.1 Dolby Digital TrueHD audio track provided also sounded simply stunning to my ears – crystal clear with booming bass, lively channel separation and no flaws whatsoever to report. Saawariya’s eleven melodic (and all-too brief) songs composed by Monty Sharma were a delight to listen to on Blu-ray.
Supplemental features are lacking with only two 20-minute promotional featurettes included, equally as yawnifying as the movie itself, but without the snazzy cinematography to gape at. Filmed on cheap video and encoded on this disc at 480p, both ‘Making The Music’ and ‘Premiere Night’ use much of the same footage of scenes at the film’s studios and premiere with talking head comments from the cast and crew all extolling the virtues of one another and, of course, Saawariya itself. The usual “Go see this movie!” tat. Though the extras may be of little worth, they do at least come accompanied by subtitles unlike the majority of Indian releases. Subs are also naturally provided for the main feature, in a multitude of languages – the English track is grammatically impeccable with no spelling or punctuation errors, although I raised an eyebrow or two at a few of the ‘creative’ choices made for the translation which I felt were too much of a departure from the original lines. “Masha’Allah” (“Allah be praised”, or “It is God’s will”) being rendered as “Oh, so beautiful” was one such instance, but I may just be being picky and compared to the standard grammatical mess of Bollywood’s usual subtitling attempts, Saawariya’s is a commendable effort.
Regardless of the film’s failings, I would hope Saawariya is not the last Indian film for a while to gain such a wide release in cinemas or as professional a transfer onto a home video format as Sony have provided it. While Hindi cinema is abundant is filmmaking talent, it is sorely lacking in effective marketing. Let us hope then that the next time Hollywood and Bollywood cross paths, the results will bear more fruit and Blu-ray can then play host to some true classics of the genre.
(Note, the photos featured in this review are press shots and not taken from the Blu-ray disc)