Based on Dostoevsky’s short story, “White Nights”, Saawariya is the first Bollywood film to be made and distributed in conjunction with an American studio. This joint venture with Sony Pictures Entertainment may further broaden the scope of the world’s largest producer of movies beyond its own backyard.
While its box office numbers may have been a disappointment, Saawariya as a film may successfully appeal to a Western audience and gain new life on DVD, giving those outside of the subcontinent a taste of its unique cinema. In typical Bollywood fashion, the film features the elaborate sets, musical and dance numbers that punctuate the action and plot of the film. Helmed by acclaimed director Sanjay Leela Bansali, the subtitled film is spoken in Hindi with snippets of heavily accented English and the occasional English turn of phrase thrown in.
Although Saawariya fared poorly at the box office, it garnered an award for the impressive film debut of Ranbir Kapoor, son of Rishi Kapoor of the Bollywood Kapoor dynasty of actors, producers, and directors. Ranbir Kapoor’s debut is legitimately impressive, aptly holding his own against such seasoned veterans as Rani Mukherjee and Zohra Segal.
In keeping with the tone of Dostoevsky’s original story, the film is sporadically narrated by the character of Gulabji, portrayed by noted actress Rani Mukherjee in a scene-stealing role as the archetypal gorgeous hooker with a heart of gold.
As the story’s narrator, she describes herself as “one who trades in false romance, but tells stories of true love.” In doing so, she tells the tale of Raj (Ranbir Kapoor), a rare, pure soul who becomes the new singer at the town’s local hot-spot, RK Bar, situated in the city’s red light district. He encounters Gulabji at RK Bar as she’s finishing her evening with a celebratory drink and serenades her with a song from his act that she insists becomes synonymous with his identity, “Saawariya” (or “Beloved”).
Within a day of his stay in town, Raj becomes something of a patron saint to the prostitutes, bringing with him a joyfulness to those who have no joy, treating everyone he meets with kindness. In turn, Raj is tipped off by Gulabji as to where he may find room and board, rather than sleeping on the streets.
From there, he encounters Lilanji, the crotchety landlady who eventually takes in and warms to Raj as her own son. He wins her over with the simple, transformative power of a hug and a kind word. In the role of Lilanji (who Raj affectionately refers to as “Lillipop”), 92-year-old actress Zohra Sehgal.shines on the screen, full of vigor and providing several moments of comic relief with her sarcastic muttering asides and bursts of enthusiasm.
While wandering the town at night, Raj encounters a mysterious girl named Sakina (Sonam Kapoor, another descendant of a Kapoor film dynasty who gives a solid performance in her debut) standing alone on a bridge. He strikes up a conversation with her. Though Sakina is hesitant about his motives at first, she eventually sees him for his true intentions when he protects her from unsavory nighttime characters. For Raj, it’s love at first sight, wanting to know more about the beautiful Sakina who only agrees to meet him at night.
Over the course of several nights, he learns that Sakina lives with her overprotective grandmother who fears abandonment. Falling deeper in love with her and ready to divulge his true feelings, Sakina drops a revelation on Raj that complicates matters. She is waiting for her true love, Imaan (Salman Khaan in a small, but intense role), who has promised to return to her in a year during the festival of Eid.
From there, Raj spends the next few nights trying to win the heart of Sakina. Although she pines for her absent suitor, Raj is persistent in his attempts to make her see the depth of his feelings for her
Under the musical direction of Monty Sharma and lyricist Sameer, the original soundtrack of Saawariya is memorable, beautiful at times, and full of Indian flavor. With the character of Raj as a singer and musician, the musical numbers become a logical extension of the plot. Although playback singers are used, their singing voices are just as integral a part of the film as the actors speaking dialogue.
With that said, the veteran and neophyte cast expertly conveys the high emotional content of the songs with their facial expressions and body language, doing a convincing job of selling the playback recordings as a piece of their own soul, the emotion registering in their eyes as well as the subtlety of meaning in the eccentricities of the characters. What isn’t spoken out loud can be read through the actions of the characters and the actors portraying them.
Cinematically, Saawariya is a visually stunning film, reminiscent of Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge with its surrealistic sets in vivid colors. The city is strung with lights and painted with monochromatic murals, such as the deep blue and white lotus blossoms that feature heavily in many alleyway scenes.
Although most of the film takes place in a night time setting, the costuming and incandescent lighting gives the impression of the actors being lit from within in shades of brightly burnished gold regardless what color is prominently featured in scenes within the film.
Saawariya is an intensely color-driven film with certain scenes featuring minor characters in matching, monochromatic shades—like the chorus of women of the night dressed in blue and green against the night sky on the streets—while the principals wear contrasting or startlingly white or black shades of clothing.
In terms of special features, the DVD offers trailers in addition to behind-the-scenes footage of making the music behind Saawariya and the film’s star-studded premiere night. Although the featurettes give fans a view of the pre- and post-production of the film, much of the same footage is used in both.
Musically, visually, and thematically, Saawariya is a terrific introduction for Westerners to the world of Hindi cinema, perfectly showcasing all of the wonders and heartbreak of love and the universal yearning for companionship and a meaningful connection, no matter how brief.