It must have happened something like this. Sanjay Leela Bhansali is watching Raj Kapoor's Awaara from his private DVD collection…the 'ghar aaya mera pardesi' song comes up and a flash appears in his mind…"Why can’t I make a film on this?... I've just read a short story where the heroine is waiting for her pardesi to come home… I can ask my art director to come up with a bizarre, dream-like set, complete with the enormous Nataraj head that occupied centre stage in the Awaara song… I have Raj Kapoor's grandson as my assistant, so he can be the hero with the name same as his illustrious grandfather… I know Raj Kapoor’s oeuvre like the back of my hand, so sprinkling the scenario with references should not be a problem… Come on let's make a tribute to Raj Kapoor".
Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Saawariya is probably the first true blue (pun intended) tribute to the man called Raj Kapoor. Only, it makes it so obvious it starts to grate on one's senses after a while…subtlety has never been SLB's forte anyway. The film opens in a bar called the RK bar, with the title written in the manner of the unmistakable RK banner. Nice, you think. Then we see the vagabond-ish hero – that's Awaara for you. He rents a room from a matronly Christian lady who starts loving him like her son – Anari…. Got it Mr. Bhansali, but can we move ahead? Not yet my dear, don't you wanna see the 'junglee' scene from Awaara, or the classic Barsaat pose that went on to become the trademark of RK films, or the references to the pyar hua iqraar hua song from Shree 420, complete with rain and an umbrella….why stop at the great showman, you also get his father in a scene from Mughal-e-Azam, Ranbir referencing dear daddy in Karz, trying the dancing style of his granduncles – Shammi Kapoor and Shashi Kapoor – and giving an accidental peek of his butt much like his father in Bobby….Phew!! Why did SLB have to make this simple love story into the most expensive promotion vehicle for the Kapoor khandaan? And does he realize that he missed out Ranbir's uncles and cousins....or was Rani Mukherji's character meant to evoke memories of Kareena's Chameli?
Now that I have my biggest grouse with the film out of the way, I can move on…
If there is anything that strikes you about Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Saawariya, it's the opening credit sequence. One can't help but appreciate the director's honesty in crediting his source of inspiration – Fyodor Dostoevsky’s short story White Nights. When was the last time you saw a film that did that? The plot of Dostoevsky's story doesn't naturally lend itself to adaptation on celluloid. A 'dreamer's' narration of his meeting with an enigmatic girl over four nights doesn't have the necessary twists and the drama we have come to expect in a Hindi mainstream film. It is just for this reason that the film seems so monotonous. Not as in boring, but as in musically i.e. having a sameness of tone.
I always see Bhansali's films as a bandish (musical composition), which starts with a slightly unstructured alaap and quickly moves through the jod to its crescendo with an intricately structured jhaala and gat. Through his characteristic use of melodrama he creates complex rhythmic patterns that go out of sync with the taal at times, only to emerge harmoniously in the final moments. For Saawariya, the story that SLB chooses does not have the breadth where he could demonstrate his virtuosity as a 'composer'. He could have easily gone his usual way and provided multiple dramatic twists to the plot, but he resists the temptation and creates a composition that uses the most basic notes of the mandra saptak (lowest octave) and pretty much remains at the alaap all through. That is something that worked well for me. The story demanded a slow and static feel, which SLB provides it with. He has managed to remain fairly faithful to the original story (except for a completely unnecessary addition) and created a vision that is uniquely his own.
But hang on, simplicity and Bhansali don’t go hand in hand. If the tale and the narration is simple, SLB lets his Art Director (Omung Kumar) go completely over the top to create a setting that looks straight out of a fairy tale. You get an architecture that's a curious mix of all possible schools of architecture you can think of, and the use of a palette with an overabundance of colours blue and green gives the setting of the film a surreal painting-like character . This is where the problem with the film lies - a simple story gets completely lost amid SLB's trademark larger-than-life scale and visual opulence that has no place in a tale like this.
This setting would have worked well had the director not introduced the completely unnecessary angle I talked about earlier. Dostoevsky’s narrator was the protagonist himself - a 'dreamer'. Obviously, his narration would have a dream-like quality. In Saawariya, SLB gives the part of the narrator to a completely superfluous character called Gulaabji, a streetwalker (who is always walking the streets but we never get to see even a single customer) with what else but a 'heart of gold'. Although Rani Mukherji does complete justice to the character, it is completely unnecessary.
On the other hand, if one were to compare Saawariya with the director's earlier work, it is obvious that this is probably the director's most subtle work yet. Melodrama is kept at a minimum and the emotions of the lead character - Ranbir - never go ballistic as in SLB's earlier films. But as I mentioned earlier, subtlety doesn't come naturally to the director and it shows in a few scenes. Like the one where the Raj accompanies Sakina to her home....we see a lane full of potholes...anyone with even the most average IQ would guess what it means, especially when you see that these potholes are designed and crafted so painstakingly that is is obvious they're meant to convey a message. But, no, SLB wants to spell it out by giving Ranbir some heavy-duty dialogue to mouth about zindagi ke raaste...
Music has always been the high point of SLB's films. In Saawariya, you again get some nice compositions but they fall a trifle short of being great. You sorely miss the intricate compoitions of Ismail Darbar here. I have never understood why someone like SLB who always projects a picture of being an aesthete would settle for a lyricist like Sameer, who pens words that are adequate but don't do complete justice to SLB's vision. In my opinion, only Gulzar's abstract words would have gelled well with the abstruse backdrop of the film. Only Gulzar could have added more layers of depth to this film.
Saawariya being the launch vehicle for Ranbir Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor, everyone is curious to know if they have it in them to make it big in this industry. I can't say much about Sonam, for she is very pretty but just an average actress. Moreover she gets a terribly underwritten and ambiguous part. Ranbir, on the other hand, shows tremendous promise. He has the meatiest part in the film, and despite a few raw edges his performance is of a fairly high standard - he shows the spark...watch out for him!