As the credits roll to Saawariya, Sanjay Leela Bhansali's newest opulent emotional drama, you can't help but notice his name all over the credits. Direction, of course, but also co-credits in screenplay, editing, music... hell, even costumes. As you see Bhansali stamping his presence all over this film with his manic self-obsessive style, the realization slowly dawns on you: Saawariya was never meant to be a debut vehicle for two semi-talented young star kids.
This is an out-and-out Bhansali film, his ode to himself, a film where he celebrates his kind of filmmaking, his own personal idiosyncrasies, and if two kids get their break when he makes this grand gesture, well, they should be grateful. So should we be, the privileged masses, for having been presented with such a grand vision, such showmanship, such... utter bollocks, of course. Saawariya may be a one-off, or may be something that finally lets us see Bhansali in his true form.
Any which way, unequivocally speaking, Saawariya is a vacuous cipher of a film, whose needlessly vague style and flash do not take away from the blank characters and the zero script it runs on. Saawariya also positively reeks of the director, and the kids are sidelined for what he wants to execute. Problem is, all the philosophy, all the maudlin punches, all of the deliberately shoehorned emotions are there for us all to see and recognize as fake.
No mistakes, this is a fake film. Faux emotions, cardboard characters, a script that fails to deliver, and a very very fake and dodgy emotional core. This is underlined for all of us the moment the film opens in a city that the script actually tells us does not exist. The city's art direction is based on everything the world has to offer, so gondolas, Venetian bridges, English streets, Persian domes, South-East Asian Buddha statues, and Baz Luhrmann channeled neon-lit city squares.
That's it right there, the problem with Bhansali's vision. It's so all over the place, it is rarely coherent, and never consistent. Fyodor Dostoevsky's White Nights, the story that the film is based on, was a nice little story of having loved and lost, a growing-up tale, and a story that reflected the social mores of the time and place. By taking away all that made the story unique, the film becomes another one of those boy-meets-girl tales.
Ranbir Raj (Ranbir Kapoor) is a young man with stars in his eyes who arrives in this fable town, and immediately lands a job to sing in a club, and also strikes a friendship with local prostitute Gulabjee (Rani Mukherjee). Right then and there, he asks her if he'll become a star. She replies with superstar, beginning many of the self-referential jokes that the film has, with all the subtlety of a driveby shootout.
Raj, as he likes to call himself, meets young Sakina (Sonam Kapoor) too, a lamenting damsel waiting for someone. She slowly warms up to him - how, don't ask, the man positively stalks her - and they strike up an easy friendship. While Raj loves the woman, she makes it clear that she is waiting for her one true love, Imaan (Salman Khan). They spend a lot of time talking and singing - oh God, the singing - until such time as Sakina gives up on waiting for Imaan.
What happens next should be apparent to not only classic literature buffs, but anyone who has seen such retrograde cinema on late Doordarshan re-runs. But the problem is not in the tale - it is, like I said, in the telling.
Bhansali's smartest move to launch these newcomers was to choose a story that focuses so absolutely on them, you can't help but pay attention. But such a move requires some very deft screenplay-writing and a dialog that keeps the viewers interested. This is something Imtiaz Ali just proved with his latest
, but Bhansali's screenplay struggles to even keep us remotely interested in the characters, much less the story.
Add to that at least eleven songs and countless digressions by way of what I now call the Gulabjee episodes - Rani Mukherjee's third attempt to become the definitive prostitute of Bollywood - and the film begins to fall flat before the chorus has time to say ha ha ha haaaa.
Contrary to what you may take away from reading these impressions, the fact is that Bhansali is not a stupid, or even incompetent director. He has total control over the proceedings of the film, and it does not feel out of sync with itself ever. Loud background score, uncomfortable close-cut cinematography and cipher sets aside, the film is not technically a washout. All the technical staff is there to serve Bhansali's vision, and consistently does that.
Saawariya is just a very pompous film, something the director constructed to push himself as a grand showman more that anything. As the in-your-face references keep telling you, Ranbir Kapoor is the next successor to the Kapoor legacy, but what you also see is that Bhansali thinks of himself as the next director successor to the same legacy as well.
This is not a personal vision, however - this is a pandering of the basest of human emotions: pride. Possibly hubris as well. Only for those who don't get tickets for the other big one.