After scoring three successive critically acclaimed films that were also box-office hits (Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Devdas, and Black), anything new from Bhansali would no doubt create huge buzz. And Saawariya has the added distinction of being the first Indian movie co-produced and distributed by a Hollywood company. Taking a sizable gamble by introducing new faces in lead roles (Ranbir Kapoor is son of actor Rishi Kapoor; Sonam Kapoor is daughter of actor Anil Kapoor), Saawariya is the cinematic equivalent of a limo ride: padded and opulent, but also risking a flat tire at the first pothole. And there are potholes, to be sure. But that bad news is only half the story.
The good news is that even on this rocky road, Bhansali’s finished product retains enough fresh elements to make this a worthwhile film. The film is based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic short story “White Nights,” and what Bhansali gets 100 percent right is the staging of a gothic, dreamy, snow-clad hamlet that appears chiseled out of a Russian winterscape. The arrival of Raj (R. Kapoor), a dashing stranger, sets tongues wagging. Raj gets acquainted with the village tart, Gulab (Mukherjee), but opts for the shy Sakina (S. Kapoor), who has long been sheltered by an elderly grandmother (Para). Raj’s interest in Sakina is put to task when Iman (Khan), a brawny soldier headed for the front, also expresses interest in Sakina.
Bhansali’s recent films frequently toss in references to classic Hindi films. The ethos the director appears most eager to emulate here is that of Hindi cinema’s preeminent showman—and Ranbir Kapoor’s grandfather—Raj Kapoor. Raj lands a singing gig at a pub called RK Club—after Raj Kapoor’s famed moniker and studio name. Raj and Sakina share an umbrella that provides enough shelter and more than a passing resemblance to Raj Kapoor romancing Nargis under an umbrella in Shree 420 (1955). Finally, the cranky landlady (Sehgal) who puts up the vagabond lodger, Raj, borrows from Raj Kapoor’s trampy character renting a room from loud-mouthed Lalita Pawar in Anari (1959).
A pleasant surprise is Sharma’s gorgeous musical score. Sharma—nephew of Pyarelal Sharma of Laxmikant-Pyarelal fame—comes up with some of the best songs of the year. Ranbir Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor both look handsome and carefree. The most eye-catching scene may be Ranbir Kapoor’s brief rear and thinly veiled frontal nude scene. That, certainly, is from no Raj Kapoor movie.
Many international (read Western) film promoters have historically shied away from the lucrative Hindi film market due to the alleged gray market financing links between some Hindi films and the underworld. That may be changing as India’s booming economy places an increasing premium on transparency from all sectors, including the film industry. Major Hindi film studios that would never dream of disclosing their budgets and box office tickers now routinely aim for full disclosure. For having broken that barrier, Sony’s Saawariya is indeed a milestone.
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.