“Good Lord, only a moment of bliss? Isn’t such a moment sufficient for the whole of a man’s life?”
The biggest problem with “Saawariya”, based on Dostoevsky’s famous short story about loneliness and longing, is that director Sanjay Leela Bhansali (henceforth called SLB) does not given us even one moment of bliss.
Sure he gives us plenty of shots of gondolas awash in blue-green light, sequences of gentle cotton brushing against tender male bottom as moonlight streams in from behind highlighting Ranbir Kapoor’s “kacha kacha nimbooda”s, hushed whispers that are supposed to be very profound by virtue of their softness, and histrionic performances that would be considered juvenile even in a pre-kindergarten after-school play.
Yes he gives us that and much more. What he does not give us is one moment of respite, one flash of redemption, one thunderclap of even mediocrity.
Not one cotton-pickin one.
In a fantasy world that looks like a cross between the sets of Moulin Rogue and the Bates motel with dashes of a pimped-up Sonagachi, Venice and St.Petersberg thrown in for good measure, live a bunch of morose looking ladies of ill repute, headed by the redoubtable Gulab [Rani Mukherjee], waiting for a fairy to alight in their sad lives. And on cue, with dainty pitter-patter arrives a “fairy”, a little tinker-bell of a man [Ranbir Kapoor], desperately trying to ape Raj Kapoor (he is called Raj in case you don’t get the connection) who is so “ichak dana bichak dana” innocent that he goes to a bar and asks for milk, so poor that he has a football for a pillow and so poetic that he tells Rani Mukherjee in a Dada Kondkian passage:
Yeh mera ball hain. Kya hain na, mere paas takiya naheen hain. Is liye main mera ball takiya banake so jata hoon. Is liye mera ball girta raheta hain.
Soon his ball sorry heart is captured by a glorious vision on a bridge, a fair maiden Sakeena [played by Sonam Kapoor] who flutters her eyelids, glides ephemerally, runs madly like all heroines in SLB movies and giggles in a musical cadence that can only be described as “telephone dhun”. However there is a problem—Sakeena’s heart beats for someone else, a kohl-eyed Salman Khan who has gone to far-away lands hunting deer and running over pavement dwellers and does not look to be returning to his love any time soon.
Undaunted by this, Sakeena, the conservative Muslim girl with a blind mother (who insists on tethering Sakeena to her with a safety-pin which she then detaches herself of every night leaving someone else tied to her mother) waits on that bridge, covered in scarves that slip away ever so often revealing the skimpy dress below (good thing her mother is blind) , a dress that does nothing to hide her soft femininity.
Not that her femininity stands a chance against that of Raj’s who in dulcet tones that even a heroine of a Mills and Boon’s novel would call more than a bit effeminate, starts wooing her, knowing her heart belongs to someone else.
What ensues is what is known in desi circles as the “curse of the rakhi brother” where Ranbir becomes a de-sexualized “friend” who dictates letters to Sakeena, advises her, breaks into song every two minutes, drives her to the grocery store twice a week and drops her off at JFK Airport lugging her suitcases. Okay maybe not the last two—but you do get the picture. As time goes on the audience gets sucked in by the genius of the director’s craft only to the extent that they become even more desperate than Raj, waiting for Sakeena to make up her mind (embrace Raj or keep waiting for the long-gone muscle-man)—if only so that the movie would finish and the end credits roll.
Acting-wise, Rani Mukherjee’s golden-hearted “lady of commerce” performance completes a hat-trick of prostitute acts (which film historians refer to as her “blue period“), a niche market which she has made her own. With her rolling eyes, over-made-up visage, husky masculine voice and overt aggression, even the mega-pimp Lucky Chikna of “Gunda”‘s latakta-circus fame would not want to do the “dan-dana-dan” with this marvelous specimen of humanity.
Ranbir Kapoor (who looks a lot like a male version of Neetu Singh, minus of course the famous “Ek yeh aur ek yeh” that had curious effects on “tan man ” of an entire generation) over-emotes, over-expresses, over-shadow-boxes and over-reveals.
Sonam Kapoor does not have much to do except look demure and virginal which she does competently while giving us more than a few glimpses of her back—-which I am glad to say does not resemble her dad Anil Kapoor’s in any way. [For those who do not know, Anil Kapoor has been designated an “endangered species” by the World Wild Life Fund because of the universal demand for Anil Kapoor’s abundant and luxuriant “fur” which grows on his chest and back among other places].
Salman Khan looks confused —-as the guy who first brought male exposure to the mainstream by taking off his top, he seems obsolete in an age when Ranbir Kapoor has gone a step further and taken off his bottom: an act Salman cannot replicate simply because then he would be called “Salman Butt“.
But what am I doing even talking about acting? Because you see a SLB movie is not about performances—it’s all about the direction. If you believe what SLB tells you, he is the greatest director alive. And so by definition, whatever he does is great. If you, as the audience, cannot see that you are either a philistine or jealous of his supreme God-like abilities.
Giving the devil his due, his first effort Khamoshi was a decent movie. Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam a little less so. Devdas an assault on the senses. Black, an overwrought hyper-dramatic mis-fire masquerading as supreme art.
Saawariya however is the worst of the lot— a big plastic bag of hot air where dreamy sets, hued lighting and forgettable music (which SLB would like you to believe is a mark of his genius, what he calls his “merger of raga-based melodies with a Brodway style play) is used to divert attention from the fact that there is absolutely nothing in this venture.
And just when you think things cannot get worse, you read a SLB interview where he compares Saawariya with Paather Panchali (In Satyajit Ray’s “Pather Panchali”, according to the man with the beard, “realism is finally only an illusion”—go figure) and claims to have created a superstar out of Ranbir Kapoor.
The only word that somehow comes to mind then is the title of yet another work of Dostoevsky: “The Idiot“.