One of the best things about having the opportunity to watch a variety of movies is how genres change over the years. Even more to the point some countries have taken hold of a genre and added such a distinctive cultural flair to it that it becomes something completely different from the original cinematic form. One of the most well known case in point is the Italian take on the American western now dubbed the ‘Spaghetti Western’. Another country specific genre, the one under consideration here, is the ‘Bollywood Musical’. Musicals have been around in America since the dim begins of film as major means of entertainment. Most countries have had their chance to imprint this genre with their own spin but none have done so to the degree as did the film makers in India. Now film making is nothing new there, they have been producing movies with about 1913 but this is the format that made an impact on the world. Bollywood flicks may be laughed at be a lot of film buffs out there but someone is watching and enjoying them; it is now a business that takes in over a billion dollars. Most of the audiences for films like this are local to India but a few have made there way over to the States by way of a few art houses. Now Sony has stepped in and they are taking this film global. For awhile now Sony has been bringing Chinese cinema, particularly Hong Kong action flicks to America. Now they take on Bollywood with the same expertise and flair. This film, ‘Saawariya’ is not only the first Bollywood movie to be produced by a major American studio it is also one of the first to be presented on both DVD and Blu-ray.
The film was written by Prakash Kapadia who has two other credits to his name; the drama ‘Black’ and another musical ‘Devdas’. Both were Indian flicks and rather well received. The story here is loosely based on Fyodor Dostoevsky's ‘White Nights’. It is quite literally a story as old as the human race; star crossed lovers. This theme has been used in every genre imaginable especially the musical; just think ‘West Side Story’ or ‘Moulin Rogues’ with saris. The script here is solid; it does its job well. The main characters are portrayed as realistic, fully developed people albeit in more of a fantasy setting. It would appear that Mr. Kapadia didn’t set out to write a great script; his intensions are more in line with writing something that is light and enjoyable to watch. In this he did succeed. Most movies that deal with ill fated lovers tend towards the melodramatic, even the musicals. The only logical direction to go is to just let loose and have some good old fashion fun. This is not to say there are no problems with the script. Most of the ancillary characters are barely fleshed out and come across as cardboard cutouts. The situations the two main characters get into are predictable with little in sight to surprise the audience. In the classic tradition of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ you need something to keep the young lovers apart. Instead of street gang allegiance or rival families Kapadia takes a more traditional approach for his culture. The young man is Hindu while the young woman in question is Muslim. Added to the mix she is already in love with another man who is set to return to her after a year’s absence. The story lacks the impetus to move forward at a satisfying pace.
Taking on the direction of this movie is locally renowned Sanjay Leela Bhansali. His resume contains several other Bollywood musicals as well as directing and co-writing the two previous flicks with Kapadia. Since this is to be the first Bollywood flick to make a splash overseas and on Blu-ray Bhansali did make some concessions for a more global audience. First there is less in the way of big musical numbers than usual. He appears to have modeled this more after the classic Hollywood musicals of the sixties. The film was shot entirely on large sets allowing a grander design. Many of the scenes have a dream like almost surrealistic feel to them with large staircases going off in impossible directions. This reminded somewhat of the look achieved in ‘Brigadoon’. This is also reinforced with the opening voice over by Gulab (Rani Mukerji), a lady of less than stellar reputation with the proverbial heart of gold, that states this is a town remembered in her dreams. Basically the set design is how someplace like Paris would be interpreted through Islamic eyes and culture. While many people in American audience are turned off by subtitles this is the way to go here. No English soundtrack is supplied but this is a plus in this particular case. The Hindi language is beautiful and lyrical; perfect for the musical numbers. You don’t have to understand the language to be pulled in to the movie. The film attempts to be grand but falls a little short of this admirable goal. The sets and costumes do their part but with a story that drags on at times the flow is nearly impossible to maintain even though Mr. Bhansali gives it his best try. The decision to substitute songs for dialogue backfires here. Some of the lines, at least as translated into English, are tedious at best. It may be better at times to ignore the subtitles and just enjoy the spectacle.
Ranbir Raj (Ranbir Kapoor) is a young man without a practical bone in his body. He is a free spirit with dreams of living a good life. When he gets into town he manages to find work as a lead singer in a popular night spot. It is there that he meets the narrator of the film, Gulab. She is jaded mostly due to her involvement in the oldest profession and is drawn to the innocence and wide eyed charm of the young man. One night Ranbir is out for a walk and spots a young woman, Sakina (Sonam Kapoor), alone, standing under an umbrella on a bridge. She is surrounded by an air of sadness that is palpable and our hero begins to fall in love with her. Initially she pulls away from Ranbir but he is persistent and in short order they become friends. He discovers that she is awaiting the return of her true love, Imaan (Salman Khan), who has been gone for over a year. Ranbir dones endlessly on to his landlady Lillian (Zohra Sehgal) and Gulabji about this fantastic young woman but she is spoken for and there are religious and cultural differences that will keep them apart. He reaches the point where he can’t hide his feelings anymore and he confesses his love to Sakina. Once again she rebuffs him but slowly comes around completing the romantic triangle.
The film is almost an hour and fifteen minutes long, short by Bollywood standards, but it may be a bit much for audiences on the States to take. Many people here have a dislike for foreign language films and this is something that they should work on overcoming. The video is presented in an anamorphic 2.40:1 transfer. The color palette is blacks and whites with a splash of reds for accent but it is clear with great contrast. The audio is in Hindi Dolby 5.1 and that does fill the room. There is a making the music featurette and some behind the scenes footage of the opening night. The film is entertaining but could have reached a higher level.