Monday, July 4, 2011

Saawariya aka Sanjay Leela Bhansali's "Blue"

Backed by Hollywood’s Sony Pictures Entertainment (under the hand of Gareth Wigan, who produced Chinese cross-over hit Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Saawariya was announced in late 2005 as the start of a beautiful partnership between Indian talent and American cash. At the time, Sanjay Leela Bhansali was riding high on two well-received literary adaptations Devdas (2002, based on the novella Devdas) and Black (2005, based on Hellen Keller's first autobiography.) So, from Sony Pictures perspective, having Sanjay Leela Bhansali adapt Dostoyevsky's short story "White Nights" to Indian cinema was not such a bad idea. After all, the story had inspired, among other films, the Raj Kapoor classic Chhalia (1960). And if Sanjay Leela Bhansali could turn the drunken tragedy Devdas into an opulent romance, why couldn't he do the same for the wistful "White Nights?"

From the beginning, the development of the film was cloaked in secrecy. Information from the sets was tightly controlled - both to the press and to the producers. The two young actors making their debuts in the film, Ranbir Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor (no relation), were forbidden from showing their faces in public. As if that wasn't enough suspense, the release date of the film was set to be the
exact same one as Shahrukh Khan's 1970s-set overblown feel-good nostalgia piece Om Shanti Om.

Instead of a mystery, the media now had a horse race. For every story coming from
Om Shanti Om, rumors flew about Saawariya and vice versa. Shahrukh Khan is showing his six pack? Well, Ranbir Kapoor is dropping his towel. Sonam Kapoor isn't allowed to be seen in public, well then neither is Om Shanti Om debut girl Deepika Padukone. If Om Shanti Om was cashing in on the nostalgia for Rishi Kapoor's flamboyant 1970s with references to Karz, Saawariya was going back to Raj Kapoor's timeless 1950s with references to Awaraa.

The hysteria in the media on November 9, 2007, when both films released, was unbearable.

There is an expression in English that says: give a man enough rope and he’ll hang himself. As reviews trickled in for both films, it swiftly became clear that Sony Pictures had provided Sanjay Leela Bhansali with enough rope to hang himself ten times over. Reviewers trashed the film as self-indulgent and - even worse - boring. After an okay opening, the audience numbers dropped as word of mouth spread and by the end of the weekend, it was clear that
Om Shanti Om had won both the critics and the box office. Saawariya wasn't just a flop, it became a punchline. Blame was assigned, and loudly. Sanjay Leela Bhansali complained that the media was responsible for the film's failure while the media assigned the failure to directorial indulgence. And then there was Sony, who had let the auteur run wild. Nobody from Sony had seen the film until just two days before the release. In other words: rope, meet Sanjay Leela Bhansali.

Saawariya begins with a theatrical flourish. We are introduced to the prostitute Gulabji (Rani Mukerji) who narrates to use the story of the first time she met the “rock and roll angel” named Ranbir Raj (Ranbir Kapoor.) At first Ranbir Raj appears to be a kind soul; he asks for milk at the bar, treats Gulabji like a person instead of a prostitute, plays soccer with the ladies of the night in the red light district, and warms the heart of the old woman who runs the local boarding house (Zohra Segal.) But something breaks down in his character when he spies a girl waiting on a bridge late at night. He becomes obsessed with her and his character turns really sour.

In between some really painfully saccharine flirting, the girl (Sonam Kapoor) tells the story of why she is waiting. See, a sailor who had stayed at her house last year had promised to come back to her during Eid. We flashback to her story, seeing the stoic sailor (Salman Khan) steal the girl’s heart. Ranbir Raj isn’t content to let the story rest and he manipulates her affections with his fast talking patter. Gulabji catches him at this and is unimpressed.

During the course of this ridiculously stalkerish courtship, Ranbir Raj manages to insult Gulabji numerous times – to the point of asking to be one of her customers. He also forgets about his promise to the icy landlady to treat her better than her own son did.
And he totally disregards his lady love’s feelings in his desire to own her. After 2+ hours of increasingly aggravating shenanigans, the girl’s sailor returns and Ranbir Raj makes a big show of walking off wounded into the shadows… leaving the landlady he had claimed as his adoptive mother.

Needless to say, the film is a severe misreading of “White Nights” (which you can read for yourself
here. The basics are the same – boy, girl, sailor, waiting – but the important difference is that in “White Nights,” the boy is not a douchebag. He’s a lonely soul who connects to the girl because she’s just as lonely and alienated as he is. Ranbir Raj, on the other hand, has the gift of making friends from the first frame of the film and he seems genuine about spreading pleasure, which makes it worse when the script calls for him to then alienate the people come to care about him in order to chase after some girl. The hero of “White Nights” is lost in his dreams; Ranbir Raj is lost in his own self-interests.

While Ranbir Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor try their best to make the material palatable, it just swallows the young performers whole. They drown in the overblown dialogues and overly cutesy scenes – there is no chemistry between them and their romantic scenes drag on and on and on and on. It’s a testament to their innate charisma that the film didn’t sink their careers before they began. Ranbir, especially, got a lot of buzz for the picturization for “Jab Se Tere Naina,” in which he teases the audience in his gleaming white towel, to the extent that it has now become part of his iconography. (Check out my post on his debut here.)

Rani Mukerji shines as Gulabji, using her considerable charm and experience to browbeat the character of Gulabji into a sympathetic one. One of the odd twists of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s plotting was to make Gulabji the point-of-view character for the film, thereby negating the premise that the hero is alienated from people before the film even really begins. We see quite clearly that Ranbir Raj was important in her life and yet, as we see in the film, the “rock and roll angel” treated her like shit and never pays for it.

Salman Khan’s role is really more of a glorified cameo but he makes the most of it. As the smouldering sailor, Salman adds a quiet gravitas to his scenes with Sonam. I’ve never been one to find Salman all that attractive but in
Saawariya I just got lost in those deep brown eyes. There were rumors that Salman’s role was cut considerably, which is kind of a shame. There are also rumors that Salman picked a fight with Sanjay Leela Bhansali after Saawariya just so he wouldn’t have to make any more appearances in his films, which is much less of a shame.

The only other member of the supporting cast who makes an impression is the delightful Zohra Segal, who is also treated like shit by Ranbir Raj. She is initially very cold and forbidding because she has been in mourning for her son, who abandoned her 30ish years ago. When Ranbir Raj enters and gives her a hug, she just melts… and he basically adopts her as a mother, which makes it that much crueler when
he abandons her at the end of the film. The final shots of Zohra Segal’s hand on a picture of Ranbir just about broke my heart and made me really hate Sanjay Leela Bhansali even more than I had for making me sit through the rest of the film.

Ranbir Raj learns no lessons about being a decent human being in

Now, the one thing that Sanjay Leela Bhansali films are known for is visual opulence.
Saawariya is no exception. Every visual detail is taken care of and every actor is well lit, the only problem is that everything is drowning in a sea of blue! I am not a visual person at all and yet, by the end of about 20 minutes, the blue shades grew intolerable. I wanted anything different – green, grey, brown, black, red, white, yellow, pink, purple. Blue sets, blue costumes, blue lighting, blue everything grew tedious. The film just sinks under the weight of it. The blue, which is supposed to lend a moody nighttime atmosphere, only lends one tension for the audience – wondering when Gargamel is going to come and terrorize all the characters on screen.

As self-indulgent, flabby, and blue as
Violet Beauregarde, Saawariya is a real disappointment and it’s one from which Sanjay Leela Bhansali has never recovered. He went from being an auteur to being a joke – the film left a stench that hung around over Guzaarish and retroactively tainted his previously praised works Devdas and Black. Sony Pictures, too, had trouble bouncing back from Saawariya. Their next big budget venture in India would be 2009’s Chandni Chowk To China, a film that errs in the opposite direction from Saawariya and one that flopped just as hard.

Oddly enough, the film has refused to die in the public consciousness.
Saawariya is remembered for its failure. Open Magazine published an interesting piece last year on the making of the film that quoted one of the Sony executives as saying that belief in the film was like a financial bubble – nobody wanted to doubt it for fear that it would pop.

The money and freedom Sony gave to Sanjay Leela Bhansali to make
Saawariya allowed him to indulge all of his worst instincts. It gave us a peek into his subconscious that nobody really wanted to see. Saawariya truly believes that the dickish Ranbir Raj is some sort of good angel spreading joy rather than a selfish spoiled brat demanding to be loved and Sanjay Leela Bhansali truly believes in Saawariya.

I felt kind of dirty taking screencaps of this awful film because I knew that was what Sanjay Leela Bhansali would want. So, there are fewer here than I would normally take for a film.

Be prepared to look at this shade of blue for the entire film.

No, seriously.

Rani Mukerji is a delight through the whole film. I am dying to see her working in films again. She was the ONLY character not tinged in the awful blue.

Who has a pointer finger and asks for milk at a bar? THIS GUY!

He is so sweet, he even treats prostitutes like human beings! Aren't they somebody's sisters and mothers?

I was actually going along with the film just fine until this scene where we see Ranbir Raj's dead eyes for the first time. This is where it lost me. I'm on board with a rock and roll angel who gets prostitutes to play soccer late at night with him but a guy who manipulates an old lady into feeling something? To the vomitorium!

Our first glimpse of Sonam's lovely eyes...

And now, the one thing this film will be remembered for:

Ranbir waggling his junk out the window...

"Oh, I didn't see you there, Mr. Bhansali..."

"Jab se tere nainaaaaaaa..."

Yup... this has gone down in pop culture history!

Salman-bhai! I could drown in those eyes...

Ranbir and Rani had way more chemistry than Ranbir and Sonam...

"Chabila" is my favorite part of the entire film.

Is that PINK?!

Rani is consistently the only person whose not all blueish! (And also, check out that midriff... mmm...)

How is he resisting this? I have no idea.

ZERO chemistry. Zero. And they were supposedly dating at the time...

Rani's face after Ranbir asks to be one of her customers... I wanted to punch him.

FREAKING HEARTBREAKING ENDING! I wanted to punch both Ranbir Raj and Sanjay Leela Bhansali for making me sit through this film. Ugh.


Ness said...

Yes. to everything. I remember when I watched this, thinking for the first five minutes or so "Why does everyone hate this so much?" and then...everything you have described. Apart from all of that, it's SO BORING.

Filmi Girl said...

@Ness OMG! SO BORING! I was dying and I had the opportunity to pause it to refresh myself with gossip websites and tea. I don't know how people sat through this in the theater...

maxqnz said...

Great review, thanks for sonfirming that this is definitely one to avoid.. The only thing that puzzled me was this line:
"Reviewers trashed the film as self-indulgent and - even worse - boring"

It was an SLB film, what else did they expect? Devdas had both of those sins by the truckload, and the only thing not boring about Black was the really creepy "hot for teacher" twist he threw into an otherwise limp ripoff The Miracle Worker. So any reviewer who was expecting something OTHER than self-indulgence from an SLB film had only themselves to blame, imo.

Filmi Girl said...

@maxqnz LOL! You're just going to have to accept that you are in the minority for thinking that way about Devdas. Many people really enjoyed the visual opulence of the film and the story isn't nearly as monotonous as Saawariya... :)

No person who enjoys films of ANY TYPE should watch Saawariya whereas those who enjoy spectacle (like me) can find something to enjoy in Devdas.

I'm willing to forgive self-indulgence if it's entertaining (see also: Veer).

redeem147 said...

Perceptive analysis. I've only found Salman attractive in two films - Marigold and this one. But I think in this one it's because he's not creepy stalker guy.

I think the sets are pretty - and they look like sets.

I have enjoyed Bhansali's other films. Thank goodness for Wake up Sid or I'd just avoid movies with Ranbir.

maxqnz said...

@Filmi Girl - Yes, I know I'm ahead of my time. My piercingly insightful assessment of SLBs ouevre will be accepted as mainstream one day - just after David Dhawan releases a doco on misogyny and Gowariker puts out a songless 90-minute slice-of-life drama.

Nerdypanda said...

Filmi Girl, atleast you finished this movie. I left after the first 10 minutes. Agree with all the critiques.

Danny Bowes said...

Moral of the story: don't give Smurfs final cut and keep them away from the Dostoevsky.

Scandalous_Diva said...

Loved the review Filmigirl ! :) Saawarya - oh well- the less said the better !

Check out my blog !

eliza bennet said...

I agree with this review.

I'm a visual person though and couldn't help but appreciate all the hard work that went to into the lighting, art direction and mise en scene. You are right SLB is a very indulgent auteur and needs to be hold in check.

I actually didn't want to watch Guzaarish since Saawariya left a bad taste in my mouth.

My favorite SLB film remains HDDCS, despite the fact that he tried to pass of Hungary as Italy (and for no logical reason). There were real emotions in that one and Aish had brill chemistry with both of her co actors.

Amaluu said...

Brillant write-up. I would love for you to see some early work of SLB for comparison - my favorite being the beautiful, heartwrenching Khamoshi: The Musical. I absolutely love that movie and it is devoid of the lavish spectacle of today's SLB work. Let me know if you get around to that one!

P.S. thank you for that beautiful screencap of Sallu. He's so yummy when he's brooding.

larissa said...

I'm not sure what you mean when you say Ranbir and Sonam "were forbidden from showing their faces in public." Do you mean while the movie was filming? Because before the movie was released they did a ton of promotion and in fact their faces were everywhere, even on the cover of Filmfare.

I'm also wondering why you say Salman's character is a sailor, because I don't remember having that impression when I watched the film.

P.S. - In the theatrical version that played in North America Ranbir actually drops the towel and you see his bare ass for a few seconds. It was cut from the Indian theatrical version and never made it to the DVD either.

Gaja Gamini said...

Oh I couldn´t disagree more.... I loved Saawariya and everything it was. The visuals were stunning, the soundtrack one of the best ever, the performances very good... Also I don´t understand why you think Ranbir Raj left the old lady in the end? Actually to me it seemed pretty clear he let Sakina go, but returned home afterwards. I definitely saw a different Ranbir Raj than you did.

BTW I just came across this blog and I think it´s facntastic!

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl
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