I have seen Saawariya just once, in 2008. It was literally the only Bollywood movie available on iTunes to rent. Amazon’s streaming service was in its infancy, and I didn’t have any kind of Netflix account (though I would be able to rent Om Shanti Om a few months later). But I needed some Bollywood.
I have seen Saawariya just once, and I did not like it. Yet I think about it more often than many other movies I have enjoyed. Movies and dances and plots and performances I have long since forgotten. But Saawariya is there.
I have seen Saawariya just once, and it was visual feast. Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, of course, is a critically acclaimed director (Ram-Leela, Devdas , Bajirao Mastani). Likewise, cinematographer Ravi K. Chandran has also won several awards.
The film is highly stylized, seeming to share a universe with Baz Luhrmann’s films. There is no doubt what you are watching is artificial, a performance. But each frame looks like a panting, and you must keep watching.
Consider this still:
Ranbir Kapoor’s Raj performs in the middle of a stage, framed by stage lights at the bottom and flowers on the side. The spotlights form triangles, highlighting him. The flowers clearly define the edge of the stage.
Raj is framed in the window. The world outside is bright, beckoning; his apartment is dark, foreboding. His arms draw the eye to his body; his legs to his ass. Through that window, an adventure awaits.
The plot comes from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s story “White Nights.” The original story was written in 1848; the movie is sent in a dreamy, timeless place. Raj falls in love with Sakina (Sonam Kapoor), but Sakina is waiting for her love, Imaan (Salman Khan) to return.
One reason Saawariya stands out for me is Rani Mukerjee’s performance. She plays a prostitute, Gulabiji, who narrates the plot and provides guidance to Raj. She is wise and beautiful and independent. Perhaps the characterization leans heavily on the “Hooker with a Heart of Gold,” trope, but I enjoyed seeing a positive portrayal of a sex worker.
It has been nearly ten years since I have seen this film, and I still say Gulabji’s phrase “No likes.”
But as usual, the movie is focused on Raj, not Gulabji or Sakina. Raj chases after Sakina, and doesn’t believe Imaan exists. He saves her from possible sexual assault, because of course. I can’t quite remember now, but Imaan seemed like kind of a jerk, and being played by Salman Khan doesn’t help. One image that has stuck with me all of these years is Raj “playfully” threatens to drop her over the side of a staircase. So cute and fun and not at all scary!
The film didn’t do well financially or critically, so I’m clearly not alone. But “bad” movies can stick with you, and can have merit, or at least stay with you. It want something that is visually amazing, perhaps put Saawariya but mute the volume.