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Published: Verve Magazine, Screen, December 2007

Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s fantastical and surreal Saawariya is a lyrical odyssey that could have been explosive as a theatrical performance or a stage musical, opines Sitanshi Talati-Parikh

Evolving the vibrant medium of cinema a notch further has been considered the auteur of Sanjay Leela Bhansali. In his latest offering, Saawariya, he draws from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s short story, White Nights, where a vibrant youth enters a snowy, mystical hillside town only to be carried away in a fantastical love affair over four surreal nights. Despite the gaps being filled by a good soundtrack, the lyrical odyssey stretches and the story is not a perfect flow through the frames and between the songs. It would have worked better, had the songs been half the number, the scenes more tightly wound and the characters allowed to develop fully. Alternatively, this could have been explosive as a theatrical performance or stage musical.

With Saawariya, the film-maker brings a superb theatrical effect to light. Drawing from the paintings of Frederick Arthur Bridgman, Fred R Wagner and William Louis Sonntag, visualiser Ravi Chandran has made Omung Kumar’s stylised sets come alive, with the use of space lights (a first for India). Add that to excellent costumes by Reza Shariffi (Ranbir Kapoor) and Anuradha Vakil (Rani Mukerji, Sonam Kapoor), the look of Saawariya is larger than life. The movie, however, doesn’t work evocatively, even if it does enchant. His multi-hued extravaganza just misses the exacting moment, when a painting comes to life.

The beautiful canvas may just be too well crafted. As the actors appear on this canvas to enact a sequence of events, the space appears too perfectly composed, too posturised, leaving the characters distant from the audience. As Sakina (Sonam) drifts past on the waters with her arm extended, it is dramatic and unreal at the same time. Suddenly that feeling changes, when accosted with Lillianji (Zohra Sehgal) and Gulabji (Mukerji). They spring to life and the film abruptly loses its dream-like detached quality. Raj (Ranbir) splits between the gaps and opens up on screen, as an identifiable character, but one is unable to get a lasting feel of his emotions as they scatter across the canvas.

The fresh, lively faces of the newcomers light up the screen. Ranbir exceeds expectations, while Sonam Kapoor shows potential. The lack of chemistry between them, if intentional, works at a subterranean level, to hint that it is a doomed love story, but the missing chemistry – between Imaan (Salman Khan) and Sakina – has no explanation. It is easier to be moved by Lillianji’s grief, as she is left alone, than it is to sympathise with the protagonists.

Bhansali’s experimental cinema is always a welcome change from the mundane histrionics of mass cinema. Whether the audience is able to accept the shortcomings of Saawariya in light of its positive movement towards evolutionary cinema that breaks with convention, is left to be seen.