Midway through Saawariya an overhead shot shows us a boat docking at a green and blue tiled shimmer of a pavement, the sort of image that takes one’s breath away. It isn’t the first shot in the film that is reminiscent of the work of Barcelona’s modernist architect genius Antonio Gaudi, and it won’t be the last, in a film that owes an ample debt to Gaudi’s love of riotous color and dynamic surfaces, and of the glazed tiles that hearken to Iberia’s Moorish past (a characteristic Gaudi shared with other Barcelona modernists, perhaps none more so than Domenech i Montaner, whose masterpiece, the Palau de la Musica Catalunya, just has to be the most beautiful concert hall in the world). The tribute is apt, given that Saawariya is itself set in a fantasy city partly out of the Arabian Nights, and partly out of Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge, a self-consciously stagey backdrop to the one-sided love story of itinerant minstrel Ranbir Raj (Ranbir Kapoor) and Sakina (Sonam Kapoor), and (briefly) Sakina and Imaan (Salman Khan), as narrated by Gulabji (Rani Mukherji, in yet another role playing a hooker with a heart of gold). So striking are the visuals (despite the outsized debt to Luhrman), so successful director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s and art director Omung Kumar’s claustrophobic reverie of a world immune to whiffs from the outside (so much so that Imaan’s explanation to Sakina that he has to leave her for a year because he works for "the country", is jarring – could anything so real as a country exist in the world of Saawariya?), that nothing in this or any other review should dissuade one from seeing this film on the big screen. One of Hindi cinema’s most unique visual idioms deserves no less.
The film (purportedly an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s White Nights) takes place over four nights, and centers on Ranbir’s love for Sakina, a shy girl he sees waiting on a bridge. She is waiting for Imaan, a former tenant and lover who has left her with a promise to meet her a year later on the bridge. Sakina is clearly drawn to Ranbir, but stops short of committing herself, verging on succumbing only when Ranbir convinces her that Imaan will not return. Except of course he does, and Sakina returns to him, completing the rather slight allegory: Ranbir has a hard time believing Imaan even exists, but Sakina (the name of the Prophet Muhammad’s great-granddaughter, and in Shiite Islam a symbol of patience and suffering womanhood in light of the slaughter of virtually all her male relatives by the forces of the Caliph Yazid) keeps the faith (“imaan”), and her devotion is given flesh and blood form by film’s end (a fantastic Salman Khan, whose hyper-stylized presence works well with Bhansali’s vision). Not for nothing is the film set in a Muslim ambience, and one might see a basic Sufi allegory of imaan fulfilled as partially operative here. And as in much North Indian Sufism, Krishna imagery suffuses Saawariya: Sakina is a sort of Mirabai, and Krishna was of course the original saawariya (“dark one”), although Bhansali, in an inversion of the trope of the eternally waiting woman, ultimately makes a Mira out of his saawariya, leaving Sakina and the kohl-rimmed Imaan as Radha and Krishna. The dark deity is manifest in the film’s colors too: Bhansali has gone on record to the effect that the film’s blue-green hues are meant to evoke the peacock (symbolizing Krishna), and the point is driven home by the film’s endless night, Krishna’s own black cloak as the song from Satyam Shivam Sundaram memorably phrased it (reminiscent also of Muhammad’s black shawl; indeed each is referred to in song and popular tradition as the “kaali kamli waala”, most recently in Bunty aur Babli's Kajra Re).
In the final analysis, however, nothing can make up for the fact that Saawariya is wretchedly boring, the sort of unabashed snoozefest that makes one’s jaw drop in disbelief. Contrary to Bhansali’s protestations on television, this has nothing to do with whether or not Saawariya is a work of art (or Work of Art, as Bhansali would doubtless prefer it), or with his (disingenuous) posturing that absent Saawariya, Hindi cinema would be left to a stagnant inertia of puerile comedies and hackneyed genres, or with media hostility (though Bhansali is doubtless right to complain about the intellectual dishonesty and sheer incompetence that has characterized most of the film’s reviews thus far). Rather, it has something to do with the fact that Saawariya has nothing to say, or at least nothing that hasn’t been done to death. Some films, that is, are structured around a plot driven by events (e.g. Sholay); other films are simply vehicles for their stars (e.g. Sivaji); yet others are driven not so much by events as by meaning and signification (e.g. 8 ½). In the last instance, it isn’t that the action is devoid of events, merely that the film’s meaning cannot be reduced to them, and in fact self-consciously exceeds them.
Saawariya is clearly intended as this kind of film, and fails miserably in saying anything meaningful about the themes it puts in play: love, desire, devotion, sacrifice, the ethics of being in the world. Instead, we get a pose, a gesture, and a stale one at that – the waiting woman and the nomad who wishes to “rescue” her, a sort of Peter Pan view of Indian femininity (stressed ad nauseam in his interviews by Bhansali, who is prone to characterizing those who disagree as culturally inauthentic “screaming” feminists) and of love, drained as it is of any urgency or passion. The Sufi/Krishna imagery remains no more than a schema, and is never incarnated for the audience: the fault lies in an under-developed script, inexperienced debutantes who are impressively assured but cannot suggest gravitas, and Bhansali’s repeated attempts to evoke the specter of Raj Kapoor, the sort of cheap dynasticism more at home in the world of Karan Johar or Sarkar than in Saawariya. The burden of Raj Kapoor’s tramp persona is too great on Ranbir Kapoor, all but smothering his natural boyish charm. Sonam Kapoor is not given much to work with (entirely consistent with Bhansali’s track record with heroines in love stories), but suggests enough to make me look forward to seeing more of her.
It isn’t often that I urge people to go watch films I’ve disliked; I’ll make an exception here, warranted by Saawariya’s scale and its filmmakers’ vision. This creative failure demands engagement.