A really small movie done up in a big, moody package, “Saawariya” entices, fitfully springs to life but finally outstays its welcome by a good half-hour. Based on Dostoevsky’s short story “White Nights,” latest design-heavy outing by Bollywood multitasker Sanjay Leela Bhansali falls somewhere between the lavish impersonality of his “Devdas” (2002) and the intimate chamber drama of his “Black” (2005). Pic has the same blue-noir look of the latter but, alas, none of its emotional hooks. Billed as the first mainstream Hindi movie funded by a U.S. major, Sony release will grab muscular initial biz but lack long-distance legs.
In the mano-a-mano battle over the Diwali period with Farah Khan’s star-laden masala movie “Om Shanti Om,” Bhansali’s pic looks unlikely to go the whole 15 rounds. Like “Black,” “Saawariya” is practically an art movie in Bollywood terms, and though it does possess some fine features of its own, it simply isn’t as entertaining as Khan’s splashy retro musical.
In key overseas markets like the U.K. and U.S., it’s also going out on fewer screens than “Om” (dramatically so, Stateside: 85 vs. 114). Ironically, despite its weaknesses, “Saawariya” has more upscale crossover potential than “Om,” which is laden with Bollywood references and inside jokes. However, in the U.K., “Saawariya” was not even screened for press.
Perhaps most impressively (and simply) directed by Luchino Visconti in 1957, “White Nights” leaves a lot of room for any adaptation to fail. Scripters Prakash Kapadia and Bhansali take the simple story — shy guy meets an unhappy woman, falls for her, and then finds she’s waiting for her absent lover to return — and set it in an almost fairy-tale North Indian town that’s a cross between Venice, an old Indian hill station and an Arabian fantasy, with facades that recall Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge.”
Shot entirely on vast studio sets, and set almost exclusively at night, pic is saturated in blues, blacks and dark greens, with the occasional slash of red or white for contrast. Design is heavily Islamic, in the Persian-influenced Mughal style, and though set in the present day, there’s a timelessness to the movie that fits the opening voiceover of streetwalker Gulab (Rani Mukerji), that it’s a town that “lives in my dreams.”
Deliberately stagy setting recalls Bollywood productions from the ’50s and earlier, and was even employed more recently in Sudhir Mishra’s “Chameli” (2004). However, in “Saawariya,” the dialogue isn’t strong enough to take on the production design.
Device of making Gulab the de facto narrator does give some shape to Bhansali’s vast visual canvas. Problem is, the husky-voiced Mukerji makes Gulab the liveliest character in the movie, sidelining the putative leads, itinerant musician Ranbir Raj (Ranbir Kapoor) and lonely local beauty Sakina (Sonam Kapoor).
Latter are given pages of dialogue that would not disgrace a French metaphysical movie (“No darkness harms those enlightened in love,” etc.). But it wears increasingly thin, especially during the mood-heavy first half, when not much is happening apart from Ranbir romancing Sakina in the darkly lit streets.
It’s the kind of dialogue better suited to songs — and the latter, which come thick and fast during part one, are thus robbed of any freshness or contrast. The samey tone of this half is relieved only by Gulab’s appearances, in which her cynical take on love contrasts with Ranbir’s boyish enthusiasm, and by scenes with veteran hotelier Lilian (vet Zohra Sehgal), who still pines for her long-absent son. Witty playing by feisty nonagenarian Sehgal also draws the best out of Mukerji in a memorable scene.
The two Kapoors (unrelated) are OK as the leads, with Sonam getting the edge. Daughter of thesp Anil Kapoor, she shows considerable screen presence in her debut role and even manages hints that Sakina may possibly be barking mad. Ranbir (from the fourth generation of the Kapoor film dynasty) looks rather silly in a bowler hat and more at ease when jiving to the title song than gushing platitudes about love. Star hunk Salman Khan (largely seen in flashbacks) is suitably mysterious as Sakina’s beloved.
Balladic songs and score are sweeping but largely unmemorable, especially in part one. Much livelier are the numbers in part two — luckily, as the story itself practically grinds to a halt — notably where Mukerji leads a lively song ‘n’ dance by the town’s hookers, and later when Ranbir goes to collect Sonam.
All other production values are richly appointed. Title literally means “Beloved,” and is ironically used as a name for Ranbir by Gulab.