From the looks of Saawariya, it's not hard to see what makes Bollywood cinema such a rousing success. From lush set designs to one epic song-and-dance number after another, some of Bollywood's films are mega-movies, throwing in everything but the kitchen sink to make sure the viewing experience is well worth the admission price. However, this approach comes with drawbacks as well as high points, with the beautiful but paper-thin Saawariya left standing as an example of both the best and worst of what Bollywood has to offer.
On a particularly whimsical night in a city straight out of a storybook, energetic troubador Raj (Ranbir Kapoor) swoops into town, earning himself the eye and lust of seductive courtesan Gulabji (Rani Mukherjee). But as the night continues, Raj's heart allies itself with a different individual: Sakina (Sonam Kapoor), a beautiful young woman who initially rebuffs every single one of Raj's advances. He soon pierces her tough exterior, only to find out why she keeps herself so closely guarded in the first place. As it turns out, Sakina still pines for Imaan (Salman Khan), a tall, dark, and handsome tenant who disappeared after a brief but passionate romance. As she keeps a nightly post, waiting patiently for her beloved to return, Raj finds his head and heart battling one another, torn between following his feelings and helping Sakina find her own happy ending.
Saawariya is arguably the highest-profile Bollywood film to make its way into the American mainstream (mostly due to prominent studio Sony having a hand in the production). As a result, there's a lot riding on it in terms of finding the sort of audience here as it has in its native India -- a task pulled off well for the most part, though not without the film's share of obvious missteps. What'll grab peoples' attention right off the bat is the film's visual scheme. Saawaryia boasts a series of dreamy environments which help affirm the film's status as a romantic fantasy. The movie's look evokes feelings of watching Moulin Rouge! One can imagine Saawariya's gorgeous, blue-tinted back alleys co-existing with the famous French hotspot. Both films seem to take place in similar worlds, in which the smallest of dramas gets blown up to insane proportions. But while Moulin Rouge! actually backed up its ambition with a love story that could measure up, Saawariya finds itself in a more unfortunate position.
Essentially, Saawariya boils down to a story of unrequited love on two fronts: Raj can't quite seem to prove his worth to Sakina, and from the shadows, Gulabji harbors something of a crush on Raj (although this interesting subplot is given infinitely less attention than the former). That's all well and good, but the characters are so emotionally fickle and change personalities on a dime so fast, you don't know whether to root for them or medicate the whole looney bunch. Some moments appear as tender as can be and are handled as such. But for the most part, Saawariya treats its romantic goings-on as bigger deals than they really are, mostly because the script simply doesn't do enough to involve viewers in all the relationships and love triangles beyond the most basic level. Sakina treats her love for Imaan like a tragedy for the ages, but you wouldn't get that feeling from the scant couple of times the two actually cast goo-goo eyes on each other. With an almost two-and-a-half hour running time, the story grows pale and repetitive.
Still, I admire Saawariya's dreamlike atmosphere, catchy tunes, jaw-drappingly beautiful women, and the limitless energy Ram Kapoor brought to his performance here. Unfortunately, by too often making mountains out of molehills, this film ends up being a fairly frustrating odyssey.
MY RATING: ** 1/2 (out of ****)
(Released by Sony Pictures and rated "PG" for thematic elements, brief nudity, some language and incidental smoking.)
Review also posted at www.passportcinema.com .