Saawariya (2007)
December 24, 2016 10:14 PM - Subscribe

Based on Fyodor Dostoevsky's short story "White Nights", Saawariya is a fable about the love as related by Gulabji, a prostitute, who tells the story of a complicated set of relationships centered around her meeting of an itinerant performer named Raj.

Saawariya was the first Bollywood movie to be released by a major Hollywood production company, Sony Pictures. The movie, which opened against Om Shanti Om failed to win back its costs, flopping badly with the public and raising enough concerns within Sony to end the relationship a short while later. The movie received mixed reviews from US critics, most noting its elaborately composed visual style, but finding fault with its length and characters. From the few reviews I found online, it didn't fare much better among many of the more devoted Bollywood fans either, with complaints over its strong color scheme, too blue, and the characters too lacking in detail.

The look of Saawariya might be thought of as combining an impression of Visconti's Le notti bianche, also based on White Nights, with Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge! or, going back a little further, Coppola's One From the Heart. In other words, it's explicitly unreal in its setting, using studio artifice to intensify the emotional tone of the movie rather than provide realism. As the movie makes clear at the outset, the city is not a real one, but a mental construct of Gulabji's, an imagined place to set the story she will tell. As such, the movie relies on vivid, heavily saturated colors, no drab hues here, and strong lighting effects as much as dialogue to bring out who the characters are, or at least their representative roles in the story. As a fable, there is a mythic element involved, where reality is essentialized into more symbolic representations with little concern over the realism of function. (This is in some ways a necessary element of all filmmaking, but in heightened use, such as this, it becomes more notable.)

As Gulabji is the one relating the story, this is her world, and the story she wants to tell us is that of Raj, a would be performer she meets in RK's bar, the spot where she plies her trade as a prostitute. Gulabji herself is only a secondary character in her story, as it is the meeting and subsequent relationship Raj has with Sakina that motivates her tale.

Raj enters the film as a kind and optimistic young man, who has wandered into town hoping to play music and assist those he meets. He speaks compassionately about the women he encounters, regardless of their station, and wins the gratitude and friendly affection of Gulabji's fellow street walkers and a gruff and sad older woman named Lillian, who he nicknames Lillipop and who provides Raj with a room after he helps her to come to terms with the long absence of her own son. After establishing himself as a popular attraction at RK's, Raj encounters Sakina on a bridge one evening and immediately loses his heart to her.

Sakina, however, has interests of her own, and shows mixed feelings about meeting Raj. At first she seeks to keep her distance, but eventually accepts Raj's attentions, which causes increasing complications and changes in behavior for both of them due to elements from Sakina's past and mismatches in emotion between herself and Raj.

I'll add my own thoughts on the film in a separate post and perhaps expand a little on the design of the movie. I suspect there may not many people who see this, but as I think the movie is worthwhile, despite what its critics have said, I figured it could use a post. My interest was also spurred by this thread on the blue about classic Bollywood movies, which mentions many other films worth seeing both in the linked article and in the comments. So, even if Saawariya doesn't strike your fancy, many of those other movies would be worth checking out.
posted by gusottertrout (4 comments total)
I neglected to add a trailer in the main post, so here it is.
posted by gusottertrout at 12:36 AM on December 25, 2016

God, it's been years since I've seen this and I couldn't tell you much of anything about it. I remember it being beautiful and ambitious, but yeah — it was absolutely crushed by Om Shanti Om, which wasn't necessarily a better movie but was just a lot more fun. Catchier tunes, too. Sony should have done whatever it took to move this to another date, but I guess hindsight's 20/20.
posted by Mothlight at 10:27 PM on December 30, 2016

Saawariya is a bit of a hard sell to a lot of people still, and for some good reasons. I can't, for example, exactly bring myself to recommend it to anyone here as Raj is kind of a dick to and about Sakina in ways that would surely put some people off if they felt they were supposed to take Raj as the hero without questioning his actions.

The look of the film too can put some off, the fairly extreme essentializing of place and character that gives the movie something of the feel of a perfume commercial or music video certainly isn't to all tastes. Moulin Rouge! being a similar example along those lines many found unsatisfying.

For me though, both those factors work as I don't feel the need to see Raj as a romantic hero exactly, more that he is an apt analog for a certain kind of romantic naivety. He starts off the movie as a reasonably liberal minded and self assured young man, speaking of respect and care for the women who work the streets with Gulabji, saying they are mothers and daughters too. (But not wives Gulabji rejoins, suggesting Raj's ignorance of romantic matters and their dark side.) He turns down staying with Gulabji, impressing her with his purity of care, shown too when he meets up with Lillipop and shares his worry about her wellbeing, gaining her friendship.

Once he see Sakina though he becomes increasingly moody, selfish, and unstable, sometimes worshiping her in an uncomfortable fashion, sometimes sulking or acting out, and sometimes being aggressively rude or dishonest with her. These actions tie to Gulabji's warning about becoming someone you hate through love, but at the same time the movie and Gulabji clearly maintain a view of Raj as also not being a complete ass or irredeemable, even at his worst. The balance, for me, being one of seeing Raj's actions being inherently selfish in a way that echoes his newfound experience of "love", allowing his thoughts of being with Sakina to blur his view of others. I don't see Raj as needing to be celebrated for this by the movie, but as accounting for it and suggesting he stands as a sort of immature potential version of Imaan.

I think of the four lovers as more or less representing a linear set of perspectives on relationships, with Gulabji on one pole as the physical or more pragmatic perspective, and Imaan on the far end representing more of a spiritual perspective tied to the Eid celebration. Raj and Sakina are the immature pair in between the two poles, where neither has found a sure footing, but experience strong feelings of love that they are negotiating throughout the four days that make up most of the body of the film.

That the film is so stylized and condensed in time and emotion focused the perspective on the things that inform those attitudes. Having it look like an ad for a luxury product then provides a kind of cultural match for the idea of romance, while the story only works by having that feeling thwarted for Raj. Bhansali does a good job in keeping enough detail and complication in the images to keep them from becoming banal, a big issue with this sort of "glamour" look, and adds some touches that suggest wider connections enough to add some further possibilities for the viewer to tie the essentialized events to the real world in ways that might spark interest. For example, the frequent use of icons and faces in the architecture or settings are slightly jarring, and give a feeling of a secondary more symbolic level to the film.

It is perfectly natural that people think of the movie as belonging to Raj and Sakina, but as it is framed as a story being told by Gulabji, who along with Lillipop, is the more interesting character, it provides reason to reflect on things a bit more. It's a way to give just a little bit of extra distance between the viewer and the events, so that they might, should they wish, ask why it is Gulabji is telling this story, instead of just thinking about the events from Raj's perspective. It's that framing that makes the story work in many ways.

It's also interesting to contrast Saawariya with Devdas, Bhansali's earlier film, which also features a love quadrangle, and a "hero" who's more than a bit of an ass himself and who's closest friend is a prostitute who loves him even though he's too self-involved with his own love for another to see it. The similarities of the two movies make it easy to compare the characters and stories, with Devdas and Raj being at the center of the respective films, but where neither is wholly aware or in control of the actions. Sakina and Paro act as the ideals to the men, but their own interests lead them elsewhere even as they continue to care for the two. Sakina's and Paro's connections to Devdas and Raj aren't the same, so that pushes the stories in different directions, and Chandramukhi and Gulabji as the prostitutes who best understand the events in each story then give the spine to the films.

Comparing Saawariya to the Visconti version of the story in Le notti bianche I think also can highlight the significance in what we're being asked to see. In Visconti's version, Mario is more sympathetic than Raj in how the film treats his involvement with Natalia/Sakina. Natalia's love for the man she waits for is less compelling as a "ideal" than Sakina's, with L'inquilino seeming less warm and caring than Imaan, which in turn makes Natalia's wait for him less reasonable and her rejection of Mario harder to accept. Sakina comes across better in her wait for Imaan, who while somewhat daunting a figure, still shows warmth and humor in ways that go farther towards suggesting the reason for Sakina's devotion, at least to my eyes. (Jean Marais's history of being an "ideal" might suggest otherwise to some, though I've yet to actually find anyone who preferred Marais' Prince to his Beast in Cocteau's film.)

As a New Year's Eve celebration for myself, I've decided to rewatch Devdas to make sure it is as I remember it, and just to see another Bollywood film now that I've gotten the urge. The songs in Devdas are unquestionably better, but those in Saawariya did grow on me even as they seemed a little light perhaps on first listen, other than Chabeela anyway.
posted by gusottertrout at 2:06 PM on December 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oh, and, for me, Om Shanti Om was fine, but it didn't grab me as much as Saawariya when I saw it, but it's been a long time so I might have to revisit it too.
posted by gusottertrout at 2:08 PM on December 31, 2016

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