I’ve long thought that the opera crowd could provide fertile soil for raising Bollywood consciousness in the United States, and of all the current A-list Mumbai directors, Sanjay Leela Bhansali has the most fulsome operatic temperament. There were sequences in his 2002 Devdas that played like long-lost snippets of Verdi, and Bhansali’s latest, Saawariya (Beloved), suggests a lavish road-show revamp of La Bohème. The film is loosely based on White Nights, Dostoyevsky’s novella of a moonstruck love so pigheaded it borders on dementia. The movie is also a mad creation in its own right, shot entirely on a soundstage in Mumbai, on a huge set that depicts (seemingly in its entirety) an old, decadent, mostly Muslim city: St. Petersburg crossed with old Lucknow. Two young lovers, played by charming newcomers, wander around (or run in slow motion, trailing scarves) through this wholly artificial environment, gorgeous in shades of cobalt blue and mossy green, which is so resourcefully photographed that no camera angle looks familiar. The place soon begins to feel like a dimensional staircase out of M.C. Escher, and oxygen deprivation sets in.
The initials “RK” tower over this giant set, in letters 10 feet tall, and the spirit of Bollywood icon Raj Kapoor (whose production company was RK Films) looms even larger. The key character here is a Chaplinesque vagabond eerily like the one Kapoor became in song-filled social melodramas such as Aawara (1951) and Shri 420 (1955). And the likable young actor who plays the role — Ranbir Kapoor, a gangly goofball with the caterpillar eyebrows and five o’clock shadow of a Punjabi Jason Schwartzman — holds up rather well under the burden of standing in for his own grandfather. With his lopsided killer smile and a flailing, rubber-legged dancing style that’s closer to Donald O’Conner than the aerobic athleticism of a Bolly-hunk like Hrithek Roshan, the young Kapoor takes the edge off Saawariya’s deployment of the most exhausted narrative device in world cinema: the mysterious trickster/stranger who touches the life of everyone he encounters, but who can’t help himself.
Along with his leading lady, Sonam Kapoor, the heartbreakingly beautiful daughter of actor Anil Kapoor (no relation to the other Kapoors), Ranbir is participating in a grand Bollywood tradition — the “launch” of a star’s son or daughter in the family business. It is Bhansali’s good fortune that both of these crazy kids have a lot to offer in addition to their noble names. The movie’s brand of wholehearted Bollywood neoclassicism, which hearkens back to the noir-dappled social melodrama of the 1950s, is an admirable thing in principle: In a period when hip younger filmmakers are scrambling for American-style cool, discarding the songs and replacing sentiment with cynicism, directors like Bhansali (and Vinod Chopra, Ashutosh Gowariker and a few others) remain determined to move popular Indian cinema forward while preserving the unique conventions of the “film industry that is also a genre.” Bhansali does this with so much fervor in Saawariya that he almost makes it work. With the sterling assistance of a new generation of Kapoors, he comes this close to sweeping us off our feet.
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SAAWARIYA | Directed by SANJAY LEELA BHANSALI | Written by PRAKASH KAPADIA and BHANSALI | Produced by GAUTMI BHATT, DEEPAK RAAI SHARMA and BHANSALI | Released by Columbia Pictures | Culver Plaza, Fallbrook 7, One Colorado, Naz 8