No one can say that Sanjay Leela Bhansali lacks vision - meticulous, elaborate, rich vision. If he were apply that vision to a story with some depth and potential, the result could be astonishing, but Saawariya ("beloved") is not that film. It's not as awful as his Devdas - but it's hard for me to find more than that faint praise for this film that manages to be dull despite all the sparkle.
Young loner Ranbir Raj (Ranbir Kapoor) appears one night in the red light district of some nameless fantasy town. Late at night at the grand RK Bar he meets a melancholy prostitute Gulabji (Rani Mukherjee) and she is instantly taken with him. Looking for a place to stay, he works his charm on Lillian (Zohra Sehgal), the elderly matron of a local flophouse. He also wins over all of Gulabji's downtrodden colleagues. The one person he has some trouble getting through to, though, is a young girl he meets in the street late on night, the dreamy Sakina, whom he falls for thoroughly. Sakina is by turns amused and annoyed by Raj; her heart belongs to a mysterious stranger, Imaan (Salman Khan), whom she met and fell in love with a year before - now she anxiously awaits his promised return.
The chain of longing and desire is taut - Gulabji is tenderly protective of Raj, Raj is manically in love with Sakina, Sakina waits breathlessly for Imaan. And for all the fantasy of the settings, Raj and Sakina embody a fairly faithful portrayal of teenage obsession. Raj spins an elaborate fantasy of the progress of his courtship of Sakina, and when it doesn't measure up to his expectations, he seems to think his world is coming to an abrupt end. Saawariya captures the mood swings and manic intensity of adolescent longing. The trouble for Saawariya is that these elements just aren't all that interesting. The characters are distilled archetypes - Sakina the distracted romantic, Raj the happy go-lucky charmer harboring a lonely heart (his origins, and the reason for his wanderings, is left a complete mystery), Imaan the darkly sexual mystery man. But since the characters are totems, rather than people, their loves and losses are unengaging. The fantasy city of Bhansali's setting - an all-indoor construction that is part Moulin Rouge, part Devdas, part Singin' in the Rain, and part Dickens - is pretty, but doesn't make up for the dull stretches of the narrative.
Much of the hype surrounding Saawariya was the introduction of its two young stars, especially Ranbir Kapoor, the newest scion of the venerable filmi dynasty. Bhansali has loaded his film with references to Ranbir's grandfather, the legendary showman Raj Kapoor: the sign adorning the RK Bar evokes the logo of Raj Kapoor's production house, and Ranbir's vagabond clothes evoke the man himself. While these homages are charming, they are also unnecessary and distracting. Ranbir may have the talent to carry his family's mantle but constantly reminding the audience where he comes from doesn't make him any more appealing on screen. At any rate, his performance in Saawariya needs toning down; in his character's most manic moments he resembles a crazed ferret on speed, substituting Snoopy dancing for real emotion. There is a fine line between charming and annoying, and if the audience has to ask itself "is that charming, or annoying?" then chances are it is not charming. Meanwhile, Saawariya's other debutante, Sonam Kapoor (a distant cousin to the Prithviraj-Raj line of Kapoors) is given precious little to do other than look pretty and run dramatically through the fairy-tale sets.
Saawariya is the most engaging when Rani Mukherjee is on screen; her portrayal of Gulabji captures a melancholy resignation and a bittersweet air that makes her the least caricatured of all the characters in the film. If Saawariya has one foot in reality, it is Gulabji's foot, and the character says as much as the film opens. A film about her mature suffering, instead of Raj and Sakina's growing pains, could have been a thing of beauty.
One thing that Bhansali did beautifully even in the execrable Devdas was the songs, and there are some gems here as well, especially Gulabji's very cheeky turn in "Chhabeela," in which she praises Raj's sexy youthfulness, and the gorgeous "Yoon shabnami," a qawwali in which Raj compares his love to the new moon rising to signal the end of the Ramadan fast and the start of the Eid celebration. There was one song that struck me as an utter failure, though others have liked it: "Padi," in which Raj cheers all the neighborhood prostitutes with the promise that some day angels will come from the sky and save them from their degraded state. I find this appalling, an absurdly patronizing sentiment. It is a major wrong note struck very early in the film, and a missed opportunity to expand on the story of the compelling Gulabji - the film would have done better to focus on Raj shining some light into her life, instead of making him a cheesy magician winning depressed hearts by spewing pablum all over them.