If Bollywood is your bag and you loved Moulin Rouge, too, then Saawariya will probably make you smile. But if fake scenery and dubbed-in singing make your skin crawl, this is definitely not a film for you.
Raj (Ranbir Kapoor) is a charismatic young singer-musician who comes to a small--but very glittery--Indian town. He meets up with a beautiful prostitute (Rani Mukherjee), who falls for the lanky, Elvis-influenced singer, but who keeps him at arm's length to protect his innocent charm. But she helps him find a place to stay, with a lonely old woman (Zohra Sehgal, quite spry despite being 95 years old), who begins to love him as son. Raj's inherent happiness infuses everyone around him, as we see in a variety of song-and-dance numbers, but everything changes when he meets the remarkably gorgeous Sakina (Sonam Kapoor) one night, as she stands on a bridge in the rain. She waits for her missing lover, a man who has promised to return to her on the one-year anniversary of their parting. That moment will happen in a few days' time; meanwhile Raj woos her each night and falls madly in love with her. As the fateful night approaches, the big question looms: Will Sakina change her heart and eschew her mysterious lover for Raj, or will our hero's heart be broken?
Saawariya is the debut film for both the leading actors, Ranbir Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor, but it is not the first touch of the film industry for either. He is the scion of India's most famous acting family, and he's a natural charmer, with his cute visage and lanky, yet muscular build. In fact, there's even a cheesecake sequence in the film the centers on him, as he lip-synchs a wistful romantic tune while wearing a sheer sarong draped around his private parts. He's definitely good eye candy, but he pales next to the luminous beauty of Sonam Kapoor, she of a distant branch of the same illustrious family. As the shy and chaste Sakina, the actress merely has to appear and look into the camera, and moviegoers feel like swooning. Her dark eyes, light-brown skin, and perfect features make it impossible to look at anyone else on the screen; she is completely mesmerizing. The problem with the film is not with these two obviously talented actors. Instead, it comes from the form of the film, an obviously staged musical fantasy that owes much of its look to Baz Luhrman's Moulin Rouge. While often visually arresting, the fake sets and canned music are frequently jarring, and add to the general feeling that we are watching a music video, rather than a fully fleshed out romance. Consequently, it's hard to take anything that happens in the film to heart, as it all seems like a faux flick.
Sanjay Leela Bhansali is an award-winning Indian director who conceived Saawariya as what he calls "an exotic love story." Based on a Fyodor Dostoyevsky short story, his film takes that Russian tale of unrequited love and transforms it into a musical romance, filled with songs that sound vaguely Western, vaguely Indian, and are completely corny--in any language. He has fashioned a cartoonish film, one that never quite draws us into the belief that Raj truly loves Sakina. It's a sort of "romance light" flick, looking pretty but without any emotional substance, which means that once the novelty of seeing the stylized sets, hearing Indian songs, and reading the subtitles wears off, Saawariya becomes a bit of a slog toward the not-too-surprising dénouement. Touted as the first Bollywood film to come to American under the auspices of a major American studio (Sony/Columbia Pictures), unfortunately Saawariya is probably not the movie that is going to cause a sudden surge in fascination with all things Indian. But considering how many films the Indian film community churns out every year, it is likely to not be that last one to arrive on our shores. Let's hope the next one will be a more palatable offering.
Hollywood.com rated this film 2 stars.