Love, in the movies of Sanjay Leela Bhansali, is an emotion that needs to battle its way out – always past silence, sometimes the uncaring world.
In his debut feature, Khamoshi – the Musical, Manisha Koirala is a singer whose voice touches the world but not her deaf and mute parents (digression: Nana Patekar + Seema Biswas = Manisha Koirala but Demi Moore + Bruce Willis = Rumer Willis? Damn.) who live in a tiny universe of their own making. When they occasionally run into the outside world, the results are not always happy.
In Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Aishwarya Rai falls for a golden voiced Salman Khan but finally chooses Ajay Devgan, an inarticulate man who solemnly croaks his way through a Hindi classic and is unable to confess his love for her even when trashed out of his mind. While the former event takes place in the secluded heart of a fantasy fortress that straddles a Gujarat-Rajasthan desert, the latter unfolds in the open spaces of the world at large (ostensibly Italy but everyone knows phoren is phoren so whatever).
In Devdas, nobody in the movie is left in any doubt whatsoever that Shahrukh Khan is in love with Aishwarya Rai, but when push comes to shove, he is unable to tell her what she needs to hear. And when he does tell her, she is unwilling to listen. Symbolically, the last scene of a movie brimming with images of an idealized Calcutta/Bengal, is a massively decorated gate clanging shut, imprisoning the hapless Paro inside as Devdas is left in the uncaring world outside.
In Black, Rani Mukherjee is not only deaf and mute, she is also blind. She exists in a darkly beautiful world, a faux Shimla that she can feel but not see, that we can admire on celluloid but not touch. We are mutually excluded from each other’s experiences.
And now, Saawariya.
A few days back, I wrote that going by the logical progression of his movies, I was afraid this one was going to be completely dedicated to the visuals at the cost of everything and everyone else in the film. It doesn’t afford me any particular happiness to be proven right (hey, I sat through it!) but I must say I enjoyed this movie far more than most others seem to have because I think I got exactly what I expected.
A beautiful spectacle. Period.
I know there were people who went in looking for the love story of the ages – it was definitely marketed that way – and the fact that the movie is based upon a Fyodor Dostoevsky short story, White Nights, might have fed into that angle. With all due respect, these people have either never seen a Bhansali movie before or hadn’t really paid him any attention when he spoke about his work.
Around the time Devdas was made and various people were going up in flames about the considerable liberties he’d taken with the story, I distinctly remember his inner Marie Antoinnette making an appearance and saying something along the lines of, “If they want the original, let them read the book!” His mouth might have said “adaptation” but his intent was always “inspiration” (and I don’t mean it in the Hitch/Partner way either). Forewarned is forearmed, etc. so it wasn’t a shock when I sat down and found that Dostoevsky’s contribution to this movie was the bare plotline and a Russian touch for the set decor.
I can’t blame him really. The one definite example I have of a book that was faithfully converted into a movie is The Fountainhead, where Ayn Rand turned up on the sets to assert her rights as creator even though she’d no prior film making experience. It is a book that I would recommend to everyone, just for a chance to engage with the ideas it throws up whether or not you agree with it in sum total, but as a movie? It sucked rotten eggs.
These are two different mediums and they have different demands. And if a director has decided to adapt a movie then s/he ought to go for whatever it was about the book that caught their attention rather than try for a “faithful adaptation”. The only kind of book that allows a “faithful adaptation” is a badly written book. If it’s well written, then it’s likely to have a few tricks and parts that will speak to you as a reader. Just because movies and books are both mediums for storytellers, it doesn’t mean they’re interchangeable.
Of course, you could do all the above and stay true to your vision… and still fall flat on your face.
A lot of people would say this is what has happened to Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Saawariya. I would disagree.
Oh, it’s a bad movie, all right. All the things you’ve probably heard about – cardboard characters, hammy acting extraordinaire (dude, Ranbir, I don’t care what Bhansali told you, leave that weird head shaking thing out of your repertoire. With that baby face, psycho is an expression that suits you better than… um, how to put this kindly? Simple-minded? A bit ‘special’?), really bad dialogue, weak plot points, etc – are all true. It’s also positively glacial in pace although it might just be the quality of the film that makes one think they’ve been in the theatre for quite half their life already and could they please now just go home to die?
But I really think this is the movie Bhansali set out to make.
Saawariya is the ultimate peak (or so we can all hope) of the Bhansali sensibility. The ‘St. Petersburg by way of Venice situated in the RK Studios backlot’-land which his characters inhabit fits in perfectly with the progression of his movies so far. Here, the characters might try to communicate with each other through song and dance just like other Bhansali movies – but the real barrier is not between them. It is between the outside world and them.
Saawariya-land exists out of our ken in a way that other Bollywood-lands do not. Quite apart from the technical aspects (the entire thing was shot indoors without ever letting an infidel ray of natural light touch the Vision), this is a land imagined by a prostitute, which automatically locates it in a space that the majority of us can not or will not enter. Other movies have entered the brothel in search of a story – but the imagination is a whole another ball game.
Doesn’t it make sense then that the hookers are the only ones who really resonate in this story? That Sakina (Tranquility) and her beau wonderful, Iman (Faith) – their story, their motives, their bond – remain indecipherable to the end? That Ranbir Raj is an object of desire who belongs to no one and nowhere?
For you and I, dear heart, love is an everyday emotion that is capable of reaching dizzying heights. For the denizens of Saawariya-land, it is a fetish, thrilling in its novelty. Unfortunately, the problem with fetishes has always been that it’s of great interest to the person who has it; to the rest of us it can be anything from ho-hum to disgusting.
What I saw was a spectacle all right – and I’m not talking about the sets here.
So did I like it? Well, I didn’t dislike it. It was an interesting experience to walk in for a movie and walk out having seen a peep show. Or perhaps this whole post has been an attempt to convince myself that I didn’t just waste three hours of my life. You decide.