|Blu-ray Romantic Drama|
|Written by Darren Gross|
|Sunday, 01 June 2008|
Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali is one of the most respected directors working in the Indian film industry. His tragic romance “Devdas” starring megastar Shah Rukh Khan is considered a modern classic. The release of a new Bhansali film is an event in India, with enormous audience expectations, but unfortunately the director has stumbled with “Saawariya.” While he has created a visually stunning film of exquisite poetic beauty, it is crippled by its two leads who both grate and annoy when they should be charming and captivating. Granted, the two are not helped by a thin, underdeveloped story that has both of our “innocent” protagonists acting insensitive, self-serving, naïve, possessive and manipulative. “Saawariya” is based on is Dostoyevsky’s “White Nights,” which has been the source for a few other motion pictures. Unfortunately, the story is so simple and its focus so narrow that is more fitting for an opera or a short story than for a full-length epic motion picture.
Two more engaging actors might have been able to weave these difficult characters into tragic, sympathetic figures but neither of them seems to understand the fine line Raj and Sakina walk between innocence and selfish manipulation, and they go wherever the script indicates, not realizing some scenes need to be underplayed and others emphasized more strongly. Their performances ultimately wear the audience down to the point where not only do we not root for the characters to get together, we grow impatient and annoyed at the possibility that they will. Kapoor (and director Bhansali) severely overestimate the lead actor’s charms and the jerky scarecrow dance moves he displays are showy and distract from the ethereal music and songs. Kapoor is not helped by a bad Sonny Bono haircut and a ill-fitting bowler hat he wears through a large section of the film that, combined with his naivety and rashness, makes him seem developmentally disabled (Raj Gump, anyone?), clearly not the intention.
The supporting players greatly elevate the film and increase audience interest. Salman Khan’s role as Imaan is tiny, but he conveys the sadness, mystery, and allure of the character with great efficiency and the power of his star persona. Rani Mukherjee is delightful as Gulab, surely of cinema’s most stunning prostitutes, and you miss her when she’s not on-screen. Longtime ninety-six year-old (!) screen veteran, Zohra Sehgal, almost convinces us of Raj’s worth, by her affecting reactions to him.
The songs by Monty Sharma and Sameer tend to be more ethereal and low-key than is the norm. There are the requisite large, showpiece numbers, but their energy is a bit more muted and introspective, than the usual Bollywood barnstormers. The score is rich and lush, with evocative, heavy strings that perfectly match the stylized visuals and the pace of the camerawork and editing.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track approaches perfection; the music is conveyed with an impressive level of vibrancy, warmth, and power. The dialogue is always crisp and intelligible and the mix level is ideally set. Surround effects are well utilized, mostly for atmospherics, such as a rain, to draw the audience into the lush settings of the story.
The 1080p transfer is stunning. Indian DVD releases, even of new films, are high variable; sound is usually acceptable, but transfers tend to suffer from dirty print sources, poor authoring, or distracting, distributor-imposed watermarks. Sony’s BD of “Saawariya” is arguably the best looking video release of an Indian film to date. The print source is flawless, with nary an instance of dirt or speckling. The colors are presented with vivid, eye-popping saturation. The palette tends to lean heavily toward turquoise hues, but areas of the frame with different colors, such as the warmer golden lighting on the actors or the multi-colored saris seen during dance numbers are conveyed with boldness and clarity. Areas of the screen featuring differing color values are always clean, and never suffer from smearing or bleeding. The BD image is extremely crisp and razor sharp, which allows one a greater appreciation of the sumptuous, studio-bound set design, and as a result, scenes like the one featuring snowfall convey a greater sense of quiet poetry. “Saawariya” on BD is a benchmark release, and one can only hope that Sony will license some of the back catalog of Indian cinema classics and present them in versions as exquisite as this one.
The BD release includes two featurettes, both of which run around 20 minutes each. “Making the music” is a pretty accurate title, and this featurette showcases interviews and behind-the-scenes footage of the composers and singers at work while recording the score. No footage of the actual film shoot is included, but footage from the film’s star-studded premiere is. That premiere footage is also included, in much longer form in the second featurette, “Premiere Night” which gives one a nice glimpse of how a Bollywood film launch is conducted and it includes the warm introductions that are given by the cast and crew before the opening night screening. While not an extensive assembly of supplements (no trailer, alas), they are both worth watching.