Having read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s White Nights, I thought seeing Saawariya from a literary perspective might be an addition to the varied reviews we've had on the film.
I’ve noted below a few points that occurred to me when I saw the film earlier this week.
It’s not difficult to see why Bhansali was enamoured by Dostoevesky and White Nights. Given that the latter’s writings are generally characterized by an emotional frenzy, a nervous excitability where words seem to tumble on to each other, Bhansali possibly felt a kindred spirit with the Russian litterateur.
Additionally, White Nights deals, at least partially with the theme of love and separation ie virah, the filmmaker’s favourite rasa (among the nav-rasas), one that runs prominently in at least two of the filmmaker’s previous works.
The filmmaker has doggedly stuck to Dostoevsky’s vision, though one must hastily add that the latter’s preoccupations are much larger than what Bhansali can manage to convey cinematically.
Which is why, if the film disappoints in the end, it is less to do with the director’s abilities (or lack of it) and more to do a making a questionable literary choice for screen adaptation.
Gulabo (a superlative Rani Mukherjee), as the frisky and warm-hearted prostitute and Miss Lolipop (Zohra Sehgal), as the forlorn landlady are two stock characters which are Bhansali’s own creations ---- they aren’t present in the original. But both these characters work faithfully at projecting further Dostoevsky’s profound theme of the alienation of the human soul and the yearning for love. So in that sense, Bhansali does not stray while attempting to flesh out White Nights, a novella which doesn't try to offer much in terms of story and primarily works on a certain abstract level only.
Dostoevsky’s idea through the story is a deeply affecting one, one that alludes to the loneliness of mankind--- the horrific silences that descend upon us once noises around die down, the romantic spirit’s desperate urge to find love and then to hold on to it, even if it is an illusion. Or weaving dreams around it and then desperately hoping it will turn true.
The author’s setting is a simple one, entirely a two-character narrative with the boy and girl sitting together and pouring out their feelings in the comfort of a night and a stranger. The recounting comes close to being a stream-of-consciousness one, managing to wrench out a great deal of emotional intensity as it proceeds.
Dostoevsky’s story is anything by a plot-driven one. What he conveys among other things is an idea of chronic romanticism, and this he does effectively within a small literary scale. The narrative itself is quite verbose, the sentences are long-winding and there’s hardly any action happening here. It touches some very high emotional peaks but there very few external conflicts.
This is where Bhansali’s problem lies. A short story, by its very nature has a distinct trajectory, one that can be quite unidimensional without too many plot points. Also, my understanding is that not all short stories can be treated in a stand-alone manner, because most of them are just nuggets intricately tied to the author’s extended theme spread across his works.
This is fine when one is making a film like The Blue Umbrella (derived from Ruskin Bond’s short story),which is mounted on a relatively smaller scale. (In any case, The Blue Umbrella covers a larger physical spectrum than Saawariya.)
But here, the story is so thinly laid, it is almost slight, but that doesn’t stop Bhansali from giving his film a grand operatic treatment or creating enough room for himself to satiate his artistic indulges.
The problem here is that the film severely lacks in action and mere artistic showmanship was never going to enable it to touch the pathos or emotional intensity of White Nights. Taking an idea is one thing but adapting a literary piece of work without grasping the limitations it poses for a cinematic adaptation, is quite another.
For example Metro deals with almost the same ideas in many ways but it handles the theme in its own contemporary manner, which is why it succeeds inin engaging an audience.
Yet, Saawariya is worth a watch, given that Bhansali makes it a visually sumptuous experience and his handling of the story (whatever its worth), is mature. There are some huge pluses to take home from the film. Ranbir is quite candidly, the find of the decade. Along with Rani Mukherjee, Ranbir delivers a knock-out performance in a film that offers him very little support in terms of script. Sonam is one of the prettiest girls I’ve seen on screen in a while now but she does have a long way to go as an actress.
Rani is, well, Rani. The screenplay throbs back to life each time she appears. And was it just me, but I thought she greatly resembled Sharmila Tagore here.
Finally Saawariya is a film, which I suspect, will age quite well inspite of its languorous pace and a non-existent plot (Some portions are a big yawn!)
Also, there is something in Ranbir’s character that captures beautifully the spirit of Dostoevsky and for that alone, Saawariya, is watchable.