A great tradition is like a mighty river, different streams come to join it and in the process the tradition enriches without losing its soul. Like other ancient traditions, Indic traditions also have continued to evolve from its origins in Indus Valley, to Vedic Era, to Jain/Buddhist influence, to Islamic encounters, to modern times. In the process, it has put on new garbs and forms without losing its core values. Indian music can tell a similar story from its ancient classical ragas to medieval influences to modern medley that is sometimes seen in the Indian films and other "Indipop" music. This continuation of underlying themes in Indian music and culture with a continuous evolution of new external forms is what seems to me as one of the visible signs of a successful film and a successful music director in the Indian film industry. The Indian film music directors have continued to experiment with new instruments and rhythms since the times of C. Ramachandra, S D Barman, and O. P. Nayyar and yet some of their melodies have stood the test of times because of an essential quality that captured the Indian imagination. In the late 80s, 90s, and present times, we have had Laxmikant Pyarelal, R D Barman and now A R Rahman who have followed suit in terms of combining Western music with a healthy mix of Indian classical ragas in their songs. It is this innovative experimentation genre, that I would like to situate the films of Sanjay Leela Bhansali, especially his last two films Black and now Saawariya. Here are two films brimming with Shakespearean pathos and tragic turns. They also have other Western influences such as no songs (in Black) and Venetian city space (in the art direction of Saawariya) and yet they succeed in preserving some of the Indianness. Although Bhansali's other "masala" films such as Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Devdaas had elaborate sets, songs, and huge star cast, Black and Saawariya turn even the established stars into experimental roles of physically challenged such as in Black. In Saawariya, Bhansali goes one step further by picking fresh faces for his lead hero and heroine.
The success of Saawariya lies in its international appeal. The titles in the beginning of the film declare that it is based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1848 novella (short story) White Nights. And yet, after watching the film, I felt the film was also inspired by Raj Kapoor's films. While Raj Kapoor's Anari had the mother-like figure of Ms. Disuja who is the only sympathizer of the protagonist facing all kinds of hardship, Saawariya has "Lilipop" acted by Zohra Sehgal with great elan! Several of the scenes in the film proudly display the "RK" banner in the background and even the hero works as a lead-singer in an "RK" bar! The influence of Devdaas and Muqaddar ka Sikander is apparent when the heart-broken lover seeks shelter at a dancer's residence, although he is rejected there also. The entire role of Ranbir Kapoor is heavily inspired by his own grandfather's similar roles in which the character downplays the sad and harsh realities of life by having a jubilant attitude with a simmering pathos underneath. Ranbir Kapoor is definitely one of the finest actors to have recently emerged in Hindi films. In a moment, he can show us different kinds of rasas of sadness, happiness, comedy, and others, sprinkled with a light dose of dance and song sequence! The other hallmarks of the film is its art direction. Here again, the entire film is shot as a dream sequence with dark and bright colors and huge images in the backdrop. The song picturizations are good, especially the Id Qawwali one. However, the music needed more appeal although Monty Sharma seemed to have worked hard for his debut film. The heroine Sonam Kapoor also pales in comparison with Ranbir's spirited performance. Rani Mukherjee excels in her diegetic role as a narrator and a constant companion of Ranbir throughout the film. She seems to have matured as an actress with Black and now Saawariya.
The DVD cover of this film says, "Hurrah for Bollywood" and I agree! This film is in the emerging series of Hindi films constantly knocking at the international stage starting with Lagaan. The "Bollywood" has finally arrived with a host of recent films with a global appeal. It is to this interesting mix of Western and Indian elements in this typical Bollywood film that one can look forward to in the coming years!