Saawariya (Beloved) (PG)
Finally, after years of talk, largely of the wishful and speculative kind, the much-buzzed-about Bollywood/Hollywood crossover has now officially begun with Sony/Columbia Pictures' release of Saawariya (Beloved), the first Hindi-language film to be produced and distributed by an American studio. In a rather surprising show of savvy, the project Sony chose to get behind is one by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, one of the more interesting and distinctive filmmakers working in India or anywhere else in the globe--and luckily they have let Bhansali be his shamelessly, lavishly romantic self with this beautifully mounted romance.
After 2005's songless drama Black, Saawariya finds Bhansali back in his famously ultra-opulent (even for Bollywood standards) musical mode that came into full bloom with his second film, 1999's Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (Straight from the Heart), and that he last employed to phenomenal effect in 2002's global blockbuster Devdas. The story, which he co-wrote with Prakash Kapadia from the inspiration of Fyodor Dostoevsky's short story "White Nights," is simple: over the course of four nights, young musician Raj (Ranbir Kapoor) falls for and tries to win the heart of enigmatic beauty Sakina (Sonam Kapoor), whose heart is waiting for a departed love's (Salman Khan) promised return. Thus the stage is set for a familiar but unmistakably Bhansali epic of love's agony and ecstasy, the yearning and the euphoria, all set to lilting melodies and against gorgeous backdrops.
From frame one, it is obvious that the infusion of Hollywood cash has served one of Bhansali's key stylistic hallmarks quite well: his stunning visual sense. Set in an unnamed Indian village in an unspecified yesteryear full of twinkling neon lights and even an odd ornamental windmill, Bhansali and art director Omung Kumar are clearly borrowing a page from Catherine Martin's Oscar-winning work on Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge! (itself already clearly inspired by Bollywood), particularly in its unabashedly CG-enhanced, all-soundstage artifice. But Kumar and Bhansali place their own spin on the approach, sticking to a largely to a lush, painterly palette of rich blues and greens in the set design and Ravi K. Chandran's cinematography, and there's no shortage of the grandiose staircases that have become a fixture of Bhansali's work. (All the better for his heroines to dramatically run down.) The costumes by Rajesh Pratap Singh, Reza Shariffi, and Anuradha Vakil also walk that fine line in being rooted in reality and adding to the heightened theatricality when needed, particularly in a striking musical sequence where Raj is flanked by back-up dancers clad, uniform-style, in solid white.
Saawariya marks the debut as a film music director of Monty Sharma, who composed the memorable instrumental score for Black, and his acoustic guitar-driven title tune is reflective of the entire song score, generally working a lower-key groove that is squarely more about melody than beats. While this definitely makes for a pleasant listening experience that fits the gentle romantic mood of the film, after a while the songs do start to sound a little samey. Bhansali, who can usually be counted on delivering at least a couple of spectacular picturizations, is similarly subdued when it comes to the song numbers, offering some indelible individual images but not necessarily memorable whole musical sequences. Curiously, he sometimes cuts songs short just when they seem to be building to something grander, as in a late reprise of the title song that should have been a climactic peak but instead only slightly raises the emotional pulse. His decision to reserve any trace of dancing until after the interval is understandable, but Bhansali never delivers a much-needed knockout punch on the level of the jaw-dropping Aishwarya Rai-Madhuri Dixit "Dola Re Dola" duo number in Devdas, as the only traditional dance number is an act two curtain-raiser performed by Rani Mukerji (billed here with the alternate spelling "Mukherjee") that promises even more lively steps that never arrive--all the more disappointing since, in what little dancing she does do, Sonam Kapoor looks like she could deliver far more than what she gets to show.
In a bold move, Bhansali has cast two newcomers, both of an established Indian acting lineage, to carry what is a pivotal film in the Bollywood industry, and while Ranbir and Sonam are perfectly fine, they also kind of prove that the film could have used more of a star spark. Of the two, the amazingly gorgeous Sonam fares best in a fairly limited role. While I suspect this part barely scratches the surface of what she can do, she is able to turn a fairly selfish and stubborn character fairly sympathetic. Ranbir is the very definition of "adequate," but the film really depends on the male lead's sheer force of presence more than talent, and he doesn't exactly hit like a thunderbolt with the necessary star quality like, say, Hrithik Roshan in his legendary debut in (the otherwise terrible) Kaho Naa...Pyaar Hai (Won't You Say... You Love Me) in 2000. (Come to think of it, Roshan, who hasn't played a traditional romantic hero since 2003's disastrous Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon (I Will Love Him till the End of Time), would have killed in this role.) Ranbir is a decent enough everyman type, but ultimately he comes off as a Shahrukh Khan lite, what with the SRK-circa-mid-'90s moptop hairdo but only maybe a tenth of the charisma. So it goes without saying that the one established superstar with a substantial part here, Mukerji, easily walks away with the film in the change-of-pace supporting role of a vixenish courtesan--who, of course,
holds a certain fondness for our hero (shades of Devdas). Khan is inexplicably top billed for what amounts to an extended cameo, but when it comes to the all-too-rare occasion when he takes a supporting part, he isn't on screen long enough to annoy as he normally does.
Despite the film's shortcomings, Bhansali still crafts some startling, unforgettable images and--most importantly--weaves a palpable, vibrant romantic spell. Saawariya isn't up to par of his recent two masterworks--I didn't have the lump in throat as I did at the end of Black (which despite not being one of his opulent musicals, was very much in line with his work in terms of visuals, themes, use of score, and general emotional sensibility), to say nothing of not bawling like a baby as I did after seeing Devdas for the first time--but the unmistakable Bhansali touch still works its magic, lingering for long after the end credits unspool. Saawariya may not be the artistic milestone many have been hoping for, but as the first product of Bollywood's marriage with Hollywood, there should be pride from all corners for producing a solidly crafted entertainment.
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Casshern Movie: ; Disc:
In 2005, DreamWorks's specialty division Go Fish Pictures announced the acquisition of American release rights to this 2004 Japanese science fiction fantasy, and until now there had been little in the way of news about its actual release. Was the film a victim of the DreamWorks/Paramount merger or buyer's remorse? Probably a bit of both, as no doubt a niche item from Asia probably wasn't high on Paramount's agenda, but also that the film, despite its obvious visual marvels, is rather quite hard to follow for much of its run time. Based on an anime TV series from the '70s, Kazuaki Kiriya's film is a visual marvel from the start, using CG-created backdrops to create a fascinating world that fits squarely between the worlds of live action and anime. What takes more time to grasp is the story, which ultimately is about a super-powered, resurrected soldier (Yusuike Iseya) destined to save the world from a race of mutant beings bent on destroying humankind. While there is no shortage of dazzling effects and violent fight sequences, the film ends up surprisingly bittersweet and contemplative, and hence registers more strongly than a mere sensory spectacle--and probably goes a long way in explaining why the film took so long to get any sort of release here.
While I am sure there was a lot of making-of material available for inclusion on the DVD, in keeping with the sort of tossed-off nature of this release, there are no extras to speak of on the disc.
Specifications: 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; Japanese 5.1 Surround; Japanese Dolby Surround; English subtitles. (DreamWorks Home Entertainment)