Fifteen years ago, I didn’t know anything about the field of film studies. I wasn’t even an avid movie enthusiast, only someone who enjoyed the depiction of imaginative worlds in words and images, as and when I encountered them. Of course, I had to be consciously industrious about the former as I was then a second-year undergraduate student in English Honours. But even the realm of the literary repeatedly spoke to me through the power of the visual, so much so that upon reading a richly described scene, the best adjective I could think of was “cinematic”.
My understanding of what “cinematic” actually was got its first vital impetus when I watched Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Saawariya, in the middle of November 2007. I had been in awe of the director’s distinctive filmmaking style ever since Devdas (2002) and Black (2005), but it was with Saawariya that I experienced my heart being tugged in a thousand different directions of meaning-making. Never before had I encountered such an intensely-layered palette of aesthetics that thrummed with resplendent hybridity and effusive symbolism, all in the service of an otherwise simple storyline.
Based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1848 short story ‘White Nights’, Saawariya relates the tale of two lovers meeting across four nights in an unnamed fictive city. A newcomer by the name of Ranbir Raj (Ranbir Kapoor) falls in love with a woman called Sakina (Sonam Kapoor), but the love remains unrequited, as Sakina awaits the return of her beau Imaan after a year of separation.
Unlike the Russian master’s narrative, the story here is not narrated by the hero but by Gulabji (Rani Mukherjee), a prostitute who roams the city at night in search of customers. She also doubles up as Ranbir’s friend as well as a kind of urban philosopher. As she charmingly quips during a scene, “Hum toh galiyon ki shehzaadi hain… tum ek kadam lo, hum safar ka haal bata denge!” (I am the princess of these alleys…I can tell your whole journey from your first step itself!). And tell she does, in the process conjuring up a gorgeously eclectic directorial imagination that is as aesthetically evocative as it is politically compelling.
The first aspect to captivate the viewer is the city itself, “a city of dreams” (“khwaabon ka yeh sheher,” says Gulabji) that you “won’t find on any map of the world”. It is, by all means, a fantastical figment, but one that is grounded in an intricate web of real-world references. The aerial shot that opens the narrative shows a large settlement along a river or a canal, but it is the statue of the meditative Buddha along with the Islamic minarets on the right that are closest to our eyes. As the script moves ahead, these diverse cultural markers belonging to several religions and historical periods only keep mushrooming anywhere and everywhere. From Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” imprinting a large curtain to the painting of Lakshmi and the murals of Ajanta coating the exteriors, art spills over in all directions, connecting everything, sans any hierarchy of taste or setting.
But this intense hybridity truly comes into its own with the film’s exquisite music and the background score. Not only does the opening shot effortlessly mix the muezzin’s call with the sounds of the church bells, the haunting theme track “Daras Bina Nahin Chain” dramatically takes such heterogeneity forward. The words “Allah” and “Saawariya” (an appellation for Lord Krishna) intermingle in a shimmering manner here, foreshadowing the better-known Bhansali composition “Aaj Ibaadat” from Bajirao Mastani (2015) that arouses a similar inter-religious sentiment. The spunky narrator-prostitute Gulabji herself embodies such a spirit via her daily language, which is as pidgin as it is spicy: a Hinglish that spontaneously shifts from singing “Ae Malik Tere Bande Hum” to exclaiming “Oh Jesus!”
Bhansali further works out his subtly secular vision through his protagonist-couple. This is compellingly achieved by not making religion a point of strife or even “concern”. It is remarkable that while we can easily make out Ranbir Raj as a “Hindu” and Sakina as a “Muslim”, there is not a single scene or dialogue that hints at their religious identities being (or potentially becoming) a source of friction for/by anyone! It is as if the surrounding city and its multiple cultural expressions in the form of paintings, architecture, music and mannerisms deliciously and contentedly suffice to sustain everyday life and its daily rhythms.
These rhythms also mobilise Saawariya’s narrative in intertextual and metafictional ways, most prodigiously with the multiple references to Hindi cinema classics. From the dialogues of Raj Kapoor’s Awaara (1951) to the iconic body language of Barsaat (1949), the delicate nods to K. Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam (1960) and Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah (1972), and the celebration of Guru Dutt’s cinematography and character-personae (especially the poet and the prostitute equation from his 1957 Pyaasa), Saawariya memorialises Hindi cinema’s golden moments by weaving a symphony of gestures around them.
As with other Bhansali films, inanimate objects routinely come to anchor these human gestures, whilst playfully intensifying them as well. While Raj Kapoor and Nargis’s umbrella from the iconic “Pyar Hua Ikrar Hua” (Shree 420, 1955) serves as the most visible of Saawariya’s objects, Sakina’s silver-coin (given to her by her beau Imaan as a remembrance-souvenir) and the large safety-pins that bind her to her overprotective grandmother also play crucial roles.
The poetry that Bhansali seeks through them lies in their ambivalence so that from being a symbol of control, the grandmother’s safety pins effortlessly turn into a device for demonstrating Imaan’s love for Sakina. The coin on the other hand is even more subtle in its expressive tendency, for when it is flung away by a miffed Raj, it is Gulabji who picks it up, necessitating Sakina to have a dialogue with her. Immediately, the film’s exploration of gender dynamics assumes an intriguing texture, as Gulabji mocks Sakina’s morally-upright apprehensions in talking with “women like her” (prostitutes). Even in this world of beauty, the marginalisation of such women remains a constant: Saawariya, after all, is a figment of a prostitute’s imagination, where the reality of her pain can never entirely be masked.
In all of Bhansali’s films, encounters between two women develop a unique aura about themselves. If in Devdas, the courtesan Chandramukhi scoffs at the upper-class Parvati for being unable to understand her plight, then here, Gulabji similarly (and proudly) enacts her difference from women like Sakina, but by the same token, also underlines the need for all kinds of women to understand each other (later, she reiterates this position in her meeting with Ranbir’s Christian landlady, equating the property owners work with her own sex-work). The mis-en-scene that brings Sakina and Gulabji together is even more compelling, for the paintings in the background artistically illuminate the two characters – the sensuous Cupid reflecting the prostitute, and Noor-Jahan’s portrait aligning with Ranbir’s beloved.
Another favourite scene of mine also gets crafted around an object: the tall clocktower to which Ranbir deliriously introduces Sakina, only to be shocked by her revelation that she is already in love with somebody else. In a marvellously charted sequence, Sakina narrates an episode of her past inside the premises of the clocktower, so that as she fossicks her memories, the irradiated clock in the background literally moves backwards. It is among the most enthralling examples of the inanimate world complementing human emotions I have ever come across.
Time of course is of utmost significance to the overall structure of the narrative, and it is noteworthy that the entire film is constructed around the anticipation of Eid. For a director who, in recent memory, has been labelled as unequivocally “Islamophobic” (in light of his 2018 Padmaavat, a position that I have strongly distanced myself from along a handful of other critics), it is astonishing that he leaves no stone unturned to flesh out the celebratory spirit of the festival. One easily forgets that the popular number “Yoon Shabnami” is first and foremost an Eid song, where the non-Islamic Ranbir Raj joyously shakes a leg (well, many legs!) with his Muslim companions. Given the many shades of greens and blues through which Bhansali shoots this number, and suffixes it with a quiet spell of midnight-snow, the overall ambience also evokes the spirit of Christmas – again illustrating the film’s eclectic inventiveness.
Much more could be said about Saawariya’s intermingling of cultures, but in the interests of space, I would end by acknowledging the film’s deep impact on my beginnings as an artist and writer. As someone who often shifts between various disciplines and thought processes whilst trying to create something new, this big Bollywood flop, with its multilayered ethos, continues to serve as an abiding inspiration. The film’s extraordinary musicality and privileging of movement — whether through walking or running or chasing or exploring or dancing — further drives me to search for rhythmicity within built and natural landscapes, especially through photography.
In an interview with Anupama Chopra, Bhansali once stated that “frame is sacrosanct” for him. It is a remark that I have felt a close affinity with through my own camerawork as well. In rare instances, I also chance upon sources that I feel might have inspired the sets of his films. For example, when I first visited the grand precincts of Ahmedabad’s Jama Masjid, I couldn’t help remembering the ornate Islamic calligraphy that sweeps across the many facades of Saawariya. And in such moments, the line between reality and imagination blurs forever, and quite happily so.
Siddharth Pandey belongs to Shimla and is a Fellow in Global Humanities at the Kate Hamburger Centre, LMU, Munich. His first book Fossil was shortlisted for the 2022 Banff Mountain Fiction and Poetry Prize.
Featured image: Sony Pictures.