I must admit to being somewhat unfamiliar with the Bollywood genre, but although I've seen only a few of these Indian spectacles of song, dance, and romance, 'Saawariya' immediately stands out as a mightily impressive feat. This adaptation of Dostoevsky's "White Nights" may have its share of story flaws, but it's immensely effective photography, lavish production design, and charming love story ultimately elevate it to such a level that I feel I can deservedly dub it a Bollywood cousin to 'Moulin Rouge!' It's quite a dazzling piece of work.
Set in an intentionally surreal and fantastic alternate universe (one that combines both East and West in its visual and physical aesthetics), 'Saawariya's narrator is the prostitute Gulabji (Rani Mukerji). Tough-talking, but innocent, she will introduce us to aspiring singer Ranbir Raj (Ranbir Kapoor), who has just arrived in the Red Light District, getting a gig at the RK Bar and finding housing under the nose of kindly landlady Lillian (Zohra Sehgal), aka "Lillipop."
Raj's real adventure begins when he meets a captivating, but strangely melancholy young carpet weaver, Sakina (Sonam Kapoor). Cloaked in a shady past and initially resisting his advances, Sakina eventually gives in to Raj's relentless pursuit, even when she admits that her heart still rests with the sailor Imaan (Salman Khan), who may be a spy -- and who Sakina knew for only two days before promising to meet him again one year after they met.
On a tonal level, 'Saawariya' has some problems. The film is essentially a musical (though, given its 138-minute runtime, there is actually far less song and dance than you might expect), so the hyper-reality and baroque dialogue are appropriate. What dampens the fun is the plodding middle section, which veers too far from the main Raj-Sakina-Imaan love triangle. I quite enjoyed the main supporting characters (both Mukerji as Gulabji, and Sehgal as "Lillipop," are delightful), but there is perhaps too much of them, to the detriment of the comparatively bland Raj and Sakina. Their story is so formulaic, and Mukerji so strong, that I couldn't help but wonder how much more emotionally arresting the movie might have been had Gulabji been Raj's love interest instead of Sakina.
Where 'Saawariya' (which translates roughly into "Beloved" in English) unquestionably succeeds is in imagining its fantastical and romantic universe. Like kindred spirit musicals 'Moulin Rouge!' and 'One From the Heart,' 'Saawariya' was filmed entirely in the contained environments of soundstages. It's a sight to behold, with the art direction by Omung Kumar Bhandula and Vanita Omung Kumar matched only by the brilliant photography of Ravi K. Chandran. Certainly, musicals like 'Moulin Rouge!' (and numerous Bollywood spectacles) have mined this territory before, but the richness of Chandran's imagery gives it a gritty texture that doesn't merely dazzle like shiny plastic. It feels earthy and real, while at the same time being extra-ordinary. 'Saawariya' is sincerely so fantastic to look at that, at times, I really didn't care what I was actually watching on the screen.
Not being that familiar with Bollywood as a whole, I can't say how representative 'Saawariya' is of the genre. Nor can I say if it is the first film of its type you should seek out if, like me, you are a newbie. However, I suspect there is good reason this Bollywood epic has received Stateside distribution by a major studio (Sony). It may have some story flaws, and its lead characters may be a bit less dynamic than the supporting players, but my eyes were never less than tickled throughout. 'Saawariya' is a sleeper that is well worth discovering.
'Saawariya' is a visually sumptuous film, with production design and photography not only on par with the most beautiful of recent American movies, but boasting images that are as fantastic as any I've seen in any motion picture. This 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 Blu-ray encode easily does the film justice -- which is saying a great deal -- as this is a truly sensational, demo-worthy transfer.
Bursting with color, the palette is extraordinary. Hues leap off the screen with tremendous vibrancy, but are absolutely rock solid. The rich blacks and pitch-perfect contrast simple dazzle, resulting in a wonderful sense of depth and dimensionality. Sharpness is also spot-on, without intrusive edge enhancement or motion artifacts. Detail is reference-quality, with a some of the best high-def images I've yet seen on Blu-ray (or HD DVD, for that matter). The encode is also clean, with no apparent artifacts or noise. 'Saawariya' may not strike some as the type of film to set a new reference-quality standard, but this Blu-ray is truly one of the best I've ever seen.
Audio flavors include the original Hindi Dolby TrueHD 5.1 (48kHz/16-bit), plus an alternate English Descriptive Audio Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround option. I always prefer the original language track, and this one is quite strong. 'Saawariya' is not a truly bombastic film, but this mix certainly makes the most of its best qualities.
Though I was disappointed there weren't more musical numbers in 'Saawariya,' the ones it does feature are the highlights of the TrueHD track. The 360-degree soundfield is quite alive with nuance, with excellent dispersion of the score and discrete effects to the rears. The rest of the film's runtime is more ambient in nature, with surrounds possessing an active and sustained, if certainly more subtle, presence. Dialogue is well-recorded (though since I don't speak Hindi, I can't say whether volume levels hamper intelligibility). Dynamics are also lush and full, with nice, deep bass and clean, warm highs. If not absolutely demo-worthy like the video, I was certainly more than pleased with the audio on the Blu-ray.
The extras package on 'Saawariya' is a disappointment -- the featurettes frequently overlap, and even the quality is mere 480p/i/MPEG-2 quality. (Optional Hindi and English subtitles are offered on all the included materials.)
'Saawariya' is a visually breathtaking film, one with some fine music, engaging characters, and a winning romantic charm. It's quite uneven, sure, but no less spectacular. This Blu-ray is a must-see, if only to witness a transfer that is such a five-star delight (and the audio is no slouch, either). I wish the supplements hadn't been so lackluster, but 'Saawariya' is at least worth a rental, just to see how stunning a Blu-ray can look.