It is the beginning of the Diwali weekend in Bombay, and the city is bright and festive. This time around, however, the excitement has to do not just with crackers, mithai and new clothes, but also, in this film-crazy metropolis, the big movie releases of the weekend: Farah Khan’s Om Shanti Om and Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Saawariya. The former was produced by India’s biggest contemporary star, Shahrukh Khan; the latter, co-produced by Sony Pictures Entertainment, was the first Indian film made by a Hollywood studio in India.
In many ways, the films promise to be more like each other than may at first seem apparent. They are quintessentially Bollywood: both are over the top, mainstream and steeped in Bollywood heritage. We have been reminded innumerable times of the legacies and lineages at play here: that actor Ranbir Kapoor comes from the fourth generation of Prithviraj Kapoor’s family (“the ‘first family’ of Indian Cinema”, declares the Saawariya website) and is the grandson of showman Raj Kapoor; that Sonam Kapoor is the daughter of established film star Anil Kapoor; and that Salman is the son of scriptwriter Salim Khan. We know, too, that choreographer Farah Khan grew up in Bollywood, where her father was a producer, her mother the sister of Honey and Daisy Irani, and that her brother is the comedian-turned-filmmaker Sajid Khan.
And yet, these two films also present two very different faces of Bollywood. While Om Shanti Om presents the self-reflexive, playful, witty side, full of broad humour and parody, Saawariya is in the doleful, serious, self-important, painted-canvas style that has increasingly become the hallmark of Bhansali’s projects. The film is Bhansali’s fifth work in a career that began with the sunlit Khamoshi and spanned the exoticised desert hues of Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, the splashy period-Bengali reds of Devdas, and most recently the dark interiors of Black.
Saawariya is set in a blue-green fairytale world composed of floating flowers, quaint neon signs, spiral staircases, stained glass, pouring rain, flowing garments, glowing lamps, tinkling fountains, dusty carpets, fat candles and veiled faces. The claustrophobia begins even in the film’s taglines: “Her world was the wait for love. His was the wait for her love.” One night, itinerant singer Ranbir Raj (Ranbir Kapoor, who is the son of Rishi Kapoor and Neetu Singh) finds himself in a small town painted with a blue-green palette, where the prostitutes wait on street corners, where flamboyant Gulabji (Rani Mukherjee) watches the world pass by, and where an old woman named Lillianji (Zohra Sehgal) still pines for her lost son. After Raj sweet-talks himself out of spending the night with Gulabji and into boarding at crusty old Lillian’s (whom he calls Lillypop), he suddenly spots a beautiful girl standing on a bridge, pensively twirling an umbrella over her head. This is Sakina (Sonam Kapoor), waiting at the bridge for her mysterious lover Imaan (Salman Khan), who is off somewhere working for the mulk, the country.
Another layer to this narrative is the blue-skinned Krishna, “who is adored as Saawariya”, and to the eternity of love: “The beloved who is always in love … Only the lover who stands the test of time … who overcomes all obstacles … who doesn’t care whether he gets the girl or not … as long as he’s consumed by love … as long as he remains in a perpetual state of being in love … That man, that rare lover, is Saawariya.”
Yet the failure of the film is that no part of this philosophy is actually filled out by the narrative. If anything, Saawariya is all about ‘the look’, and a whole section of the film’s website is devoted to what art director Omung Kumar calls “poetry in motion”. Indeed, significant attention is given to how the film looks. One song sequence has Ranbir ‘Raj’ Kapoor dancing in a towel, his Neetu-Singh eyes wide as a surprised rabbit, while a Mona Lisa curtain flutters at the window. As for the rest, Gulabji wears roses in her hair, Lillianji paints her nails, and boats filled with flowers float languidly across the screen. The framework of love and yearning is never truly brought to life. Howsoever luxuriant the hues, Saawariya remains as cold, two-dimensional and lifeless as a painted set.
Om Shanti Om, on the other hand, succeeds by starting out as an unpretentious romp, openly declaring that its plot is of little to no concern. It not only reincarnates moments from the 1970s and even 1980s, but also takes some cheeky swipes at contemporary Bollywood. True to Farah Khan’s brisk style, as we saw it in her debut feature Main Hoon Na, this film seems to say, Enough of the breathless tributes, let’s have some old-fashioned fun! And so, Manoj Kumar hides his face behind splayed fingers; Kirron Kher plays an over-the-top filmy maa; and there is an utterly hilarious Filmfare Awards sequence in which Shahrukh wins Best Actor nominations for playing himself (as he always does) in identical templates titled Phir Bhi Dil Hai NRI and Main Bhi Hoon Na. All of this is, of course, far from subtle, but Om Shanti Om joyfully brims with the kind of jokes at which viewers cannot help but laughing out loud.
Among the best things about this energetic entertainer is its rousing beginning, which takes us directly into Subhash Ghai’s 1980 Karz, with Chintu – Rishi Kapoor, of course – singing “Om Shanti Om”. Then there is the Tamil action sequence, in which Shahrukh (in his junior artiste persona) yells “Rascala!”, and punches a stuffed tiger – all as part of an attempt to impress the lovely Shantipriya, played by newcomer Deepika Padukone.
The music here, by Vishal Dadlani and Shekhar Ravjiani, is not brilliant, but “Dard-e-Disco” is up there among this reviewer’s favourite songs of the year. “Deewangi”, with its long parade of has-beens, starlets and the occasional cool dude (such as Govinda), could have been better choreographed, but is an uplifting song in itself. The final-credits sequence, where we see so many of the faces behind the making of the film, is also especially nice – particularly in its final moments, when Farah Khan lands up in a rickety autorickshaw, only to find the party over and the red carpets being rolled up. At the end of the Diwali weekend, it was Om Shanti Om that turned out to be the real pataka, complete with noise and smoke and coloured lights, while Saawariya was the damp squib.