In 1960, Manmohan Desai directed Chhalia starring Raj Kapoor and Nutan. The film was loosely adapted from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s White Nights and incorporated the issue of abducted women and their reunion with their families after the Partition. In 2007, Sanjay Leela Bhansali made Saawariya, another adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s story that marked the debut of Raj Kapoor’s grandson, Ranbir Kapoor. Like other films in Bhansali’s oeuvre, Saawariya is also a story of unrequited love. A singer Ranbir Raj (Ranbir Kapoor) meets a carpet-weaver named Sakina (Sonam Kapoor) over a period of four nights and falls in love with her. Sakina, however, is waiting for the return of her lover Imaan (Salman Khan). Raj tries to convince Sakina that Imaan won’t return but fate had other plans.
Bhansali is known for opulent melodramas that have little sense of realism, but they are still set in a familiar universe of the past or the present. In Saawariya, he completely abandoned this familiarity and moves to a dreamland or as Raj’s friend Gulabji (Rani Mukerji) says, a Khwaabon Ka Sheher which cannot be located anywhere on the map. This place exists only in her (read Bhansali’s) imagination.
This is a world where Buddha statues are mounted on the top of mosques. It is a Neverland where homes have Mona Lisa curtains and streets have Mumtaz Mahal paintings. It is a world where the hands of a clock move both in an anti-clockwise and a clockwise direction. It is a world where Sakina’s house plays Humein Toh Loot Liya Milke Husn Walon Ne and the prostitutes sing Ae Malik Tere Bande Hum.
In this abstract land, the bars serve milk and have kitschy posters of body parts, vegetables, and freedom fighters of India on its walls. The word Saawariya is often used for Lord Krishna known for his dark blue complexion. Everything is shown to be blue in the film. Except for one scene, there is no sunlight in the film.
The inhabitants of this mystical dreamland are always waiting in anticipation of a loved one. Sakina is waiting for Imaan to return as he had promised her he will be back after a year. Her mother also kept waiting all her life for her father to return but he never did. Jhumri (Atheya Chaudhri), her caretaker, is worried that Sakina will also end up like her mother, “Teri takhdeer me bhi teri maa ki tarah intezaar likha hai.” Badi Ammi (Begum Para) ties Sakina with a big safety pin so that she cannot run away like Sakina’s parents did. She does not want to keep on waiting for her. The sex workers of Khwaabon Ka Sheher have been waiting for the guardian angel who will come and rescue them.
In the Pari song, they sing, “Ek din aasman se, pari aayegi, laut ke phir na wapas kabhi jayegi.” Listening to the cries of a young girl, Gulabji also tells Raj that their childhood passed either waiting for their mother to return or waiting for the fairy to come.
Lillian (Zohra Sehgal) has been waiting for 37 years for her son Vincent who went to the army and never came back. By the end of the film, she is again left waiting by herself hoping that her newly-adopted son of hers comes along with the love of his life. Raj comments that he is also willing to wait for Sakina all his life. Saawariya is nothing but a tale of eternal waiting.
Saawariya takes elements from Bhansali’s film Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and modifies some of them. Sakina (like Nandini) chooses Imaan (like Vanraj) over a musician Raj (like Sameer). Nandini lets go of her first love, while Sakina is united with her first love. The musicians’ love in both cases remains unrequited. In Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Vanraj takes Nandini back to her lover. In Saawariya, Raj tries to stop Sakina from going to her lover. Perhaps, that is why Raj was not destined for Sakina because Bhansali’s notion of love is based on the concept of sacrifice. The jovial Sameer of Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and the brooding Imaan of Saawariya is played by the same man.
Chand Chhupa Badal Mein from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Yoon Shabnami from Saawariya provide more evidence on the common elements in the two films. In both songs, people are waiting for the moon to show up. In Hum Dil, it’s the women during Karwa Chauth, and in Saawariya it’s the men celebrating Eid. The singer believes his beloved is prettier than the moon and sees her in the chandni―the moonlit night. Chandni raat mein har sajani apne sajana ko dekhegi. Yoon shabnami pehle nahi thi chandni. In Chand Chhupa Badal Mein, Sameer is asking the moon to not come out because then his lover will get shy after seeing the moon. “Tu jo aaya toh, sanam sharma ke kahi chala jayena.”
This is the opposite in Yoon Shabnami where Raj sings, “Chand woh bharma gaya, tujhko dekha toh sharma gaya.” The two songs also have a peacock symbol in them which is another Bhansali leitmotif. There are peacocks drawn on the walls in Yoon Shabnami; while Nandini sings. “Saawan ki raah jaise dekh mor hai.”
Bridges also play an important role in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Saawariya. Both films end on a bridge. In a vulnerable moment, Vanraj says to Nandini that he will scream her name from the bridge, while in another scene, Nandini imagines Sameer calling out to her from the bridge. In the end, Nandini comes running towards Vanraj on the same bridge and does that trick of Ek Haath Chuno to decide the course of her life.
In Saawariya, Sakina and Raj usually meet on the bridge. After his return, Imaan is seen waiting on the bridge. Like Nandini, Sakina runs to Imaan on the bridge, leaving Raj behind. Earlier in the film, Raj had asked Sakina (also on the bridge) to pick one chit from his hand to decide if Imaan would come back, again reminiscent of the scenes in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. The similarities between the two films are hard to miss.
Bhansali also adds many elements from his other films. When Raj and Sakina are feeling happy, it starts snowing, just like Michelle sensed snow in Black. Sakina’s crazy devotion to wait for Imaan was like Paro’s love for Dev where she did not let her diya extinguish for the ten years he was away. When Sakina bids goodbye to Raj, he starts miming and does not use any words, as if Khamoshi is being played all over again. Many of Bhansali’s other trademark motifs in Saawariya can also be seen. Some of these include women weaving something and women having three roses in their hair.
Snow in Saawariya and Black
Women wearing roses
Given that it is Ranbir Kapoor’s first film, Saawariya emphasizes his connection with the Kapoor clan. Ranbir’s character is named Ranbir Raj after his grandfather Raj Kapoor. The bar in the city is also named RK bar. He wears the Awaara-style cap. At some point, Raj says to Sakina, “Main ek dum awaara hun.” Later, a man sings Barsaat Me Hum Se Mile Tum Sajan from another of Raj Kapoor’s film—Barsaat. During the song Saawariya, Raj asks “Doston, kya aapne kabhi kisi se pyaar kiya, maine bhi kiya,” referring to the immortal line of his father, Rishi Kapoor, in the song Om Shanti Om from Karz. Bhansali also shows his all-time favourite film Mughal-E-Azam, which starred Prithviraj Kapoor, Ranbir’s great grandfather.
Early in the film, Raj takes Sakina to an alley that has potholes and says, “Bina khaddon ke raste nahi hote aur bina dukh ke zindagi.” After Sakina leaves, Raj goes back to the same alley and starts practising boxing enacting that he is fighting the sadness. Yeh sikka hai na iske taraf intezaar hai, dusre taraf tanhai. He has Sakina’s anklets with him which he will keep for his entire life. Gulabji ends the story of her Saawariya by saying, “Kehte hain mil jaye tumhe tumhari mohabbat, toh maan lo khuda tum par meharbaan ho gaya, aur agar na mile toh jaan lo khuda tumse ek jaan hogaya.” Saawariya did not get to be together with his Sakina, but he got united with God who will be there with him and in him forever.
Saawariya was a disaster at the box office. One can understand what Bhansali was trying to do in the film but it is hard to fully embrace it. And, yet, it is hard to reject it either. There is something pure about Bhansali’s vision in Saawariya as seen in the stunning Yoon Shabnami, a song that can be described using a line from the film, “Gaane badan ko nahi, rooh ko chhoone chahiye.”