Saawariya

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Many eyes are on "Saawariya" (Beloved), Sony Pictures' debut Bollywood production opening today worldwide, including in North America.

Sony, a leader in the co-production of Chinese-language films, now means to get involved in producing Indian films. The studio has banked on one of Bollywood's leading filmmakers, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who helmed the assured "Black" in 2005. He more than delivers the goods -- for Indian audiences, anyway. "Saawariya" is a lush production featuring fabulous though deliberately artificial sets, an extravagant musical score, 10 new songs and two newcomers with much potential as the story's star-crossed lovers.

The film, which opens on Diwali, India's biggest national holiday, will resonate with Indian audiences everywhere as well as those who delight in Hindi-language commercial cinema. But the film is unlikely to create any meaningful new fan base among those unfamiliar with Bollywood films. For audiences unaccustomed to the format, the film runs too long -- though it is short by Bollywood standards -- and is repetitive, sentimental and cliched.

The story, supposedly based on Dostoevsky's short story "White Nights," takes place in a mythical city designed by art director Omung Kumar. Imagine a set for "La Boheme" with Venitian canals and Mogul architecture. In a nice red-light district, a flamboyant, goodhearted prostitute named Gulab (Bollywood queen Rani Mukherjee) tells the tale of Raj, a singer-musician who is consumed with love even if that love is not returned.

Raj is played by lanky, rubber-legged Ranbir Kapoor, who beguiles with his doleful eyes, delightful clowning and athletic moves. Kapoor is fourth-generation Bollywood royalty. His late grandfather, Raj Kapoor, was the first superstar of Indian cinema, and his dad, Rishi, once a major star, is now a producer. In his feature debut, Kapoor carries off the big emotional moments with the same flair he brings to the musical numbers.

Raj no sooner gets a job as a singer in a nightclub, then spies a girl draped in black, standing alone and crying on a canal bridge. He is instantly smitten with Sakina's haunting beauty. Sonam Kapoor catches Sakina's ever-shifting, enigmatic moods from melancholy to laughter and then despair. She relishes Raj's attention but has already lost her heart to a mysterious stranger, Imaan (Salman Khan), who briefly lodged as his mother's haveli the year before. She waits for his return, forever if necessary, on that bridge.

This more or less static situation goes on for more than two hours, giving an audience time to savor the musical numbers, lavish sets and colorful costumes. Monty Sharma's plush musical score washes over this exotic cityscape where it is always night and love, requited or otherwise, is in the air.

SAAWARIYA
Columbia Pictures
An SLB Films and SPE Films India production
Credits:
Director-producer: Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Screenwriters: Prakahs Kapadia, Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Based on a story by: Fyodor Dostoevsky
Executive producer: Deepak Raai Sharma
Director of photography: Ravi K. Chandran
Production designer: Omung Kumar
Music: Ismail Darbar, Monty Sharma
Costume designers: Rajesh Pratap Singh, Reza Shariffi, Anuradha Vakil
Editor: Bela Leela Sehgal
Cast:
Raj: Ranbir Kapoor
Sakina: Sonam Kapoor
Gulab: Rani Mukherjee
Lillian: Zohra Sehgal
Imaan: Salman Khan
Sakina's mother: Begum Para
Running time -- 138 minutes
MPAA rating: PG
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