The first modern Indian musical to be distributed by a Hollywood studio, Saawariya is one of the most beautiful-looking movies I've seen—Cabaret meets Moulin Rouge in Bollywood. A lavish and stylized retelling of Dostoyevsky's classic short story "White Nights," about a love triangle with one angle missing and perhaps imaginary, this glossy confection works fitfully, scene by particular scene. Ultimately too attenuated to stand on solid legs, and with some of the traditionally extended Bollywood musical numbers cut as short as the melodramatic angst is stretched thin, Saawariya doesn't collapse but does wobble for much of its nearly 150-minute running time, which is about 20 minutes shorter than the usual major Indian fare.
Like My Fair Lady (1964), a similarly frosted-cake concoction hung on an even more artificial premise, Saawariya ("Beloved,” used here as a sardonic nickname) is a wonder to behold, all shimmering surfaces and dreamlike streets. Taking place on an eternal night tinted moonlight-blue on a consciously studio-set world, it translates Dostoyevsky's unnamed narrator into the happy-go-lucky musician Ranbir Raj (newcomer Ranbir Kapoor). New to this unnamed city's red-light district—a gorgeously stagy confluence of Paris, Venice and Mumbai—he's befriended by the glamorous Gulabji (Rani Mukherjee, perhaps Bollywood's biggest female star), the queen of the local streetwalkers. She helps Raj land a job performing at a high-end bistro, and points him to the elderly Lillian (Zohra Sehgal), who rents him a room and adopts him as a surrogate son.
As in the original Russian story, Raj meets a mysterious and melancholy young woman, Sakina (fellow newcomer Sonam Kapoor, no apparent close relation to Ranbir), crying on a footbridge. Befriending her, Raj eventually learns she's been pining a year for her departed lover, Imaan (Salman Khan, one of Bollywood's biggest male stars, in an extended cameo). He'd promised to return to her, Sakina says. But the head-over-heels Raj, who like us suspects Sakina is six kinds of crazy, begins to believe this Imaan doesn't exist.
Ranbir Kapoor, a scion of Bollywood royalty making his film debut, is a problematic leading man. In his initial song-and-dance number, he's a cross between Bob Dylan and Jerry Lewis, and devolves from there, particularly in unflattering close-ups, into a wide-eyed naïf recalling no one so much as Jim Nabors' Gomer Pyle. One discreetly nude solo shows him as buff and lithe, but that just makes him Beauty and the Geek rolled into one.
The movie comes to life almost solely when Mukherjee or Khan is onscreen. Playing, respectively, the stock roles of saucy but wounded prostitute and strong but soulful mystery man, they nonetheless come off the screen like in bas-relief. The aged Sehgal, the Ruth Gordon of India, equally holds her own. Among the musical standouts are a number with Mukherjee leading a chorus of resigned but defiant streetwalkers; Ranbir Kapoor amid a congregation of white-clad Muslim believers on Eid ul-Fitr, the night marking the end of Ramadan; and a joyously tuneful, too-short number at the bistro, where just as the fellow diners all seem about to join in and raise the roof, director and editor Sanjay Leela Bhansali cuts it short. Would that he had done the same to many other scenes.