"I wanted it to be a world of my own," says Indian director Sanjay Leela Bhansali of his lushly romantic new musical "Saawariya." "I grew up in a gruesome, harsh section of Bombay. Life in India is changing, everyday life is very difficult, but in film you should give your audience a little hope."
Here, Bhansali delivers uplift through a swooning love story. It follows a boy-meets-girl plot, except that the boy (Ranbir Kapoor) lives in the middle of a red light district where prostitutes sing and dance in the streets at the drop of a sari. (We don't see much to mar our pleasure in this fantasy -- this is a world that's largely free of johns, beggars and homeless children.)
The boy is the singing sensation of the local nightclub, and the girl (Sonam Kapoor) is a virginal tapestry weaver who lives with her blind grandmother in a multistoried mansion.
All seems peachy until the girl reveals she's pining for her first love -- a mysterious, brooding man who might be a government spy, or maybe just a paranoid nut case, who briefly took a room in her house.
"Basically, it's a simple love story, put in a fantasy world," says Omung Kumar, who teamed with his wife, Vanita, to create the dramatic production design for the film.
In consultation with the director, they decided to saturate the sets with blues and various shades of blue -- sometimes veering toward green, other times toward purple. That's because blue is the color of the Hindu god Krishna, also known as "Saawariya" or "beloved," and because the story takes place mostly after dark -- it unfolds over four magical nights.
"It has every part of India all in one town," says Kumar by telephone. "It has snow, it has water, it has streams, it has bridges. There are peacocks and lotuses painted on the wall -- the whole film was painted, painted, painted. Every frame looks like a painting. Where is it? It's somewhere in India. What time is it? It's timeless."
The Kumars spent eight months designing 10 sets, and each meticulously crafted set took 40 days to construct.
"Sanjay's a taskmaster," says Omung Kumar with a small chuckle. "What he wants he wants, and you constantly have to outdo yourself."
"Saawariya," which opened Friday in Los Angeles and simultaneously worldwide, is the latest release from Sony's International Motion Picture Production Division, which actively funds and participates in film productions abroad. It has targeted projects in China, Russia, Mexico and Britain, some of its most successful collaborations being the Asian partnerships that yielded Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon" and Stephen Chow's "Kung Fu Hustle."
"India has a huge, domestically profitable market," says Gareth Wigan, vice chairman of Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group, which overseas the production division.
The country boasts an estimated 3 billion admissions per year. It's also a culturally specific audience that favors domestic productions more than 90% of the time.
"Saawariya" is Sony's first production foray into India -- Warner, Viacom and Disney have also been looking into such opportunities there.
"We're not coming to India to make Hollywood films on the cheap," says Wigan from Mumbai, where he's attending the film's premiere. "We're making Indian films in their language, in their manner, with their talent."
Asked if there had been any nationalistic backlash on previous projects, Wigan responds, "Very emphatically no -- in fact we're being welcomed!"
In the case of "Saawariya," Bhansali submitted the first draft of the film to Sony after the studio expressed interest. He selected the two leads, and Sony helped shape the film through preproduction and production.
Although gaining an international audience would be nice, "My first audience is basically Indian," says Bhansali, whose speech is machine-gun rapid. "I want to make a film for an audience I understand, the common man in India."
True, audiences throughout the large country are different -- split between urban and rural, for instance, and between regions. However, Bhansali points out, it's generally an audience brought up on folk traditions, in which music and dance are interwoven throughout performance, and throughout the various celebrations of the year. Thus, it's natural that most films would incorporate music and dance.
And melodrama, lots of it.
"Indians are very warm and over-expressive," the director says. "I've grown up in Bhuleshwar, a working class area of Bombay. It's very crowded, people are always shouting to one another. There are lots of traders, lots of clothes hanging out of balconies." Harsh though it might be, he says, "It's a very alive place."
Lots of buzz has already been generated in India around the casting of the two young leads, newcomers groomed by Bhansali himself. Four years ago Sonam Kapoor and Ranbir Kapoor, respectively 17 and 19 at the time, came to him wanting to learn film production.
Both come from noted film families.