Martin Scorsese faltered when he tried to expand a personal story of love and revenge into the epic, historic canvas of Gangs of New York (2003). But the makers of India's Bollywood musicals are old hands at taking the simplest, most intimate story and stuffing it with treats that effortlessly fill two and a half hours.
Saathiya is a Book of Love tale. Two glamorous young things, Aditya (Vivek Oberoi) and Suhani (Rani Mukerji), meet and tentatively negotiate their growing relationship in relation to family obligations and constraints. Eventually, they marry. But Aditya – who, up until this point, has declared "I love you" more than any other man in cinema history – starts to take his bride for granted. Can these lovers integrate grand romance with daily duties and familiarities?
That's about it, content-wise. But the beauty and enjoyment of Saathiya derive from its abundant sequences of song and dance. The conventions of Bollywood musicals, so different from the American model, are endlessly beguiling.
There are lyrical numbers, for instance, that seem to belong in the mind of neither main character – they are an ecstatic, shared fantasy, stoked (as per usual) by the Indian ban on showing nudity or even a lip-to-lip kiss on screen.
English language musicals tend to be polarised between classical approaches, and a fragmented, Baz Luhrmann-style free-for-all. Modern Bollywood production has no problem combining old-fashioned fluidity and expansive choreography with the kinetic editing of MTV. The work of Shaad Ali, making his directorial debut with this remake of Mani Ratnam's classic in the genre, is remarkably accomplished.
Many Anglo viewers have qualms about eruptions of realism in a musical. But, for many decades, Bollywood has explored ways of blending the details of daily, urban life into its extravagant spectacles. The entirety of Saathiya is cleverly constructed around the arrivals and departures at a train station, offering wonderful transitions between scenes and an affecting flashback structure beginning with Aditya desolate on a platform as he waits in vain for Suhani.
But best of all is a splendid sequence flowing under the song "Aye Udi Udi Udi" (sadly and inexplicably, all lyrics remain unsubtitled), in which the first weeks of marriage are conjured in a gorgeous montage of embraces, eggs in the frypan, and even a chaste, joint shower taken by our fully-clothed lovers.
MORE Bollywood: Devdas
© Adrian Martin March 2003