Being a close friend of Sanjay Bhansali I was never closer to any of his films than Saawariya. I spent many evenings with his two protégés Ranbir Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor and also watched them shoot the film.
It was a revelation. I could see Ranbir was born for the camera. He was also great fun to be with, mimicking everyone from Shah Rukh to Hrithik Roshan. When the camera came on he was transformed like Geeta Bali, Sridevi and his own father Rishi Kapoor(though I still think the senior Kapoor to be a better actor). And when Ranbir danced, he conveyed such joy such a state of liberation.It was like watching a male version if Waheeda Rehman doing Aaj phir jeene ki tammanah hai.
Sonam, I am afraid, was not that easy to direct. In fact she took a lot more time to get into the groove than Ranbir. I remember one day while shooting the song Hamari jaan ho tum, Ranbir got the steps right in one take. Sonam just couldn’t get it right. The entire day passed. I could see Sanjay getting more and more disturbed as the clock ticked away.
There came a time when one day during the shooting in Karjat, Sanjay decided to relieve Sonam from the film. It took all of my persuasive powers and that of Sanjay’s sister Bela to dissuade Sanjay from the disastrous move. Of course all was well eventually and Sonam went on to become a dependable actress in Neerja and other films.
Saawariya was not destined for immediate success. Its operatic movement, and its blue-shaded romance took a long while to register with the audience. I remember my dear much-missed friend Rituparno Ghosh and I embroiled in heated debates over the film. He hated it the first time. He loved it the second time. And was gracious enough to call me and apologize. Every one who bitched about the film should apologize. Saawariya was to Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s career what Mera Naam Joker and Kaagaz Ke Phool were to Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt.
The premiere night itself was a disaster. The hero’s father Rishi Kapoor didn’t like the film and he didn’t hide the fact that he didn’t. A leading filmmaker known for his glamorous profile and elitist coterie of groupies was frantically sending text messages to all his friends with two words—Shit Film— in a row next to where I was sitting. Elsewhere Kangana Ranaut was angry with me for reasons I can’t recall.
The next morning when Saawariya released everyone associated with the film had disappeared from Sanjay’s life. The next few days were the most painful time of the director’s life. How painful? Ask any successful director when he delivers an unexpected flop. Today Saawariya is regarded as a cult film. I don’t think Ranbir Kapoor could ever match the artless ebullience of that performance. You see, back then he didn’t know he was so good.