Color Symbolism in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Saawariya

While other film makes are minting millions by copying Hollywood blockbusters, Sanjay Leela Bhansali is busy creating a new kind of cinema. Bhansali’s cinema is exquisitely visual, surrealistically operatic and uniquely individual – a kind that is unknown in the eastern world or the western, for that matter.

From Monochrome to Multicolor
Like his previous movie Black, Saawariya also relies heavily on its visual language to deliver the parable that it sets out to narrate. (Incidentally, I wrote a lovely analysis of Black that has now miraculously disappeared. If anyone has it please mail it to me.) However, with Saawariya, Bhansali is going several steps further. The visual language of Black relied just on the use of Black, White and a dash of Red. Saawariya, on the other hand, is multicolor. The tone of the movie is Blue, yet there is profuse use of Red, Green, Pink, Purple, Yellow and yes, Black and White.

While the use of elaborate sets and costumes is typical to Bhansali’s style, Black did use real (albeit heavily decorated) locations, outdoor sites and natural landscapes. However, Saawariya is shot completely on a set, no real locations have been used and the landscapes that have been used in isolated scenes are clearly computer generated.

Not only does Bhansali use color in this movie, he also uses the play of light and shadow. He is going back to the noir tradition in his use of stark shadows and redefining noir in novel ways.

Black and White
In Saawariya, the colors black and white can be seen to denote simplicity of emotions. It is human nature to divide life into simple dichotomies. There is happiness and there is sadness. There is good and there is the evil. This is the way our hero, Raj, defines his world. We see Raj clad in black and white because his world is black and white. He believes that there are only two feelings in this world, happiness and sadness and he seeks to bring happiness to everyone he meets. He brings happiness to Gulabji, a prostitute, and to Lillian.

His world is like a game, with well defined rules. When Gulabji first meets Raj, he is carrying a football with him. On his first day out with Sakina, he tells her that when you see sadness, you have to battle it like in a boxing match. But as Raj soon realizes, and this is the conflict this character has to face, life isn’t Black and White, it isn’t simple and well defined, it is complicated and it’s Blue.

The city that we see in Saawariya is introduced to us in a breathtaking long-shot at the beginning of the movie as a City of Dreams (khwabon ka shahar). From this first frame itself the fairy tale like, unrealistic mode of the movie is set. The city, as we see, is Blue. Blue, in this movie, is the color of life. It is a color of sorrow. Notice that I do not use the word sadness. Blue is sorrow which is a melancholy feeling that is both bitter and sweet. It is sorrow that arises because life’s isn’t simple, it isn’t Black and White, and it presents to you choices, choices that are not easy to make, yet essential to make and choices that lead to sadness even though you didn’t want them to.

It is just such a choice Sakina is faced with in this movie. She is in love with Iman who left her almost a year ago. Meanwhile she also begins to like Raj. And when Raj comes to know about it, for the first time he feels the complicated slew of emotions that real life forces us to face. After he burns the love-letter that Sakina writes to Iman, we see him clad in Blue himself, a color that he’s wearing for the first time in his life. He is faced with difficult choices himself, just as Sakina is when Iman comes back. No matter how much Red you might want to color your life with, life remains blue.

Red is the color of sensuality, it is the color of love. We see Gulabji donning elaborate Red dresses. We see Red at the tips of Lillians fingers and on her lips, indicative of her love-starved life. But most importantly, we see Red briefly on Raj and Sakina as they run around Oldtown, now frolicking, now despairing, searching the meaning of their lives. This Red is brief and furtive, like the love between Raj and Sakina, but is it strong and it stands out.

Pink, Yellow, Orange and Purple
Unlike Gulabji’s Red which branches out into Pink, Yellow, Orange and Purple because it is artificial. Her Red is superficial applied deliberately to hide the Black inside her. She and the other prostitutes use color as a mask to hide their sorrow.

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  1. this does it.
    I'm watching this movie, tomorrow.

    The kind of comments i'd been getting about the movie kept putting me off, but now i've got to see it.

    Interesting analysis. Will have more to say once i've seen it.

  2. @ Aneesh - This doesn't even cover half the symbolism in the movie. I haven't discussed a lot of things. Let me quote from and email I just wrote to ma'am -

    "The entire film is densely packed with meaning. There are lots of other things that I wanted to write about. Bhansali is clearly paying homage to RK studios. A bar in the movie is called RK bar. The umbrella scene in the song 'Pyar hua ikraar hua hai' shot on Raj Kapoor has been re enacted. Ranbir himself is called Raj Kapoor in the movie. The RK studios' logo of a man holding on to his lover has been enacted in one scene. I'm not much familiar with RK movies so could not talk about that. I'm sure that you will.

    I also haven't discussed the use of language (verbal), the plot and how it relates to creating timelessness within the movie. I want to read the original Dostoevsky story and see how it figures in. Plus the Russian connection immediately invokes RK studios' Russian connection. There are religious themes in the movie. Raj is Hindu, Lillian is Christian and Sakina is Muslim. Raj and Lillians concept of love is very distinct from Sakina's. Sakina lives in a different area of the city, which is decorated differently and finally goes with her Muslim lover Iman rather than Raj. Lot of the story takes place on a bridge. The sets have religious motifs. One can see hindu gods and goddesses painted on walls and also Buddha features significantly in places."

    1. PLEASE can you? I love your analysis! PLEASE? And put the link here so I know...

    2. (I meant please can you write about everything you know.) Please.

  3. i'm honestly shocked to read ur review... were you trying to be saki or you actually mean it?????

  4. saw this movie in the initial days of its release.Am reading your comment now. I go to watch a movie to relax, enjoy and rejuvenate.
    Had i an inkling of this colour symbolic sanjay leela neela bhansalis ego trip , i would have given it a definite miss.
    Late to comment but could not resist after reading all that is written in your blog, i mean is this a critical review of a painting or something.
    At the end, i found myself urging sonam to go on and get it over with, run to salman and spare us , the audience.
    To cap it all, Ranbirs boxing at this sorrows in the end, made one think he was boxing the audiences out.
    A definite no- no

  5. @ Neerja - Indeed. But there are also some of us who want more out of a movie than mere enjoyment. :) I think this movie is a treat for all those.


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