Monday, November 12, 2007

Thoughts on Om Shanti Om (or OSO: so-so)

[Lots of messy, off-tangent notes on a messy, off-tangent film]

Disclaimer first: despite just having written a review for Tehelka, I’m well aware that reviewing this film as a “should you or shouldn’t you watch it” index is just as pointless as reviewing the last Harry Potter book. Regardless of what anyone writes about it, Om Shanti Om has a readymade audience: Shah Rukh Khan’s pre-release claim that this Diwali would be his was more a knowing, matter-of-fact statement than a pompous one. I watched OSO with my wife and mother, neither of whom is particularly discerning when it comes to Hindi movies. Both of them agreed that stretches of the film, especially in the second half, were very dull; and yet each of them has told her friends that “it’s a film you have to see at least once”. Doubtless millions of other movie-buffs around the country will do the same. In this context, Farah Khan’s observation that critics are idiots is spot-on – but of course that isn’t going to stop me from writing this post, so here goes:

The SRK Factor: OSO has been touted as an affectionate tribute to/parody of 1970s Bollywood, but what the pre-publicity didn’t tell us was that it’s just as much a tribute to/parody of the present-day film industry. And who better to headline such a project than that industry’s biggest star? This movie is simultaneously a massive ego project for Shah Rukh Khan – one that will prove he can make just about anything work at the box-office – and an opportunity for him to send up the Bollywood he lords over, even make digs at the roles that got him where he is today. In the second half, when junior artiste Om Prakash is reincarnated as Om Kapoor, reigning superstar, he wins Filmfare Awards with monotonous regularity but everyone in the industry still loves him; all the big names gather and dance at a post-award party in his honour. Hell, he could be Shah Rukh Khan for all you know – except that Om is a privileged star-son, which is possibly a dig at some of the other leading men in the industry.

If you’ve never personally connected with SRK’s screen persona, it’s easy to be contemptuous of his success, to dismiss him as a ham with the same set of mannerisms recycled in film after film. But that personality, complete with all those mannerisms, has struck an immediate chord with millions of Indian filmgoers, and there’s no dismissing the strength of such star-audience synergy – it’s as old as cinema itself. In films like Swades and Chak De India, SRK has shown (as if for the record) that he really can “act” (in the more rigorously – and, in my view, narrowly – defined sense of that word) when he wants to. But that’s not what he’s really interested in. In Om Shanti Om he does what he does best: playing to the masses, chewing up the scenery (in fact, in one funny scene where his character is struck wordless by the beautiful Shantipriya, the phrase “chewing up the scenery” is an apt description of his facial contortions). And there’s little doubt that all this will work for the film.

“Fun film”? “Masala entertainer”? Uh-huh. “Convenient labelling”

Farah Khan’s attitude to movie-making is summed up in the scene where a camera assistant goes on about how a particular shot has been set up according to the “Bimal Roy angle”, the “Satyajit Ray angle” and the “Guru Dutt angle”, and then someone snaps “Don’t forget the Manmohan Desai angle” in a tone that suggests that’s the only angle that really matters. Khan has made no secret of her admiration for the wholehearted entertainers made by the likes of Desai and Subhash Ghai (even though a ghostly twist at the end of this film comes from Bimal Roy’s Madhumati). She does inverse-snobbery with more gusto and good-naturedness than anyone else – though you have to remember that inverse snobbery of this sort goes with the self-serving idea that it isn’t possible for someone to be genuinely entertained by a Satyajit Ray or Guru Dutt film; that people who claim to enjoy those movies are either fooling themselves or have wasted too much time in film school.

And so, one problem with Om Shanti Om is that it’s the sort of film that comes with a contrived, inbuilt defence mechanism: it’s insulated against criticism because, you see, it’s supposed to be a “masala entertainer” – in other words, if you don’t like it, that means you’re a square or a pseudo-intellectual. But this is hardly fair, for there are good masala films, mediocre masala films and bad masala films. I have a lot of fondness for movies that do the fun stuff well, that don’t give a whiff about “plot” and focus on execution instead (“It doesn’t have a proper story” is a close second to “all style, no substance” in my personal list of most irritating lines spoken in film discussions). Also, I’m a *gasp* Shah Rukh fan. And yet, OSO didn’t quite work for me.

To label something as a “fun film” simply because it has feel-good moments where we get to see big-name stars dance with each other, make sporting jibes at each other, do the “you scratch my back, I scratch yours” thing (which is what SRK and Govinda literally do to each other during their little jig in the “Deewangi” song) – in short, ostentatiously have “fun” under Khan’s large-hearted direction – is to greatly simplify the definition. Even for someone who’s genuinely affectionate about mainstream Hindi cinema, it’s possible to see that there are times when everyone is trying a little too hard to enjoy themselves (and to make sure the viewer does too). Or that the Filmfare Award scene here, despite a hilarious Akshay Kumar moment, isn’t as engaging as a similar scene at the beginning of Jaan-e-Mann. Or that the ensemble song is longer than it needed to be and could have done with more discernment in its choice of guest stars and pairings. (Personally, given that this scene had to be done at all, I would have enjoyed a shot of Dharam paaji shaking his booty with Shabana Azmi; now there’s the pair of my dreams!)

And in its worse moments (that is, when the reincarnated Om Kapoor recalls his past life and the film promptly forgets its pre-interval breeziness and starts taking its non-plot seriously), Om Shanti Om is every bit as boring and “not fun” as one imagines the typical art-house film would be to Farah Khan’s sensibilities. (Back to my old rule: any good film is a “fun” film, whether it’s made by Manmohan Desai or Ingmar Bergman.) The second half is leaden, forced and carries on endlessly: the one good thing about the dramatic scenes involving the murder-reincarnation is that they give Deepika Padukone a chance to show her acting chomps, which are impressive for a newcomer.

Of course, for the true-blue Bollywood lover, there’s much to enjoy. There’s a hilarious scene with Shah Rukh as Quick Gun Murugan, battling a stuffed tiger: you have to be soul-dead (note how I’m doing the inverse-snobbery thing now!) if you don’t crack up when he goes “naati pussy”. In the first half, there are hits and misfires cluttered together in nearly every scene. And I enjoyed the tribute to the “little person” in the movie-making process, especially the charming end credits sequence where everyone involved in the making of this film, down to the spotboys, gets to walk the red carpet – though Farah Khan’s showing up in an auto-rickshaw at the end of the credits is just a bit of faux-modest showboating.

But I do hope this film is the last of its kind for some time to come. The Hindi-film industry is often a self-indulgent, incestuous mess (everyone – except for Aamir Khan – is part of one big happy family that squabbles and makes up with equal felicity; everyone makes friendly appearances in everyone else’s films and on TV talent shows; even movie titles are derived from songs in earlier films) and Om Shanti Om spoofs this phenomenon reasonably well (while simultaneously being part of it), but you have to think the self-referencing has reached a saturation point. Despite my affection for Old and New Bollywood, this is about as much back-patting as I can stand.

P.S. A small defence of an aspect of OSO which had drawn negative reactions long before the movie was even released: Shah Rukh’s six-pack-abs. When the first publicity photos of his new bod appeared in print a few weeks ago, I was as put off as most people were. But watch the scene in context (in the “Dard-e-Disco” song) and you’ll see that at least part of the point is that you’re meant to be put off; this isn’t so much Shah Rukh showing us a side of himself that we’ve never seen before (and never wanted to see), it’s more a commentary on the emaciated “sex appeal” of the modern male star. (Contrast the physique of the hot young star Om Kapoor – the role SRK plays in the second half – with the stock footage of a bare-chested Sunil Dutt in the 1977 sequences. Hell, even an established macho man like Dharmendra never sported this “all muscle, no fat” look in those days.)

P.P.S. For the life of me, I can’t figure out how Farah Khan got Shabana Azmi (playing herself, naturally) to say “This [Filmfare Award] ceremony is being held on land where a slum was destroyed, so I’m only here to protest”.


  1. A fairly deep analysis Jai! In fact I must commend you for taking the film seriously and then getting down to the process of analysing this tripe. Your Job is not easy ,most of us would just see the movie,dismiss it as junk and not think much about it.

    I loved your comment about the film industry indulging in too much incestuous camarderie ,however I believe that even Aamir is a little pretentious when it comes to his dealings. I am of the opinion that he is too overrated as an actor by the media and is not really in the elite class as often claimed.

    Presenting a serious face everytime somebody interviews you and trying extremely hard to make meaningful cinema , does not make one a great actor. The last scene in Sarfarosh where Mr. Khan bumbles and blubbers his way in front of an extremely powerful Naseer is a case in point.

    I am no SRK fan ,but at least he does everything openly and although most of the times irritating is difficult to hate. The man has got a sense of humour ,though is vicious to anybody who criticises him. Part of the reason is the same bunch of obnoxious creed that he keeps with him (Farah Khan ,Karan Johar and the likes). So your comment about too much filmi love is apt here.

    On another note his six pack abs also gave the man an emaciated ,ghoulish looking face and proved that he was crash dieting to achieve this look. I have not seen the movie so can't comment as to what is the significance of his abs but the man has started looking emaciated in recent times to the extreme.

  2. hey Jai.....wonderful review! I was thinking of writing my own review....thought you wouldn't have done it yet so checked out your blog and found you already did! :(

    Anyways, your comments are as always amazing! I agree with you on almost everything that you said. Especially the stuffed tiger bit... It was hilarious.

    I felt the speech that he delivers on receiving the award was quite true about SRK himself. He is one man who has proved that you need to have it in YOU to make it big and don't really need a Godfather....not always! It IS an SRK movie and indeed it looks like one. It is just him all over the movie, we get to see his mindless comedy, mushy romance (the usual romantic ball-dance with the heroine in black in the huge glass ball) etc.

    The best part is where he is nominated for 2 movies for the Filmfare which have 2 different heroines running upto him and falling in his arms and he saying "Rahul...naam to yaad rahega!" Probably its a dig at the filmmakers who cannot think of anything better for him. In that respect, I feel KJ has done a better job by giving him different kind of roles in all his films.

    On the whole, this is a movie that SRK's fans will vouch for and others wouldn't probably bother to rave about.

    P.S. I will link your review in my blog....if that's OK with you... :)

  3. Shwet: thanks. This post was very difficult to write - too much ambivalence all around. I had just about decided that the film didn't work for me on the whole, but then in the very process of writing the post I remember the stuffed-tiger scene and start giggling uncontrollably, and then the whole thing went off on another a tangent. We Bollywood-lovers have our heads all messed up...

    I like the way Aamir has cut himself off from most of the media and started using his blog as a medium of choice. It's a very brave thing to do in present-day Bollywood. And while a lot of what he does smells of pretentiousness and self-conscious Ivory Towering, you have to admire the guy on some level. It must get lonely sometimes.

  4. Sangeetha: I'm a bit divided about the Filmfare clips sequence. The "Rahul...naam to yaad rahega!" bits somehow manage to be self-deprecating AND pompous at the same time. But yes, at the very least the film is a commentary on the SRK persona and on the sort of industry (and audience) that has made a superstar out of that persona. It's next to impossible to imagine this film without reference to SRK, or with anyone else playing the lead role.

    And sure, linking isn't a problem.

  5. Nice write up Jai,

    But I believe that you also started taking the film a tad too seriously - at least while in the process of writing your review.

    This was an 'ok' movie, paisa vasool if you are not looking for too much (but with the hype around it am sure subconciously we probably expected something more)...though yes, it laboured on post interval..but I guess, it was never meant to be high art either.

    About Aamir, I always believed he was kind of pretentious and for someone who claims to take only quality roles..he sure seems to have a problem selecting his movies, a case in point is 'Fanaa'...and as an actor too, I don't think he is anywhere in the top league. At least Shah Rukh is not pretentious...though he tries to beat the image by appearing in movies like 'Swades' n 'Chak De India'.

    Anyways, Jabberwock is a pleasure to read...


  6. Rahul: thanks, but w.r.t. the "too seriously", that's something I can't help. I do believe in taking everything "seriously" (that is, in the sense of engaging with it and trying to express how it affected me) - whether it's categorised as High Art or Paisa Vasool. (I'm not too interested in those categorisations anyway, but that's another matter.) And anyway, one man's paisa-vasool can be another man's paisa-wasted.

    About Aamir...yes, it's possible that 20 years from now he'll look back and regret this one-film-every-2-years stance. It was well-intentioned, idealistic etc, but it can so easily backfire when he ends up doing a Fanaa.

  7. This was OSO's the best review I have read till now...
    So should we watch it at least once ? :)

  8. Actually I think the Hindi film industry has run out of ideas - the few it had in the first place. The movies these days are more knowing and are such fierce endorsements of Bollywood that one is - how to put it - repelled. Hence the over the top colour and wink wink spectacle of Saawariya, OSO etc and on an international level such misguided homages & pillages of the like of Bride and Prejudcice, Vanity Fair and now Elizabeth II. A Govinda or a Dharam paaji are infinitely better than the new brigade (and 70s homage or otherwise FK is part of this) because they are rooted in a culture and there is an authenticity to their performance (this can be said about some seemingly bad South Indian movies too). I am not sure if SRK and co merely serve a middle class desire to be simultaneously Indian and Western - its far too easy to see that the SRKs and Farah Khans are the products of a hybrid culture which is pleasing to neither those who have a genuine understanding of the culture of the West or those who are rooted in the nation's culture (does SRK for example have as much of a reach in rural India/South India - would be interested to know). And in any case things are relative - perhaps Farah should have had a scene on the genuinely nautanki/Bhojpuri film angle - I am sure the average Hindi film maker can be as much of a snob as the arthouse director.

    Then again I am prejudiced - I am a Ray fan and also a Govinda fan. The art film movement has elegance and intelligence, the Govinda films are earthy and honest. I simply can't stand the milk sop Indian fables of SRK and co which cross English speakers glued to DVDs of Hollywood movies for "inspiration" with some kind of patently Mumbai Punju vision of the universe. Am I alone in this? And as for Aamir, when he finally abandones his one note performance of the "Indian hero" and does some genuinely different roles he might be thought of as an actor in the modern sense of the word.

  9. Shama: very nuanced comment, thanks. I agree about there being an authenticity to the work of Govinda and Dharm paaji and the films of the past (which many of us would be embarrassed by today) that's lacking in nudge-nudge-wink-wink movies like OSO. But in a very twisted way, the "middle class hybrid culture...the desire to be simultaneously Indian and Western" can be called "authentic" in its own right - since it represents the aspirations (however confused) of a very large stratum of urban Indians.

    Of course, there are huge problems with some of these aspirations - I keep coming back to the typical NRI/upper-class Indian's self-congratulatory perceptions about the globalisation of Indian culture, India Shining etc - which are so cut off from the experiences of people in rural India.

    And you're right: in large swathes of rural India - what some people simplistically refer to as "the Real India" - Mithunda, with the Bhojpuri films he's continued to make in the last few years, is a much bigger star than SRK.

  10. Akanksha: if you're crazy about Shah Rukh, absolutely. (But in that case, you wouldn't make the decision based on what a reviewer says anyway, right?) But if you get bored, don't say I didn't warn you...

  11. Hi Jai, thanks for commenting! Yes I agree - this argument has been put to me and I remain confused by it! namely that confusions and all middle class urban India is no less authentic than rural India. I guess I get defensive and annoyed because I genuinely do not enjoy most Bollywood films (and as you point out, Bollywood lovers are aggressive in their dismissal of the idea that the fare can be dismal for some people!). The best I can come up with is that one responds to something that is truthful and humane - hence for all the garishness and silliness and inspite of the fact that their films are commercial enterprises I find I can enjoy Govinda, Ajit, Dharminder and the like and I can understand why Mithun is so huge. In contrast, the new Hindi movies (much like new Hollywood or India Shining I might add) is a set of values which is somehow unpleasant - they seem vain, narcissistic and pretentious vehicles for profit. Conversely, I have a love of rustic rudeness in films (Superbad!) and my Bollywood loving friends find that horrifying. At the risk of sounding cliched, love of the modern Bollywood flick seems very much 21st century bourgeois mentality - a loud show of decorous sentiments that banishes real life itself!

  12. I think Shama's comment was hard hitting and contextually potent. Middle class aspirations to imbibe something western while still remaining Indian is confusing and at its best a retarted idea.

    Indians today want to wear designer labels , flaunt modern cars and eat out at fancy joints. Nothing wrong with that , however it is now becoming an obsession and somehow shows that a deprived economy is suddenly baring its fangs at anything edible. This goes for our cinema as well , what exactly are we making? 'OSO' tries to bully everyone by telling that its reinventing the 70's masala genre and ends up insulting those films and proving to be an ideal platform for more SRK showboating.

    I would like to ask one question? Wasn't Deewar a masala film! It was and yet Amitabh's performance and the overall tone of the movie makes me like the film even more than the much hyped and respected 'Sholay'. The film was presenting entertainment in such an understated way that somehow our filmmakers completely forgot the art after making this movie. So now we have a 'Bhansali' making a coloured spectacle and then actually having the cheek to say that classical literature is all about sad endings.

    Really ! the man should be asked , how much classical literature he has read? For if he has really studied literature than he wouldn't be making the same superficially sombre movies with over the top sets . Making generalised statements that classical literature is all about agony , pain and emotional upheaval is insulting Shakespeare , Oscar Wilde and even our very own Mahabharata.

    This is another crisis emerging now within the country where some self declared 'Intellectuals' are ruining a creative medium like cinema.So on one side we have a 'suave , pretentious 'Rajnigandha' chewing director claiming to be the new Guru Dutt. The other side of the spectrum has obnoxious , loud and deliberately uncouth directors like Farah Khan and Sajjid Khan making stupidity fashionable.

    The process of making actors wear Calvin Klein and Gucci while still remaining positively desi and 'Virgin' is something of a fashion in our cinema. So the same set of ideas force SRK to get a Six Pack imitating somebody like Brad Pitt. We forget that stars like Pitt and Hugh Jackman look like being carved of solid steel while having those muscled torsos, while our stars look increasingly emaciated and sallow thus proving we are still a hungry underdeveloped country in every sense of the word.

    I am happy that there are a few directors like Anurag Kashyap and Vishal Bharadwaj who have the gumption to sail against this rot. If good light entertainment is what some of our big names cry about than a 'Jab we Met ' is a far refreshing and better effort than an 'OSO' and 'Saawariya'.

  13. That sequence with Quick Gun Murugun was just too much. The Akshay Kumar scene was also nice. While Padukone acted very well in the climax, I don't know why they dubbed her voice for the movie. I mean if her Hindi is bad, that would have been cool since she was a South star in the movie anyway. I liked the nod to Phantom of the Opera.

    The six pack makes sense. Apart from the reasons you mentioned, I think it also serves to create a difference between Om Prakash and Om Kapoor physically, though I highly doubt Farah Khan would have intended that. I still can't figure out why that 70's Bollywood star's son looked like a junior artist! The makeup was pretty effective, especially for Javed Khan and Arjun Rampal (wrinkles and all). Don't know what Farah's fixation is with baddies having long white hair (remember Suniel Shetty from Main Hoon Na?) Maybe something from personal life. Who knows!

  14. its an awesome movie ..really entertaining and sold out in north america... shahrukh looks good .. songs excellant

  15. Was wondering if you watched Jab We Met.

  16. Well, I think one viewing of OSO is not good enough. For me the first time, I thought OSO is all "paisa vasool", "masala" entertainer and its no big deal. But I think another viewing helped me to enjoy the movie more. Especially, the "behind-the-scenes" incidents which goes in movie making and those cross-references to other movies. The unit where there is the fire sequence, a la Mother India..the name of the movie was Ma Bharat (Mahabharat ?) or Gone with the Wind "Frankly, my dear" bit or Rajesh Khanna's style in Main Agar Kahoon or the climactic song (Phantom of Opera inspired) and many more. And its because its over the top, one does not end up taking it so seriously so everyone wins :-)