[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”.