Those unfamiliar with Bollywood films and the history of the industry will find Om Shanti Om (henceforth referred to as OSO) to be a visually spectacular and yet fairly plot-bare film. I myself, admittedly, am one such individual. That being said, it would be terribly unfortunate if a viewer just ended their movie experience there thinking that was all there was to it because upon further reading, I have found the film to be so much more!
We’re Talking Bollywood!
Popular Indian Cinema has been largely defined by its lack of genre specificity. In place is the “Masala-style”, which fuses a myriad of these generic categories such as romance, comedy, melodrama and action (Wright, 2014). And if typical Indian films follow this masala recipe, then I would consider Om Shanti Om to be a ‘Mega-Masala’. This is due in part to the fact that besides being a fusion of various genres we are used to, OSO also exists as a meta-film. What this means is that it does not exist as a standalone film as the film casually makes several intertextual references to earlier films and conventions. In a way, OSO can be seen as a tribute to the great tradition of Indian cinema. An example is the scene in which Om Prakash saves Shanti from a burning field, which parodies an immortal moment in Indian cinema history when the actor Sunil Dutt saved his would-be wife from a fire on set. Another scene shows Shah Rukh Khan as the lead character trying to sneak into a movie premiere, pretending to be Manoj Kumar by holding his hand over his face, mimicking a trademark of the famous director. These are just two of the numerous references and allusions to past productions, personalities and traditions of Indian cinema that the film is chock-full of.
Another major factor which I wholeheartedly believe contributed to the critical success of the film is the track number ‘Deewangi Deewangi’. We must acknowledge that Om Shanti Om IS written for audiences who KNOW BOLLYWOOD. Here, director Farah Khan knows that star-power sells to the Indian audience and that is why this dance segment alone includes cameos by 31 of the industry’s finest stars. Even with my extremely limited knowledge of Bollywood personalities, my eyes were enchanted by the appearance of Priyanka Chopra. The video clip of the dance sequence, posted seven years ago on YouTube, has garnered more than 33 million views, rivalling many popular western music videos and showing evidence of its great popularity. “Isn’t that exploitative and just shallow gratification?”, your inner critic may question but for OSO, somehow it just seems to gel in. This may be due in part to the tactful placement of the dance number right after the scene of the filmfare awards, where these celebrities are expected to appear. But anyway, subtlety is hardly the reason why Bollywood is entertaining is it?
Does Reel Need To Be Real?
One of the key characteristics that is central to Bollywood films is their hyper-dramatization and overacting. This reminds me a little of theatre, where expressions have to be amplified and exaggerated by the actors in order to communicate the message to the audience. While this may not be my favourite method of storytelling, I recognize its effectiveness in communicating certain themes. In OSO, Om Prakash’s mother Bela lets out a deafening scream when she learns that her son wishes to change his name. The scene then cuts to various other locations in their town where the screen shakes and the townsmen cover their ears. Think about it, if you saw a scene like this in a film that was not a comedy, I believe it would cheapen the experience film. However, since this is a masala film which encompasses comedy, this style of acting is accepted.
Alongside the melodramatic acting, some of the themes that drive Bollywood stories border on fantasy and superstition, which result from the nation’s cultural beliefs. OSO can be classified as a ‘reincarnation film’, one of the religiously rooted subgenres whose presence in Indian cinema has endured through time (Wright, 2014). The circle of life is a motif that appears many times in the film. The cyclical nature of samsara is reflected in the witty title of the film, “Om Shanti Om”. The narrative of the story also follows this cycle, with parts of the movie mirroring earlier portions, for instance when Om Kapoor decides to remake the Om Shanti Om film set. As the film is about Bollywood, it also plays as a cheeky parallel that jibes at the industry’s notorious reuse of the same old plots and conventions. Therefore, in a way, it is trapped in its own karmic cycle. While this may be viewed by more secular audiences as bizarre and fictional, such genres draw on the Indian audience’s inherent understanding of their culture and religious beliefs to make the plot work.
East Versus West, again…
A contraflow of the east-west power struggle can be seen in OSO. The film is unabashedly, perhaps even overtly typical of bombay-cinema, and superbly proud of it. Therefore, although it takes some inspiration in certain aspects from cinemas of other countries, the industry does not submit itself as a derivative of Hollywood. In a scene where Om Kapoor sits with Mukesh Mehra over lunch, Mukesh tells the star, “Call me Mike. Everyone in Hollywood does.” At a later point in the scene, Om returns the remark with “Call me “O.K.”, everyone in …Bollywood does.” This connects the hero to Bollywood, and positions the villain as a representation of Hollywood. This seemingly mocks the perceived western superiority and arrogance that Indian diaspora may have, and puts Bollywood on an equal, if not higher ground (since the audience is rooting for the hero and expecting him to triumph).
Another part of the film where we can observe this contraflow is when Shah Rukh Khan bares his well-sculpted body in the item number “Dard E Disco”. In this number, the “male gaze” is reversed. In addition, the age-old orientalist notion of “yellow-peril”, that the Asian man is lustful and poses a sexual danger to Caucasian women is also reversed as Khan is placed front and centre, with an exclusively white, female dance cast dancing around him. This glorifies and portrays the Indian male as attractive and desirable, and the film can be seen to be nationalistic in this sense.
Om Shanti Om serves as a brilliant homage to the Bollywood film industry. Even for the unaccustomed Bollywood watcher, it is a marvelous visual delight and succeeds in imparting the distinctive Bollywood flavor and style. It has been a great initiation into the world of Bollywood and Indian culture which I believe will only improve with subsequent watches.
Brara, R. (2018). The Item Number: Cinesexuality in Bollywood and Social Life. Economic and Political Weekly, [online] 45(23), pp.67-74. Available at: http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.lib.rmit.edu.au/stable/27807108 [Accessed 27 May 2018].
Marchetti, G. (1994). Romance and the “yellow peril”. Berkeley: U. of California P.
Mclain, K. (2016). Om Shanti Om Review. Journal of Religion & Film, [online] 12(2), pp.1-4. Available at: http://h p://digitalcommons.unomaha.edu/jrf/vol12/iss2/14 [Accessed 27 May 2018].
Mishra, R. (2011). Om Shanti Om: A Postmodern Perspective. [online] rajnishmishravns. Available at: https://rajnishmishravns.wordpress.com/2011/08/26/om-shanti-om-a-postmodern-perspective/ [Accessed 27 May 2018].
Shastri (2011). “The play’s the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king”: Intertextuality in Om Shanti Om. Journal of Film and Video, 63(1), p.32.
Wright, N. (2014). The soul gets typecast: The reincarnation film in popular Hindi cinema. New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film, 12(1), pp.113-132.