In some ways, the defining characteristic of Om Shanti Om is that it is not Saawariya, the competing musical that it opened against around the world last November. For one thing — and most obviously — Om Shanti Om is clearly a product of the existing Bollywood industry, featuring repeated and loving tributes to old-school Indian cinema. Saawariya, on the other hand, was widely perceived as the work of carpetbaggers — although it was directed by native son Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who made the hugely expensive hit Devdas in 2002, it was financed by Sony Pictures Entertainment, a Hollywood studio.
I’m no Bollywood devotée, but even I could note the striking differences in how the two films intend to speak to their audiences. Both of them feature the elaborately choreographed dance numbers that Indian musicals are famous for, along with lavish sets, a handsome, self-effacing leading man, and a beautiful, obscure object of desire who encourages his attention but is really in love with another. Saawariya played almost like international arthouse fare, boasting gorgeously moody photography (by accomplished cinematographer Ravi K. Chandran) and art direction that would make Baz Luhrmann proud. Om Shanti Om, on the other hand, is part gaudy melodrama and part celebration. It doesn’t feel like international anything — it seems to pluck its ideas for narrative and design from a sort of collective Bollywood consciousness. There was no way for a non-Desi guy like me to parse the multitude of references to local stars and traditions, but by the time the narrative stopped dead, somewhere past the halfway mark, to accommodate a parody of a movie awards show followed by a loose, eight-minute musical number and an attendant, hugely indulgent series of walk-on cameos by dozens of Bollywood stars (someone at IMDb actually started a list of big stars who do not appear in Om Shanti Om, which is apparently much shorter), it was clear that, in some cases, narrative is only an excuse for a party.
The first third of Om Shanti Om is set in the 1970s, as “junior artiste” Om Prakash Makhija (Shah Rukh Khan), working as a Bollywood extra, dreams of stardom — and of meeting Shantipriya (Deepika Padukone), the fetching star of Dreamy Girl, the studio’s latest lavish production, whose face dominates a billboard that towers over the studio lot. After he gets the chance to demonstrate his bravery and sense of humor, she agrees to spend a little time with him. Poor Om has already fallen head over heels for the woman, but little does he know that she’s already committed to another man, the unscrupulous film producer Mukesh Mehra (Arjun Rampal) who keeps her under his wing, and worse. Owing to Mehra’s greed and ruthlessness, it all ends badly — so badly, in fact, that by the end of the film’s first hour, both hero and heroine are dead. Fast-forward to the present day and the story of 30-year-old Bollywood superstar Om Kapoor (Khan again), a callow actor with a nice body who takes cell-phone calls while he’s receiving direction and presumes to rewrite his films’ scripts on a whim and at a moment’s notice. But it turns out that Om Kapoor, OK for short, is the reincarnation of Om Prakash. When his painful and long-buried memories of Shanti return, it stirs his conscience. As the film’s second act comes to a close, OK vows to exact revenge upon the seedy producer.
For the most part, Om Shanti Om reaches exuberant musical highs that outshine the melodrama surrounding the set pieces. The first musical number is a piece of meta-cinema that imagines Om Prakash as an extra during the filming of “Om Shanti Om,” a set piece from the 1980 film Karz. (Karz is referenced because it’s the quintessential Bollywood reincarnation movie — and was itself inspired by The Reincarnation of Peter Proud). Another takes place inside the movie-within-a-movie, Dreamy Girl, as Padukone, in a mango-colored skirt and bikini top, leads a full complement of dancers who are occasionally joined, in a half-hearted gimmick, by grainy images that seem to have been cut-and-pasted from Bollywood films of the period. Later, Om Prakash brings Shanti to an empty but lavishly decorated movie set, where they imagine they’re on a date in a fantastic, otherworldly landscape as he croons “Main Agar Kahoon” — a nod to the similar staging of “You Were Meant For Me” in Singin’ in the Rain.
The images are striking but the melodies feel largely disposable. (I’ve had the theme song from Saawariya stuck in my head for months.) More insistently catchy are the tunes from the film’s longer section set in the present-day, including the goofy parody number “Dard-E-Disco” — a showcase for Khan’s rippling torso, which he apparently beefed up for this role — and the show-stopping “Deewangi Deewangi,” the film’s rousing anthem, which goes on for a good nine minutes as dozens of Bollywood stars take their moment in the spotlight before the number climaxes with the re-introduction of the film’s villain. And I was struck by the singularly joyous end credits sequence, in which not just the star talent but a good portion of the below-the-line crew are actually pictured on screen as their credits appear.
What really stands out is the relative effortlessness with which writer/director Farah Khan seems to stage musical scenes — some of the choreography becomes a little chaotic, but mostly the musical numbers boast smartly framed widescreen compositions, a use of color and light that adds depth to each image, and eye-catching costumes that run the full gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous. One of the film’s signature shots puts Om and Shanti inside a snow globe in front of a wintry landscape and a purple sunset — it’s that kind of exquisite creativity that’s been missed in contemporary Hollywood musicals, which too often go out of their way to emphasize their knowingness, rather than surrendering to lyricism.
The narrative itself is a tragic potboiler dealing with fraud, murder, and the supernatural. Khan is a charismatic enough presence to carry the story through its rough patches (although perhaps he’s getting a little bit too old to play this kind of guileless, inexperienced character), but there are too few surprises and, especially in the long latter section, too little humor to sustain the film over its leisurely running time. It’s all fun to watch, especially whenever the dancing starts, but American audiences especially will notice the languors encouraged by a film industry where a 162-minute running time isn’t unusual enough to warrant a mention, let alone a complaint. This is a film that’s in the mood for paying tribute, not breaking new ground. (The film’s score, which borrows at least one passage wholesale from Raiders of the Lost Ark, perhaps pays a bit too much tribute.)
That’s not to say Om Shanti Om doesn’t have wonderful moments — some of them a little catty. Saawariya was already well into production when Om Shanti Om started shooting, and it’s tempting to read elements of OSO‘s screenplay as criticism of its Sony-funded rival. Besides the film’s general insider quality, highlighting the history of home-grown cinema, it playfully equates working in the American film industry with villainy — the evil producer has just returned to Mumbai after spending several decades in California. “Call me Mike,” Mehra tells Om over dinner. “Everyone in Hollywood does.” A few minutes later, when Mehra calls Om by his first name, his response comes with a twinkle in the eye and a full payload of mockery: “Call me OK!,” he insists, adding with a knowing flourish, “Everyone in Bollywood does.” Touché. B-
Om Shanti Om is available on a Blu-ray Disc from Bollywood film distributor Eros Entertainment. (It was delayed several times, but was finally delivered to me by Amazon.com — which doesn’t seem to actually carry the disc now — on July 2.) The picture is certainly nice, and I’m sure it’s leagues ahead of the DVD, but it’s unnaturally smooth and lacking fine detail — generally a sign that somebody ran aggressive noise-reduction on the picture to reduce film grain and took part of the picture along with it. The disc has a making-of feature that I might dig through later, but the director’s (English-language) commentary is surprisingly candid. The snow-globe scene I mentioned earlier is almost ruined by a tacky morphing effect which Khan describes in matter-of-fact fashion as “this horrible CG effect — I don’t know why they did it, but they did it and there was no time.” A few seconds later, she’s complaining about the “screwed up” set design. “It was supposed to be the infinity set from Singin’ in the Rain,” she says, “but there’s hardly anything infinite about it.”
Later, she laments the set for “Dard-E-Disco” — it looks like a great place to shoot an expensive 1980s-era Duran Duran or Rick Springfield music video — which she tried to hot up by having welders shower golden sparks behind the dancers from overhead. And then there’s this, in reference to the scene depicting a shirtless Khan rising slowly out of the water as the camera pans up and down his body: “I know there was some filmmaker who took great offense to Shah Rukh’s coming-out-of-the-water shot and came on TV and ranted and raved about how ‘This is not cinema.’ But I thought Shah Rukh’s shot of coming out of the water was far more exciting than that filmmaker’s entire film.” This is good stuff.