Om Shanti Om is a loved film. Most people I know believe it to be wildly entertaining, easy to watch, full of memorable dialogues and iconic songs. In true Bollywood fashion, it transcends genre and apparently logic, coalescing into a three-hour long romantic-comedy-action-musical that is so ridiculous, so over-the-top and so utterly silly that you can’t hate it even if you tried. It was the highest grossing film of the year and one that not only launched Deepika Padukone into stardom (where she has since remained), but I would wager also transformed the careers and reputations of everyone associated with it for the better. With its celebrity cameos (of unprecedented number), its 8-pack-sporting SRK and it’s ek chutki sindoor, this “mainstream entertainer” made a home in our collective memories and desi hearts, where even today, it is revisited with a great deal of fondness.
So why am I spending my precious hours (days even) rambling on about this film? Because I think Om Shanti Om is not just another iconic film – it is a postmodern masterpiece.1 As a film set against the film industry (past and present), with a plot revolving around the making and remaking of a film, Om Shanti Om has more references in its screenplay than minutes in its runtime. Being quite literally filled to the brim with pastiche, allusion, quotation and parody, it manages to be both a loving homage and a scathing critique of the industry.
Some of these references are quite easy to pick up on, like the fact that Shanti Priya as Dreamy Girl is a nod to Hema Malini’s Dream Girl, and the dialogue “no sorry, no thank you” is a reference to the iconic line from Sooraj Barjatya’s Maine Pyaar Kiya. Laxmikant-Pyarelal’s Dhoom Tana in itself is a long tribute to the films, music, actors and costumes of the 70’s with impeccable attention to detail. The orange outfit worn by Shantipriya at the start of the song is a nod to the Sunil Dutt-Vyjayanthimala starrer Amrapali, followed by a jazzy upbeat scene that pays homage to the Rajesh Khanna-Mumtaz hit film Sacha Jhutha. The iconic badminton scene in the song, was taken from Jeetendra and Leena Chandavarkar’s Humjoli, and the desert pilgrim one from the popular movie, Jay Vejay. The “Bhaagoo” scene, where Om jumps into the fire to save Shanti, is inspired by a real life incident on the sets of Mother India when Nargis was trapped in a fire, and Sunil Dutt had actually jumped in to save her (and later they got married!).
And this doesn’t even begin to cover the first half of the film. From the title (taken from Karz, a film about reincarnation and revenge to which OSO owes its plot), to the passing remarks Om and Pappu make about the power of surnames in the industry (read: nepotism) – everything alludes to the industry. Bollywood history intrudes into the plot and narratives of these characters constantly, lining the story with extra-diegetic2 information that completely transforms the experience of watching the film.
When Barthe proclaimed the death of the author3, he said that “the text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture,” meaning that every text is made up of other texts, and perhaps no text can truly be “original”. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Om Shanti Om – a film that openly and almost shamelessly steals from other films. With Bollywood’s well-established tendency of ‘borrowing’ and altering plots without any acknowledgement of the sources they were taken from, Om Shanti Om’s blatant intertextuality4 and self awareness, make it bold, refreshing and sneakily subversive in a way that mainstream films rarely are anymore.
But the genius doesn’t end there. Or perhaps I should say picture abhi baaki hai mere dost…
There’s a popular notion that a good film will make you forget that you’re watching a film. It will allow you to suspend your disbelief and draw you into the plot and characters to such an extent, that for those few hours, you become part of their reality and not your own. Om Shanti Om takes this time-honoured criterion and throws it right out of the window. It goes above and beyond to draw attention to its own constructedness, breaking our willing suspension of disbelief and constantly reminding us that what we are viewing is undeniably made up. It’s a work of metafiction5 that puts the Marvel Cinematic Universe to shame. The ‘real’ film industry and the ‘fictional’ one of Om Shanti Om are deliberately indistinguishable from each other. They are interwoven and overlapping not only to create a sense of déja vu and nostalgia for Indian (and NRI) audiences, but also to tease and challenge us, further extending the scope of interpretive activity.
To put it simply, Farah Khan knows all too well who’s coming to watch, and the entire film is structured like an elaborate inside joke between her and her viewers, executed to perfection.
And the first wink and nudge from her (in a very long list) comes just two minutes into the film. The opening scene reconstructs the shooting of Rishi Kapoor’s iconic song Om Shanti Om on the sets of Karz in 1977. We see our protagonist Om Prakash arguing with a woman in the audience over Rishi Kapoor’s jacket. He sarcastically asks her “Tu director hai kya film ki?” to which she responds “Main director hoti to pehle tereko bahar phekti”. The audience chuckles knowingly that she is in fact the director, Farah Khan, and we also know that struggling junior artist Omi is the mega movie star Shahrukh Khan who has starred in countless blockbuster hits including the universally loved Main Hoon Na (also directed by Farah Khan). Thus, at the very start of the film. the director is involving herself with fictional characters and directly addressing the viewer. She is openly questioning how narrative assumptions and conventions transform and filter reality by exposing the artificialities and absurdities of filmmaking (most of the film is literally set on a film set).
This interrogation continues throughout the film with the running inside joke between filmmaker and audience exploding into a riot of laughter in the second half. The boundary between the real and fictional film industry becomes even more blurry once we enter 2007, what was then, the present times in the film. When Om Kapoor waves out to his crazed fans from his balcony, he is no longer Om Kapoor or even Om Prakash. He is Shahrukh Khan. When Deewangi Deewangi rolls out, the actors are not here to celebrate Om Kapoor, they are here to celebrate Shahrukh Khan.
The genius of the song is in the details of its choreography and editing. All the actors are deliberately behaving in ways that we recognize, doing iconic steps from past films, playing into their personalities and reputations. SRK and Kajol do their iconic handshake from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Govinda dances like he did in the 90’s and Mithun behaves like a strict taskmaster whose disco dancing skills can’t be rivaled even today. Each actor is seen dancing blissfully and truly selling the idea that the industry we know and love is just one big happy family. It is ingeniously designed to make us feel a surge of love and familiarity, of nostalgia and longing.
The Filmfare Awards segment is a rare and bizarre instance where Bollywood celebrities seem to have abandoned their VIP egos and diplomatic tendencies, choosing instead to laugh at themselves (and insisting we do the same!) Shabana Azmi pokes fun at her reputation of being serious and political when she says she’s only here to protest the clearing of slums. A-list actors Akshay Kumar and Abhishek Bachchan become jealous and arrogant caricatures of themselves, driven to greed over the coveted award. All actresses use the “we’re just good friends” line in reference to Om Kapoor, mocking the flimsy way in which celebrity flings are covered up. Later, with the nominations, SRK’s own filmography is reduced to NRI pandering and slow-motion montages of women on mountains running into his open arms (he once again, plays Rahul. Naam toh suna hoga?) Akshay Kumar is mocked for his utterly nonsensical action sequences (he puts the gun in his crotch so he can kill the bad guys by hip thrusting) and Abhishek Bachchan for being the least interesting thing about a franchise where he plays the hero (the Dhoom series).
Om Shanti Om takes everything laughable and absurd about Bollywood and blows it out of proportion. Overdramatic mothers, evil producers and odds-defying heroes. It refuses to be taken seriously and yet if you look carefully beneath its light-hearted and well-intentioned frills, you will find a bottomless pit of subversion. It makes a bold attempt to expose some of the chinks in the armour of an industry so idolized and revered in this country, that it gets away with anything.
Mukesh Mehra murders his wife in cold blood because her pregnancy interferes with his ambition, an ambition that renders her ek chutki sindoor insignificant. In the same way, Om’s mother, the very embodiment of melodrama, gave up her dreams of being an actress because she got pregnant at the wrong time. The film makes it abundantly clear that it’s a man’s world, and a rich man at that. From the beginning, the audience is aware that the dreams of Om and Pappu don’t stand a chance. They simply lack the social capital required to be noticed in a place that thrives on connections, money and glamour. A hint of Marxist and Feminist interpretations exist for those who want to seek them.
The dream sequence song Dard-e-Disco only appears because the spoiled lead actor Om Kapoor (who is reading the script of this film for the first time on set), declares that this destined-to-be-a-flop tragic love story (about a deaf, blind, mute man with no hands or legs) can only be saved with an item song. Even if the male body is sexualized for a change, the fundamental idea that you can slap an item song onto anything and it will sell, says a lot about the industry and its consumers. Even ‘Mohabbat Man’ with his “udi baba” and hilarious costume changes, is a parody (a loving one, but a parody nonetheless) of India’s foray into the superhero genre, another Hollywood import (with Krish having just released the previous year).
Toxic fan culture, spoiled actors, lack of original scripts or any interest in creativity whatsoever, nepotism trumping talent, the celebrity bubble, the notion that a woman’s career ends the minute she gets married etc. are all issues touched upon (some more briefly than others) and I would need to write entire essays to do justice to each one. For now, however, let me conclude by coming back to my first claim that Om Shanti Om is a loved film. But why?
I said it’s a postmodern masterpiece. I said it displays astonishing amounts of self-reflexivity, intertextuality and metafictional elements. That it’s subversive and maybe even political. But honestly, I think it’s true genius lies in the way it rejects all attempts to define it. I loved Om Shanti Om when I first watched it as a seven-year-old (90% of the jokes and references went over my head), and I still love it today, at twenty-two, after having watched it countless times, studied every single reference and given a presentation on it. I still get goosebumps when Tabu shows up in her red saree. My heart quite literally swells watching all the technicians, spot boys, makeup artists, choreographers etc. walk the red carpet in the end credits and I will never get tired of the story in a story in a story masterpiece song- Dastan-E-Om Shanti Om.
It’s loved because it’s filled to the brim with heart. It will make you laugh no matter who you are, or what kind of films you like. I have so much more to say and analyze but I’ve been working on this article for so long that it’s begun to haunt me like the ghost of Shanti Priya. I’m going to put my metaphorical pen down now. Happys Endings to you and thank you for taking the time.
- Postmodernism is a late 20th-century movement in philosophy and literary theory. It tends to blur the line between high and low art as well as genre. Literary works frequently use intertextuality (referencing other literature, real or imagined, within the work), metafiction (making readers aware of the fact that they are reading fiction) and magical realism (a realistic narrative with an implausible supernatural or magical element thrown in).
- Diegetic means existing or occurring within the world of a narrative rather than as something external to that world. Extra diegetic would thus mean external to the fictional universe of the film.
- ‘The Death of the Author’ is a 1968 essay by the French literary theorist Roland Barthes. In it, he challenges the relationship between author and literary text claiming that works of literature are not original and that the meaning of a work cannot be determined simply by looking to the author of that work. Instead, we as readers are constantly working to create the meaning of a text.
- Intertextuality is a term that describes the processes of cross-referencing by a text that relies overtly on other texts—whether they are past texts, contemporary texts, or textual conventions—in its composition.
- Patricia Waugh defines metafiction as “fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality”. Metafictional works, she suggests, are those which “explore a theory of writing fiction through the practice of writing fiction”
An aspiring writer and amateur dancer, Aamatullah drinks too much chai and enjoys giving unsolicited book and film recommendations to everyone she meets. She has a degree in English and a cat who hates her. You can read her blog here. Her Instagram handles are @aamatullah2000 and @myliteraryexperiment