The Subversive Genius of Om Shanti Om

Pop Culture

The Subversive Genius of Om Shanti Om

Illustration: Akshita Monga/Arré

Long before Shah Rukh Khan was busy meeting Sejals and Farah Khan was diverting all her attention to judging reality shows, the duo collaborated to make the brilliantly deceptive Om Shanti Om, the highest grossing film of 2007.

With a plot heavily inspired from Subhash Ghai’s Karz, but with the Hindi film industry of the ’70s as the backdrop, Om Shanti Om was as mainstream and glitzy as Bollywood could possibly get. At first pass, there were many reasons to dismiss the reincarnation-revenge drama as just another brainless masala entertainer. The film comprised a song featuring over 30 Bollywood actors, even more celebrity cameos, an item song that saw an eight-pack-sporting SRK grooving to “Dard E Disco”, the much-publicised debut of Deepika Padukone, and absolute over-the-top tomfoolery. But underneath the disguise of its frills, Om Shanti Om was also 2007’s most sneakily subversive mainstream film, an illustration of the adage, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

In an everlasting era of celebrity diplomacy and star egos, few films and actors have the courage to laugh at themselves, fewer even to laugh at the idiosyncrasies of the industry they belong to. That’s exactly where Om Shanti Om stood out. The cleverly crafted, self-aware film was as much a celebration of the Hindi film industry as it was a three-hour parody of its flawed existence. It was a reminder that it was impossible to do the former without pointing out to the latter.

From making a comment on heroines losing their commercial viability the minute they get married to taking a dig at the absurdity of action sequences, Farah Khan, the film’s director — also credited with story, screenplay, and choreography — bravely went where no one had ventured before. Every scene in the film had purpose, to either lay bare the ridiculous clichés Bollywood holds dear, or poke fun at the unbelievable Alps-infused filmography that King Khan himself has been peddling over the years.

Om Shanti Om’s greatest subversive moment comes a little later, at a Filmfare Awards ceremony that is easily the best bit of the film, designed to parody every Bollywood cliché.

In the film, SRK plays a junior artiste named Om Prakash in love with Shantipriya (Deepika Padukone), the country’s biggest heroine, who is secretly married to villainous producer Mukesh Mehra (Arjun Rampal). After Mukesh murders Shanti by setting her on fire in a set, and his goons beat up Om for trying to save her, the story shifts 30 years later. Om Prakash is reborn as Om Kapoor, the country’s leading star, and son of yesteryear actor Rajesh Kapoor, and Shantipriya becomes aspiring actress Sandhya. Together, they set out to take revenge on Mukesh, and make him admit to his crime. It’s to Farah Khan’s eternal credit that she took a plot as incredulous as this, and turned it on its head by subverting it with delicious detail.

For instance, there’s a hilarious scene toward the beginning of Om Shanti Om where SRK’s Om laments about how he’ll never become a superstar. Pappu (Shreyas Talpade), his pal is quick to offer a solution. Your name comes between you and your superstardom, he tells an amused Om, advising him to drop the unfilmy sounding “Makhija” and adopt a nepotist “Kumar, Kapoor, Khanna” to get a one-shot career. In another scene, an excited Bengali director tells his disinterested producer how he’s set up three cameras: one for the Satyajit Da angle, one for the Bimal Da angle, and another for the Guru Dutt angle, only to be told by him to have a fourth camera for a Manmohan Desai angle because that’s the only one that would work. It’s a quietly hilarious joke on not just how the audience prefers massy entertainers, but also on Om Shanti Om itself, which plays out like an exaggerated Manmohan Desai-style outing anyway.

om shanti om

Om Shanti Om plays out like an exaggerated Manmohan Desai-style outing.

This self-awareness becomes all the more apparent when the film shifts to present day, 30 years later. Om Prakash is now Om Kapoor, the country’s biggest superstar, and one who is acting in Apahij Pyaar, a film where he is deaf and mute with two of his hands cut, and where the love of his life is getting married to someone else. The only part of his body that is in working condition in the film is his “dard bhara dil”. To steer a rather depressing film toward box-office success, Om Kapoor suggests they make the hero break into a topless item song where he expresses the dard in his heart through disco. The song is naturally presented in a dream sequence, a device that has come to the rescue of every director who ever wanted to make a good film and also money. So SRK breaks out into an ab-filled item song and begs us to laugh at him.

But, the film’s greatest subversive moment comes a little later, at a Filmfare Awards ceremony that is easily the best bit of the film, designed to parody every Bollywood cliché. On the red carpet, we see actresses muttering, “We’re just good friends” when asked about their growing proximity with Om Kapoor; Om’s two film nomination clips (Phir Bhi Dil Hai NRI, Main Bhi Hoon Na) for Best Actor resemble each other, with his performances looking like exact replicas; Akshay Kumar puts a gun to his crotch and does continuous pelvic thrusts to fire bullets in The Khiladi Returns. The fact that it’s difficult to discern whether those clips are part of a real film, or they’re made up, says a lot about how close the jokes have landed.

om shanti om

The self-awareness of Om Shaanti Om becomes all the more apparent when the film shifts to present day, 30 years later.

Only someone who is so attuned to the existing whataboutery in the industry and who’s been working in Bollywood forever, could have identified the banality and bound it seamlessly in a film. And not just any film, but a massive, mainstream hit film.

The film closes with the end credits that are designed like a red carpet and even here, Farah Khan won’t let go. She breaks the myth that spot boys are only unruly teenagers, while giving us another message: When the film becomes a swashbuckling box-office success, and breaks every record possible, it’s only the actors, and the producers who get the attention. No one waits for the director.

But with Om Shanti Om, Farah Khan has succeeded to make it impossible to forget the director. Dear lady, make another Om Shanti Om already.