Om Shanti Om: A Postmodern Perspective

Brief CV: Rajnish Mishra is an Assistant Professor in the Department of applied Science and Humanities, IMS Engineering College, Ghaziabad. His particular interest areas are inter-disciplinary practice-led research and critical theories. His Ph D was on A Critical Analysis of Villains in Shakespeare’s Tragedies.

Motion pictures have been very important socio-cultural constructs since the time they were invented. In the “post-techno-capitalist” (Robinson, 43) societies of today no man can remain an island. Be it a director, a writer, an editor or an actor, no one can remain unaffected by their milieu. Hence there is a close relationship between films and the tendencies and characteristics of the period they are made in. The present paper proposes to focus on the extent to which a popular Hindi film Om Shanti Om (henceforth, OSO) displays the tendencies of postmodernism and the points where it departs from them. This film was chosen because of its conscious and unconscious intertextuality, its conspicuously conscious fusion of genres and its numerous explicit and implicit allusions to the “great tradition” of Indian cinema. Its plot, cinematographic techniques, characterization, dialogues, “incredulity towards metanarratives” (Lyotard qtd. in Rivkin, 507), hyperrealism and foregrounding of the intertextual elements: all challenge many assumptions about and trends of the modern cinema. The title of OSO is from a famous song of Karz − the film that gave a huge proportion of its plot to OSO. The title of the film makes any attempt at symbolic puzzle solving impossible. The happenings in the film provide a stark contrast to what one may expect from the title. There is no bliss or peace (shanti) till the end of the film as chaos and disturbance rule both the film’s plot and the life of its central characters. Roll, sound, camera, action: thus begins OSO, by foregrounding the “unreal city” ─ the studio of the successful producer Mukesh Mehra. The same studio appears in the second half as a burnt and dilapidated one which the hero is trying to bring back to life to shoot the “film in the film” − Om Shanti Om for the second time as he wants to complete the circle of life. The circle of life is a motif that appears repeatedly in the film and is mentioned by the hero OK in a talk with the villain Mukesh too. The circle of life is complete with the linking of the key image of “Om” that appears on the forearm of the hero in his two lives as Om Prakash and Om Kapur. Prolepsis and analepsis, both in terms of OSO and in terms of the history of Hindi films, tend to complete this circularity. Prophesy and allusions along with active determination of future through planning perform the functions mentioned above in the film. Outside the individual film, the same functions are performed variously, e.g. Shah Rukh as OK uses the title of film Main Hoon Naa to reassure the frightened Mukesh and Quick Gun’s part played by Om Prakash as Omiswaami in Mind It gave rise to a film with the hero’s name in 2009, intentionally or unintentionally. The film begins with a caption that reads “30 Years Ago” as the camera takes a long shot of the studio premises. Junior artists are in the period costumes and the camera focuses on a scene in which there is a simulation of unreal. Another director (Subhash Ghai) is ordering the camera to be focussed on an actor lip syncing a song sung by someone else and even this is not real because the audience’s “willing suspension of disbelief” is challenged willingly and consciously by a merging of past and present. The song Om shanti om is being shot as the film starts and the whole crew of the film inside the film is present and involved in this opening sequence along with that of OSO. Thus starts the merging of reel, apparently real inside reel and real. It is a blitzkrieg of merged time−referrants that the audience experiences since the very first minute of the film when Om Prakash Makhija (does the audience still see only Shah Rukh Khan?) imagines himself replacing Monty (Rishi Kapoor). This merging is atavistic; as Forrest Gump (1994) had already celebrated the present’s entering the past and becoming one with it. Thus the film blurs the line that separates fact from fiction and history from story. Incidentally, both the words have the same etymological descent from Latin or Greek historia ‘finding out, narrative, history’, from histōr ‘learned, wise man’, from an Indo-European root shared by wit ‘have knowledge’. OSO enters the realm of faction and combines a great deal of period fact with fictional treatment or incongruously incorporates actual living experience with history. It challenges reality and creates a simulation which simulates what actually is not there. The real director of OSO is shown as the unimportant audience, along with the real star Shah Rukh Khan shown as an insignificant junior artist. “It bears no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum” (Baudrillard, 405). Real collapses within the imaginary and the simulation that one observes is hyperreal. The film has a lot of self referentiality – it refers to the industry and to its own self − which is ironic at times. The irony that is hidden − as references made in the first half are realized in the second half only − becomes explicit on the second viewing of the film. A close viewing ( suspending entertainment for a while) also shows the numerous references dropped casually – as if OSO was paying tribute(or making fun of) the whole “great” tradition of Indian cinema. The self referentiality also tends to foreground the aspects of the art of filmmaking that tend to be neglected at times. Bela Makhija, the mother in the film, is posited as a counterpoint to the prototypical mother of Hindi films. She delivers the dialogues used by the original mother Durga Khote − the primary or the first user of the lines in the first, real or primary reservoir of reference, Karz. She does it with a twist that distances her from all the previous mothers of the tradition. Ironically, her son Om Praksh calls her his “filmy” mother and rebukes her on her overacting when she is only faithfully copying the onscreen mother Durga Khote. Does one hear the echoes of prince Hamlet’s instructions regarding the art of “real and faithful” characterization to the players? Is it a conscious allusion or just an accident due to Shakespeare’s presence in the now globalized collective unconscious? There is more to it than just coincidence. The song “Sunne waalon” uses lines that echo Macbeth’s famous lines about crime’s having tongues to declare itself and about blood staying on hands etc. There is intertextuality and self−referentiality in the use of music too that has several effects. Just like Karz, OSO uses a recurring signature tune that transcends the frontiers of time and is associated with various responses of various people. The tune on which the song “Main agar kahoon” is composed is the tune used for a sad song after Om Prakash overhears Shanti’s conversation about her marriage with Mukesh. The same tune is used in the song that announces to Mukesh OK’s being a reincarnation and his intention to take revenge. Whenever this tune is audible – diegetically or non−diegetically – those hearing it become aware of the referring back within and outside the film on screen. Thus a signature tune becomes an independent motif just like it was used in the parent film – Karz. OSO is a metafilm too in a way. Film history keeps dropping every now and then as the characters interact. There are instances that reveal the artificiality of the process of film making in a planned manner. The song “Main agar kahun”, for instance, shows the ways in which effects like blowing wind, moving vehicles, snowfall etc. were created in the eighties. The mock−shooting of the Tamil film and the Mohabbatman scene parody the way action sequences are shot. Names like Raj Kapur, Chintu Baba, Alam Aara, Mughal−e−Azam, K. Asif, Madhu(bala), Rajendra Kumar, Om Prakash etc. appear casually. Just after the first song Om Prakash meets his best friend Pappu Master and they talk about his possibility of becoming a superstar. In a tongue-in-cheek kind of ironical stance he parodies the superstitions and trends related to names in the Indian film industry. He advises him to have a name that ends in Kumar (Raj), Kapur(Rishi) or Khanna(Rajesh) – the successful heroes of their time. They advise a struggling artist Govind Ahuja to change his name and adopt a name like Rohan Kapur or Raj Kiran(incidentally an actor in Karz) and finally give assent to the name he suggests – Govinda. There is a scene in OSO that attempts to parody that famous scene of Mother India which is an immortal part of the Indian “film tales” due to its repeated retellings. It was this very scene in which Sunil Dutt saved Nargis from a fire and they came closer after that. Shantipriya plays the role that Nargis had played in her real life and Om Prakash, the junior artist, plays the role of Sunil Dutt after the “real” hero of the film refused to jump in the fire that had gone wild. Om Prakash has a habit of talking to his muse Shantipriya, the “Dreamy Girl” of the eighties – a sure reference to the “dream girl” Hema Malini of the same era. There is a very interesting set of products (from Sholay to Exide battery) being advertised through hoardings that flank the huge centre poster of Shantipriya’s film Dreamy Girl. His mother comes and very much unlike what normally happens, accepts her “daughter-in-law” readily. Her prophetic soul tells that her son’s face would appear on posters one day. The significance of this scene becomes clear once Om Kapur – the reincarnation of the old Om Prakash in the second half − is seen on the same bridge talking to his friend Pappu about revenge. As in this scene products and finish are to reflect the passage of thirty years, all the hoardings have sleek and modern designs and products, and the centre hoarding has OK endorsing some product (is that for real or on the reel only?) Just after this scene the premiere of Shantipriya’s film stages a veritable carnival of parodies. After actors representing Dev Anand, Dharmendra, Shatughan Sinha, Rajesh Khanna, Mithun, Aruna Irani, Dimple Kapadia etc. come to the premiere Om Prakash and Pappu both pose as Manoj Kumar and the actor playing Manoj Kumar (the real one in the film but actually only a poser) is chased away by the police off the sets. The whole evening has a heightened set of attitudes as unreal is posed as real and overacting is in the air. But then, overacting is very real in all the events where the public figures appear on screen. The scene shown on the screen as the film in the film – Dreamy Girl – begins is a reference and tribute to and a parody of Amar Prem. The heroine, a prostitute, speaks the lines that highlight the importance of the sanctity of vermillion. There is no hero visible only Rajesh Khanna’s voice says “Pushpa” in his oft parodied characteristic style. The song “Tum tana” is thrown in without any link with the film on the screen. It falls directly in the tradition of the dream songs of the yesteryears. It has a crescent moon and clouds that are very clearly and consciously not real. The screen is now presented in muted tones and whenever the camera focusses on the audience “real and lifelike” colours reappear. Thus the polarity of real versus imaginary is highlighted where the element portrayed as real is only a representation – that too without any attempt at hiding its nature, i.e. hyperreal. Once again a merging of real past with the screen present and real present is shown without any possibility of confusion in the minds of the audience. The heroine(Deepika Padukone as Shantipriya) projected to the eighties is shown with the heroes of sixties to eighties and Shah Rukh as Om Prakash replaces them in each case by the end of their section of the song. There is no attempt at generating laughter through this epitome of anachronism. Hence it’s a pastiche and not a parody of a song. It celebrates it and assembles together the stars and styles of the past golden era of Hindi films in the form of bricolage. It challenges all the conventions to such an extent that they are totally obliterated and no trace of any question related to disbelief or even its conscious suspension remains. This film never attempts at the classical suspension of disbelief, it challenges it, parodies it and neglects it completely thus leaving chaos at the end very happily. OSO questions the ability the medium of cinema has to stand for reality and life. It is highly self-conscious and the dream like nature of cinema is underlined through the recurrent dream motif in the film. This attitude is a signature of postmodernism, as only postmodernism can celebrate chaos with such an abandon. The second half has songs that address completely the youth amongst the contemporary audience. It parodies the MTV loving, “happening” crowds through OK’s demand and inclusion of a dream song that is totally absurd and is not needed by the script. It flashes a completely and shockingly new image of the reel or real Shah Rukh with his well sculpted body (and the six-packs abdomen) for the first time on screen. Just after this song comes the picturisation of a scene with Mohabbatman, a real and consciously attempted absurdity in the genre that boasts of the technological feats like Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Krrish and a host of small screen super heroes like Shaktiman. It is the second time in OSO that the hero is picturised flying. The first time round it was Quick Gun Murugan (an eponymous film later) who flew for quite a long time to land without hitting the target. The advances in mechanics made the flying easier and more “real” but the absurdity of a man flying remained the same as it was thirty years ago. Both the scenes are presented ironically. OSO foregrounds “the element of ‘narcissism’ in narrative technique… [it] focus[ses].. on and debate[s]… [its] processes, and thereby ‘denaturalise[s]’ [its] content” (Barry, 91). There are several instances that foreground the art, economics and truth of film making. It shows how many producers and superstars actually ghost direct through remote control. There is a mention of three of the greatest Indian directors of classic films like Pather Panchali, Madhumati and Kaagaz ke Phool by Partho Roy the director of a film being shot. He tells the producer Mukesh that he had used the camera angles of Satyajit Ray, Bimal Roy and Guru Dutt. The realistic producer gives him the bottom line by asking him to finish the shot that very day and to use the one angle that would surely work – that of the famous golden jubilee masala film director Manmoham Desai. Later in the film superstar OK forces the director to insert an absurd “item” number with 5−6 item girls and coerces him to accept his “inspired” idea. The second half also has the part in which OK writes the script and directs the story of his revenge – just like prince Hamlet, or Anand (Dileep Kumar) in Madhumati did. OK screen tests the candidates for the role of his real heroine, there are instances when Bela Makhija shows them and lectures on how to act and shows her disgust at finding them incompetent. The difficulties faced by the technical staff are shown through the failed attempts at lighting a fire behind Shanti’s portrait. OSO is basically a series of spectacles and favours style over substance at several important junctures. Even OK’s scenes with his mother are turned melodramatic just for the sake of an ironic perspective on the traditional spectacular nature of such scenes. This distances the spectator from the developments on screen and denaturalizes the linear reception of the content by drawing the viewers’ conscious or unconscious mind towards the mode of representation. Thus the need to analyse the truth of and on the screen – a very postmodern attribute of a film − is aroused. The two halves make a confused potpourri of elements from the plots of Karz and Madhumati. There are changes and surprises but they are calculated not to astonish or shock the audience. Even the ghost of Shanti is not shocking as it is quite logical in relation to Madhumati. The linking of the three films appears to be very conscious on the part of the director. This makes it easy to switch between the two reference donor plots and the plot of the film on screen. OSO is self−referential, self−exposing, self−analysing and self−reflexive. The whole film, especially the first half, is so rich in intertextuality that on every exchange of dialogues some allusion, reference or quote drops in. There is a distinct mixture of multiple genres in OSO. It begins as a romantic comedy with elements of farce in it. Then it turns into a tragedy due to the murder or death of the protagonists. It finally becomes a suspense thriller along with a romantic comedy with dashes of reincarnation and masala elements thrown in. Silly wordplay within a serious context makes the artificiality of art or fictionality of fiction apparent. The reel−real play keeps recurring. It raises “alienation to the second power, alienating [the audience] even from [their] own alienation” (Eagleton, 362).

Works Cited

Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural theory. Chennai: T. R. Publications, 2006. Print.

Baudrillard, Jean. “Simulacra and Simulations.” Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. Ed. Lodge, David and Nigel Wood. First Indian Reprint. Delhi: Pearson, 2003. Print.

Eagleton, Terry. “Capitalism, Modernism and Postmodernism.” Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. Ed. Lodge, David and Nigel Wood. First Indian Reprint. Delhi: Pearson, 2003. Print.

Jameson, Frederic. “The Politics of Theory.” Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. Ed. Lodge, David and Nigel Wood. First Indian Reprint. Delhi: Pearson, 2003. Print.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. “The Postmodern Condition”. Literary Theory: an Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1998. Print.

Robinson, Dave. Nietzsche and Postmodernism. First Indian edition. Delhi: Worldview, 2005. Print.


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