Thursday, November 15, 2007

Om Shanti Om: Long Live Manmohan Desai!!!

As I started my doctoral research a few years ago, I was shocked to find that little scholarly interest had been directed at Manmohan Desai, possibly the guru of the Hindi masala movie. Then last year, I found a biography of the great director written by Connie Haham. Finally, it seemed that Desai was getting due recognition amongst the greats of Hindi cinema, taking his due place alongside Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand, Yash Chopra, Nasser Hussain and other true masters of the form.

In an email exchange, Connie and I discussed Desai's influence on today's filmmakers. I noticed his shadow benignly growing over Karan Johar's K3G and Farah Khan's Main Hoon Na, while Connie pointed to Munnabhai MBBS. As passionate Desai fans, we were thrilled that the contemporary filmmakers were looking to his masterly touch for inspiration and teaching.

After all few other film-makers have managed to package national politics, social conscience, emotional drama in the same package as romance, action and brilliant music. Desai's concoctions blend - even after three decades - on the palate like the most delicious of thalis, combining flavours, colours, aromas with an aplomb and delicacy rarely achieved. If Bharatamuni could watch Amar Akbar Anthony, he would surely end up lauding the rasa-creation the film achieves with such ease.

Imagine my epicurean delight then when the first trailers of Om Shanti Om hit the screens. Mumbai hasn't done full on masala this year - one reason perhaps for the dismal box office performance of far too many ponderous, boring films! Farah Khan's venture promised nothing more than a frothy treat like a perfect glass of Madras coffee, all bubbly and sweet with a hint of pepper.

On that count at least, the film doesn't disappoint. The first half is brilliant - right from the opening sequence that intercuts the famous Chintu-baba Om Shanti Om song with a campy Subhash Ghai behind the camera (looking plump and baby smooth despite the years) and Farah and Shahrukh Khan as extras on the set. The rest rolls along at a furious and frantic pace, much like the best of Desai masala.

Hindi cinema is obviously catching up with Hollywood on technical expertise and F/X and that ability shows through out this homage to the 1970s. A clever technical twist on the "dream sequence" tradition ensures that while the old "reality" clips are faded, the "dreams" are to be savoured in full digital brightness.

The second half begins with as much dash and glamour. SRK looks good. There was a spontaneous sigh from the female half of the audience when his six-pack first made its first appearance. SRK must also be commended (along with Aamir Khan) for having the guts to not romance actresses who could be his daughters!

This was the single phenomenon that turned me off my childhood favourite Amitabh Bachchan. It was seedy enough with Rishi Kapoor romancing teenagers in the late-1980s, and outright cringeworthy watching a very old and unattractive Dev Anand romancing the glamorous Zeenat back in the 1970s. I had always hoped that Bachchan would have more class but remember feeling sick and revulsed at his romance numbers with Manisha Koirala and Shilpa Shetty.

SRK and Aamir seem to have avoided this trap so far. So in the film, SRK hankers after a glamorous Deepika Padukone in the first half, while she loves someone else. In the second half, she plays a fan to his super-star, with little to indicate anything more than infatuation on her part and kindness on his. A heartfelt chapeau to Madame Farah Khan and SRK for this stroke of subtlety in a film that makes of virtue of being over-the-top.

Unfortunately for the over all quality of the film, the script is a trap that the director sets up for herself: given the campy tone of the first half, there is no way of playing out the second without spoofing the re-incarnation genre mercilessly through the second half..

Also some of the repetition becomes a bit tiresome and hammer-handed. The rather touching 70s-style dialogue about wanting something with all one's heart is repeated so often that it begins to grate. The director also seems torn between sticking to the story and spoofing contemporary movie industry.

That urge also spills over to the conscious intertextuality: Kudrat, Mehbooba, Mahal and obviously Karz are all referenced. As are of course SRK's own Karan-Arjun. With endearing good humour, SRK and Farah Khan even spoof themselves - a masterly touch that ensures that none of the ribbing can be considered offensive. As a result, the film plays out as a film-fanatic's game of trivia, with every dialogue resounding with a prior references. Unfortunately, in the second half this intertextuality also gets a bit hamhanded. Slight self-restraint on the director's part would have ensured that the masala did't jar.

In a memorable sequence, Satish Shah as a harried director talks of all the camera angles he has used for his "Bharat Maa" cinematic venture, including Guru Dutt, Bimal Roy and Satyajit Ray. He is cheekily told by his producer to also use a "Manmohan Desai angle" as that would be the one to guarantee a hit. Om Shanti Om does try the Manmohan Desai angle - making the film a joy to watch. It even manages to catch Desai's classic exuberance and scripting twists and with good effect. What the film misses though is the social and political consciousness that Desai's film held at their core, along with the emotional link he could forge with his audience. And so far, there is no one in the industry - not even the supremely confident Farah Khan - to quite match up to his genius. On the other hand, Farah Khan seems definitely the one most likely to wear the Desai crown...with all my heart and Sai Baba's blessings recycled, I - for one - sure hope so!