“Oh My God”… Divine comedy

Posted on September 29, 2012

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Actors, sometimes, can annoy us with their omnipresence. At one time, Paresh Rawal was everywhere, and because our mainstream cinema does not offer a character actor too many notes to hit – it’s either the well-intentioned friend of Baghban, or the shrill comedian trying to outshout everyone else in a Priyadarshan comedy – we began to tire of him. Cutting down his assignments has done the actor a world of good. He is in rip-roaring form as Kanji Bhai in Umesh Shukla’s Oh My God. Kanji Bhai is a cheerfully unscrupulous wheeler-dealer, whose shop in Chor Bazaar specialises in religious memorabilia, ranging from Draupadi’s sari to bottles of Gangajal whose contents come from the tap. (Kanji Bhai is an equal-opportunity hoodwinker. He also peddles musical memorabilia, like “Micheal” Jackson’s suit.) His philosophy is simple (and this is what endears him to us): If you’re stupid enough to pay staggering sums of money for a statue that supposedly revealed itself in the earth of Brindavan, then you deserve to leave with a lighter wallet. Ethical? Probably not. But Kanji Bhai is no different from the makers of fairness creams who position themselves as bestowers of boons to dark-skinned flocks. Everything, really, comes down to faith.

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Kanji Bhai’s atheism allows the director (working from the Gujarati play Kanji Viruddh Kanji, which was adapted on the Hindi stage as Krishan vs Kanhaiya) to supply Rawal with a number of choice lines. When his devout wife suffers through a fast on his behalf, he wisecracks that this is like plugging in her phone in the hope that the battery on his instrument will get charged. Oh My God is what you’d call a message movie. If, as Marx said, religion is the opium of the people, then this film is a PSA about the dangers of addiction. But the lightheartedness with which it plays out prevents us from flinching at being lectured to. (It probably helps if you’re already on Kanji Bhai’s side.) The clever premise is brought into play when Kanji Bhai’s shop is destroyed in an earthquake, and the insurance company washes its hands off the incident as an “act of God.” Kanji Bhai, therefore, files a suit against the almighty, calling to court various godmen – and one heavily lipsticked godwoman – and letting loose a killer line about Anil Ambani.

Despite this incendiary theme, Oh My God doesn’t have a heretical bone in its body. (This, however, doesn’t stop the tripartite disclaimer at the beginning: in Hindi, English and Urdu.) The film’s fight isn’t with faith – merely with the ridiculous ways in which the faithful transact with their maker. And the rousing triumphalism towards the end is tempered by the words of Swami Leeladhar (played by Mithun Chakraborty, who seems to be auditioning for the role of a journalist in a Madhur Bhandarkar movie; his pinkie is perpetually raised), who knows that he will prevail. This is the kind of populist sugar-coated pill that Bollywood has forgotten how to manufacture. The nearest antecedent may be Yehi Hai Zindagi, where Lord Krishna forged an easy and continuing rapport with Sanjeev Kumar. This isn’t to say that these older movies are imperishable works of art that need to be reclaimed by succeeding movie-going generations, but these films are valuable because they are about something other than relationships and revenge. If these films were made every day, we’d begin to get annoyed, but, as with Paresh Rawal, the absence from screen helps.

Akshay Kumar, twirling a keychain like the discus, plays Lord Krishna here, and it’s one of his lightest performances. (Why do actors always come off better when not forced to carry the film?) He makes his appearance in the later portions, where the film begins to take itself too seriously, taking on issues like the wasting of milk on idols. As other similarly affected commoners join Kanji Bhai, we are introduced to an old woman who lost her son and daughter-in-law in an earthquake, and now needs the insurance money to treat her grandson’s cancer. This is too much melodrama for a light satire. And when Kanji Bhai makes a winning speech on a television talk show, his estranged daughter, seated in a coffee shop, announces that this is her father, and the others burst into applause. (The soundtrack, meanwhile, bursts forth with an ecclesiastical choir.) But despite this overreach, Rawal pulls it all together. He nails not just the quiet contempt many of us carry for the rituals of organised religion, but also the seething desperation of a middle-class man with nothing left to lose. It’s nice, for a change, to see an Everyman as the leading man.

Copyright ©2012 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.