Review: Om Shanti Om / Saawariya

Posted on November 10, 2007


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Shah Rukh and Deepika shine in a barely-okay potboiler that should have been much better. Plus, a fascinatingly dark anti-romance with newcomers.

NOV 11, 2007 – FARAH KHAN MAKES ME LAUGH. I love catching Main Hoon Na — most of it, that is, till the protracted last parts — whenever this sublimely silly first feature of hers plays on TV. I love listening to her interviews — yes, including the one where she sweepingly declared that all critics are retards — where her utterances make it clear that no censoring whatsoever occurs between her thinking something and her saying the same thing (which is why she’s so entertaining; after all, who wants to listen to politically correct bores!). And I love reading about her, as in the recent piece in Outlook, where she reportedly screamed at the cameraman for leaving SRK’s crotch out of the frame while canning the by-now-infamous fab-ab number Dard-e-Disco. (In her own words: “‘We are not shooting a Bengali art film here, get [the crotch] back.”?)

You can sense that she’s one of those all-too-rare born entertainers, which is surely why the last shot of her second feature, Om Shanti Om, is what it is. (It’s the one with her on a red carpet, and it caps her signature scene: the fun song that introduces us to the cast and — most generously — the crew.) And yet, throughout the film — which tells the before-reincarnation-and-after story of junior artist Om (Shah Rukh Khan) who is in love with top star Shanti (Deepika Padukone); it’s sort of Karz-meets-Madhumati — I kept wondering why I was fidgeting so. Why was I feeling so distanced from the proceedings? Why didn’t anyone on screen seem worth caring about? And, most frustratingly, why was the film so full of things that, by themselves, are entertaining enough, but when they all come together, never quite explode in the way that you want?

One reason could be that I think Vishal-Shekhar’s soundtrack is absolutely fantastic — so many songs of so many different moods, yet everything united organically through the Om Shanti Om theme — and it made me want a movie that would live up to it. But only (the beautiful waltz) Main agar kahoon and the kitschy Dhoom tana (a spoofy, spirited trip down Hindi film music videos down the ages) are worth sitting through. Otherwise, Dastaan-e-Om Shanti Om — this film’s equivalent of Karz’s Hamlet-ish play-within-a-play — is such a garbled mess of choreography that I had to strain to see what exactly was going on. (And this, from Farah Khan, who practically reinvented the way film songs are staged.)

The lovely romantic solo, Aankhon mein teri, is butchered and served up in unappetising slices. Dard-e-disco becomes a generic item number with firang dancers, reflecting none of the cheeky sense of fun in the lyrics (that somehow manage to rhyme “‘disco”? with “‘San Francisco”? and “‘pichle maheene ki chhabbis ko“?). Deewangi — the nod to Naseeb’s multi-star special appearance within a single song — goes on far too long. (Did they really expect us to hoot and holler over Aftab Shivdasani? Suniel Shetty? Arbaaz Khan? Dino Morea?) And worst of all, Jag soona soona laage — an evocative piece of melancholia, where the crushed-heart hero rants about the stony nature of the world and the people around him (“‘paththaron ki is nagari mein, paththar chehre, paththar dil“?) — is ruined when a stanza is sacrificed to a trite stretch of monologue whose sentiments have already been expressed far better in the lyrics.

A major part of the charm of Old Bollywood is the way the soundtracks were integrated into the films — which is why we sat through the worst of them, because even if everything else was lame, there were at least these numbers to look forward to — but the problem in Om Shanti Om isn’t just that the choreography of the songs is a little off; it’s that the choreography of the film itself is a little off. There’s no rhythm, no pace — and for the most part, it just plays like a cluttered collection of scattered good bits, thanks largely to Farah’s philosophy of “‘when in doubt, cut to the shtick.”? It’s hard to tell a coherent story — even to the extent that you want a masala potboiler to be “‘coherent”? — when you keep cutting away to the next great Bollywood in-joke.

But I must say that these gags are the best part of the film. Om Shanti Om gets going with a riff on how the Nasir Hussain productions used to open — you know, with the basso profundo intonation of “‘Kya ishq ne samjha hai”¦“? — and proceeds to skewer (affectionately, though) everything and everyone from Manoj Kumar to Sooraj Barjatya (a brilliantly conceived bit) to the one-time staples of our cinema (the drunk scene; the buddy-bonding scene; the kheer-making maa who enjoys a teary reunion with her long-lost beta in a scene that frames her such that we can’t miss the truckload of medicine bottles by her bedside) to even Mughal-e-Azam. (Kirron Kher hams wonderfully as Om’s mother who wails that, had she not been pregnant with him, she might have played Anarkali; he dismisses her with a “‘takhliya“? as a snatch from Pyaar kiya to darna kya echoes in the background.)

A lot of these initial portions play as if Farah Khan wanted to spoof our earlier filmmaking conventions — and so long as that seems to be the intent, Om Shanti Om chugs along merrily (if somewhat aimlessly). But then the director appears to change her mind. Suddenly, we are in a film that’s no longer simply taking potshots of the movies of the time, but one that’s actually being made along those lines, in all seriousness. And after a point, this hot-cold mix becomes extremely annoying, and Om Shanti Om goes on for so long that the refrain that there’s more to come — “‘Picture abhi baaki hai“? — stops being funny and starts seeming a threat. I began to dread just how much more this already-thin material was going to be stretched. Where there was a sense of joy in the way Main Hoon Na came together, here you see the struggle in trying to make everything fit.

And once the film gets into its (relatively) serious mode, you sorely miss the presence of a strong villain. Arjun Rampal is fine as the bad guy given a pencil moustache to twirl, but he’s barely there — and one sin no self-respecting masala movie in the old days would commit is to downsize the antagonist. (And it doesn’t help that Rampal underplays this part, going for purring, silky menace — it’s all very today — when an unabashedly old-fashioned, over-the-top approach would have been more appropriate.) Farah knows her Bollywood, so even with all this, she does achieve a few affecting moments, as when Om is reunited with his pal from a previous life (Shreyas Talpade, who’s good but underutilised). This is the kind of setup that your brain recognises as laughably corny, but your heart embraces in an almost Pavlovian fashion. If you’ve grown up with a certain kind of Bollywood film, you just can’t not respond.

And the other thing Farah knows is her casting — and her leads tide her (and us) over the many rough patches. Deepika Padukone is one of the finds of recent times, even if she’s cut adrift in the second half. Not only does she look fantastic — she’s one of those people who manages to stand out even in a burqa — she also brings back to mind the regal, somewhat stand-offish, touch-me-not quality that some of the older heroines had (and which has all but vanished in the overexposed — in every sense — girls of today). And Shah Rukh gamely mocks himself (and the repetitive nature of his romances) in a role that plays right up to his natural hamminess. He’s so right for the part, you can’t imagine anyone else as Om. (And it’s a terrific return to the more “‘popular”? Shah Rukh Khan after his wonderfully Zen outing in Chak De India.) In a hilarious scene where Om talks to Shanti for the first time, he’s so starstruck that he can barely say anything. His brain is forming these perfect sentences, but they just won’t come out of his mouth, which contorts itself in the most hideously funny ways — and for once, Shah Rukh finds perfect use for that famous stammer and those famous quivering lips.

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LOVE, IN REAL LIFE, is rarely as all-out sweet and high-minded and uplifting as it is in the movies, and the last thing you expect is two blue-blood Bollywood newcomers to service this nihilistic notion of romance — but that’s what Ranbir Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor (making confident, competent debuts as Raj and Sakina) do in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Saawariya. You do not expect the grandson of Raj Kapoor — a fact referenced endlessly through the film, right from his appearance in a bowler hat — to make his debut as the third wheel, entering an ongoing love story as the “‘other man”? when Sakina is already pining for Imaan (Salman Khan, playing not a character so much as an abstraction of an idealised love, and portraying a gravity he never has before). And you certainly do not expect Anil Kapoor’s daughter to choose as her first film one where her character can most charitably be described as a masochistic, self-destructive, passive-aggressive manipulator. But here they are, putting their all into this dark, doomed love story — and at the mercy of mainstream cinema’s most eccentric craftsman.

Bhansali’s trademark is stamped all over his latest feature — from the deliberate artifice of the sets (some of the visuals actually look like matte paintings) to the deliberate artifice of the dialogue (sounding like a hangover from the purple prose mouthed by Jackie Shroff in Devdas) — and the director is going to win no new converts with Saawariya. You’re either a fan of his obsessive-compulsive, over-the-top vision of cinema or you’re not — and this film is solely for members of the former category to see what this mad-scientist director has brewed up in his (as always) hermetically sealed laboratory, where not so much as a whisper of wind from the world we consider as “‘normal”? is allowed entry. (Non-fans, in other words, should — and most likely will — stay far, far away.) There’s a moment here where a group of prostitutes congregates in prayer, and what’s sung is Aye malik tere bande hum, the devotional number from Shantaram’s Do Aankhen Barah Haath. Whether Bhansali intended this as homage to the older filmmaker, I don’t know, but there’s surely some sort of subliminal kinship he feels with the latter-day Shantaram, whose baroque musicals like Navrang are the very definition of an acquired taste.

You cannot mistake their works for anyone else’s, so singular is their pursuit of the visions that consume them — and it’s not very difficult to see why Bhansali was consumed by Dostoevsky’s short story White Nights (which forms the basis of the exquisitely mounted Saawariya, and which another baroque stylist, Luchino Visconti — ironically, one of the earliest neorealists, go figure — made into a similarly dreamy, theatrical, studio-bound film). For one, there’s the romantic-denial angle that Bhansali explored earlier in Devdas. (There it was Devdas who spurned the love of the available Chandramukhi while pining for an unattainable Paro; here, Sakina waits for Imaan, who’s left her and may never return despite his promise to do so, while ignoring Raj’s puppy-eyed devotion to her.)

Then there’s the language itself. Even in what must be a watered-down translation, here’s what a passage from White Nights reads like: “‘Surely when the hour of parting came she must have lain sobbing and grieving on his bosom, heedless of the tempest raging under the sullen sky, heedless of the wind which snatches and bears away the tear from her black eyelashes? Can all of that have been a dream — and that garden, dejected, forsaken, run wild, with its little moss-grown paths, solitary, gloomy, where they used to walk so happily together, where they hoped, grieved, loved, loved each other so long, so long and so fondly?”? Um — sobbing on a lover’s bosom? Tempest raging under a sullen sky? The wind snatching away tears from black eyelashes? So long, so long? Heck, there’s even the attention to art direction we’ve come to associate Bhansali with, what with gloomy gardens and moss-grown paths.

And as is always the case with Bhansali, when these verbal constructions — namely, the pictures inside our heads — finally translate into the pictures inside his, there’s that initial adjustment shock. For me, this came during the picturisation of the Jab se tere naina number (beautifully sung by Shaan and composed by Monty, who delivers an altogether excellent soundtrack). Raj bursts into this song after being smitten by love at first sight, and he goes understandably berserk. But the flailing-limbs choreography is so awful — and, yes, so over-the-top — that he doesn’t look lovestruck so much as a lunatic. The difference between the two may not be much according to Bhansali, but still, it’s bizarre, all that prancing around in nothing but a towel. (At one point, Raj goes to the window and actually whips it off. So he’s doing what exactly — flashing his neighbours? And this is a romantic conception?)

On the other hand, there’s Pari, which Raj sings in front of a colony of prostitutes. The song takes off on a chance remark — to the extent that such a thing is possible in Bhansali’s fetishistically detailed universe, where very little is left to anything as capricious as chance — by Gulabji (Rani Mukerji, who’s very good as Raj’s conscience-cum-cheerleader) that their miseries, over the years, were alleviated by listening to fairy tales, pariyon ki kahaniyan. And as the number unfolds, we see why these women — these battered, aged, shapeless streetwalkers — needed these fantasies. When Raj fantasises that this angel he’s invoking with his song, this pari, will melt in shyness before his gaze (“‘dekhoonga jab main use, mujhse karegi sharm woh“?), we see a woman cover her face with a veil, as if she’s taken a cue from his lyric and is blushing. But when he brushes aside the garment, you see what she was really trying to hide — an ugly bruise from a client.

This clash between the idealised fairy-tale world and the real world is a theme that runs throughout Saawariya. Later on, when Sakina has fun during an evening out with Raj — he serenades her with the terrific title track — you feel she’s finally shaking off memories of Imaan, but then the clock tower rings out, and she realises frantically that it’s time for her to go to the bridge on which she waits all night for her man. (Talk about a bridge over troubled waters!) Here, it’s a real-life moment that transforms, in a blink, into something out of a fairy tale. Sakina suddenly becomes Cinderella, and she runs away from Raj without even leaving behind the comfort of a glass slipper. Sakina lives in that dream world, waiting for a Prince Charming who’ll come and claim her and sweep her off her feet, and you can’t help wondering why Raj fails to understand that he can never ever break through that bubble of illusion. (That’s why, I think, Bhansali tells us at the outset that his story is set in a dream world, a “‘khwabon ka shehar.”?)

Then again, maybe Raj is simply an innocent optimist — an innocent, because the first time he walks into a bar, he asks for a glass of milk, and an optimist, because his capacity to love remains undiminished despite doling out pieces of his heart to practically everyone around him. (This includes Zohra Sehgal, in rip-roaring form as Raj’s landlady). And that’s the strangest thing about Bhansali. He has a loud, in-your-face style — a style that’s anything but subtle — but, at the same time, there’s so much nuance in his work, so much to dig into and so much to discover. That’s probably why the promos for Saawariya felt so weirdly incomplete, because a vision this wholly integrated cannot possibly make piecemeal sense. I’m still undecided whether I actually like Saawariya — it’s too cold a film to instantly embrace, and quite likely the coldest romance we’ve seen in Bollywood; its delusional characters are anything but sympathetic — but the way Bhansali has chipped away at the corners and painted in the nooks certainly leaves plenty to be admired from afar.

Copyright ©2007 The New Sunday Express

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi