Farah Khan’s Om Shanti Om may be considered a story of reincarnation to some, but a closer look reveals undercurrents of redemption and transformation, in my eyes. The set structure of your run of the mill Bollywood film is present; the song-and-dance routines sufficiently populated with scantily-clad Western eye candy and a cornucopia of Bollywood celebrities. However, the plot of film still shines through, enticing the spectator to laugh, cry, and celebrate the conjoined story of Om Prakash and Om Kapoor.
The film is set in 1970’s Bollywood, where optimistic, selfless, yet gullible Om Prakash Makhija, a junior artiste, is unable to find financial or social success from his bit roles in films. He fixates his attention on Shantipriya, thus, a leading actress with a kind heart, who he rapidly falls in love with. The first theme in the film – exemplified by the mise-en-scene of the actual fire in which Shantipriya burns to death – is trial by fire. Om’s love for Shantipriya, their silent mutual affection, and Shantipriya’s devotion to the arsonist, her abusive, manipulative and ambitious Mukesh Mehra, are all put to the test in this sequence. Om rises to the challenge, defeating his cowardice to (unsuccessfully) save Shantipriya.
Shantipriya has already attempted to defy patriarchal expectations of women – particularly those that objectify single, female actresses – by demanding that Mukesh publicly proclaim her his wife (the camera pan and non-diegetic sounds highlighting the intensity of their exchange). This is the only attempt to portray women in a more feminist light in the film; Shantipriya, Bela, and even the cosmopolitan Sandhya are shown to be forgiving, and almost devotional in their worship of their husbands, sons, and favorite actors. They are portrayed as ‘vessels’ for the success of men; Harsh Mittal’s daughter allowing Mukesh Mehra to become ‘Mike’ in Hollywood, Om Kapoor’s mother the ‘vessel’ bringing Om Prakash back to life.
Most of all, they are portrayed as traditional. The entire premise of Om Shanti Om rests on the shoulders of traditions rooted in Hinduism, from which the Indian status quo mostly derives. Om Kapoor’s transition from a selfish, pompous and entitled to optimistic, hardworking, and compassionate can be considered his attempt to be more perfect, until he doesn’t have to reincarnate again. His transition begins at the Filmfare Awards, where the shot of Om Prakash complete with non-diegetic sounds heightens the emotions of the spectator intensely. I even noticed tears in my own eyes. The theme of redemption is evident here, as Om Kapoor reaps the social, financial, and career success that he couldn’t attain in his past life. He becomes a better son to his parents, and to Bela, redeeming himself through his compassion. Sandhya, Shantipriya’s lookalike, redeems herself in O.K’s eyes by becoming a better actress.
Mukesh Mehra, as the quintessential antagonist, possible sociopath, and abuser, embodies the “male gaze” and bluntly spills the film’s zeigeist through his hushed, yet forceful words to Shantipriya. Married actresses cannot be as successful as unmarried actresses in the film industry (objectification). Women should follow the orders and wishes of the men (patriarchal beliefs). A skilled manipulator, he uses both patriarchal tradition and secular modernism – the respective status quos in India during the 1970’s and 2007 – to justify his abuse of Shantipriya, gain financial success and climb the ranks of Hollywood. When Shantipriya’s ghost avenges her death by killing him at the same spot as her own, Amit Khanna’s statement about the “all-happy-in-the-end” quality to Indian cinema comes to mind.
Om Shanti Om is recommended; it may be a slightly drawn out cornucopia of non-diegetic sounds, costumes, as well as an over-the-top display of Bollywood in both the 1970’s and 2007, but it is sufficiently enticing to the spectator. It is a story of redemption, revenge, and reincarnation, with a few song-and-dance routines thrown in.
List of References:
- Ashish Rajdhyaksha, “The “Bollywoodization” of the Indian Cinema: Cultural Nationalism in a Global Arena”, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 4, no. 1 (2003).