There’s no worry of spoilers in this review, as Om Shanti Om’s filmmakers have ensured that by now every desi on Earth knows every last plot twist and turn. This odd juxtaposition of defensiveness (I imagine director Farah Khan thinking “hey let’s tell the audience just how old school this story is at excruciating length lest they expect Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham”) and unabashed indulgence mars what could have been a hugely enjoyable romp through ‘70s kitsch. Instead, we are given spoof masquerading as homage, and despite all the ingredients – an underdog, an upscale baddie, a maa, a mehbooba, reincarnation, and good triumphing over evil – the sine qua non of emotional heft and impact is missing, a cardinal sin in a film on the punar janam theme. The resulting brew is more khichdi than masala curry, and not all of Farah Khan’s and Shah Rukh Khan’s enthusiasm can salvage the dish. Which is not to say the film is bad – it is in fact quite watchable, and features some heart stopping moments that can only be done justice on 70mm – merely that it is empty and somewhat pointless. So are any number of Akshay Kumar comedies, of course, but those films aren’t so grandiose, and do not purport to distill Hindi cinema’s most iconic decade into a 2007 bottle. Nor can Om Shanti Om claim the benefit of the sort of zany subversiveness that compensated for the breeziness of the likes of Jhoom Barabar Jhoom or the initial reels of Jaaneman. Om Shanti Om could have been a classic, folks, and as it stands is a lavishly mounted missed opportunity.
It is 1977, and Om Prakash Makhija (Shah Rukh Khan) is a struggling extra on the sets of RC Productions, along with his trusty sidekick (a thoroughly wasted Shreyas Talpade). Om dreams of (what else?) becoming a big star one day, not to mention of winning the heart of the country’s heartthrob and “dreamy girl” Shantipriya (Deepika Padukone). The second of these ambitions does not seem quite so remote after a series of chance encounters between Om and Shanti, but we learn soon enough that Om is deluding himself, as Shanti has fallen for the cold charms of money-hungry producer Umesh Mehra (Arjun Rampal). One thing leads to another, and let’s just say Mehra is responsible for the deaths of both Om and Shanti, courtesy a spectacularly staged fire on the RC Productions set, the cinematic highlight of the film. Damn, arson has never looked so good. In any other country this might spell end of story, magar this is India, aur picture abhi baaqi hai mere dost: Om is reborn as Om Kapoor, son of a Rajesh Khanna-like yesteryear superstar Rajesh Kapoor (Javed Sheikh), and, by 2007, a brash, spoilt, young superstar himself. The pot comes to boil when Mehra decides to return to India to make a film with Om, part deux, who begins to receive visions of his former life. ‘Nuff said (let’s just say the fact that the film opens with a clip from Karz is not coincidental).
The first half of Om Shanti Om purports to be set in the 1970s, but is shot through with curious anachronisms: Karz was not being shot in 1977; the dacoit scene wherein Om Prakash plays an extra yelling “Bhaago!” is more reminiscent of the 1980s than the 1970s (the likes of Ganga ki Saugandh (1978) notwithstanding), as is the staging of a (tasteless) mock Tamil action sequence by means of which Om Prakash tries to impress Shanti, and the prominence assigned to Subhash Ghai. The slippage is not coincidental, and testifies to a certain intellectual dishonestly on the film's part: ‘80s badness is a lot easier to spoof than ‘70s cinema (easily the creative highpoint in Hindi film history), yet lacks the retro charm and groovy vibe of the earlier decade. The stereotypes Om Shanti Om peddles -- and that Shah Rukh Khan ceaselessly harped on in the promotional blitz leading up to the film’s release – of overactors and farcical cinematic situations, fit the 1980s far better than they do the ‘70s. Not surprisingly, Farah Khan focuses on the prominent exceptions – the likes of Manoj Kumar and an ageing Rajesh Khanna-clone – as soft targets to manufacture a general rule for the 1970s. In short, Om Shanti Om spoofs the 1970s by pretending they were the 1980s. The result is neither amusing nor subversive, merely insidious.
Farah Khan is on much surer ground when she spoofs contemporary Bollywood, skewering Abhishek Bachchan, Akshay Kumar, and Shah Rukh himself in a delightful Filmfare awards sequence, although this is nowhere near the cinematic equal of Salman Khan’s zany dream sequence in Jaaneman. Both the selling of the 1980s as the 1970s, as well as the Filmfare award sequence, illustrate the director’s real goal here: the coronation of Shah Rukh Khan not merely as heir to, but as the summa of the Hindi film tradition. Stated differently, the Filmfare sequence in Jaaneman “works” because director Shirish Kunder was interested in Hindi cinema; for all her stated fondness for 1970s cinema, Farah Khan seems interested in little besides Shah Rukh, nowhere more clear than in the Dard-e-Disco video. This obsessive focus is unfortunate, and leads Farah Khan to compromise on the verve we know her to be capable of: it is impossible to believe she could not have made a better video for the Deewangi song (featuring cameos from dozens of stars and minor celebrities) than the horrendously boring, formulaic sequencing of shots showcasing various members of the film fraternity cavorting with Shah Rukh at a party celebrating Om Kapoor’s Filmfare award. It is fitting indeed that here (and elsewhere) Farah Khan includes a fake applause track, evoking both the superficiality of the sitcom as well as the artificiality of propaganda. (The "manufactured" cannot completely stamp out the event, as illustrated by the hysterical crowd reaction at the single-screen I saw the film at when Salman Khan and Akshay Kumar made their brief appearances (including hooting from yours truly in the latter instance).) Farah Khan does a much better job with most of the other songs, although nothing in this film matches the campy fun of Tumse Milke neo-qawwali from Main Hoon Na. My favorite musical moment was the film’s closing credit sequence, paying homage to the entire team behind the film, and ensuring everyone a red carpet moment – capped by the director herself, who shows up not in a swanky car but in an autorickshaw, after everyone has left. It’s a nice, self-deprecating touch, and one scours the rest of the film in vain for more of this sensibility.
The director surely cannot blame her cast for anything here: Shah Rukh is in good form here, and his enthusiasm is infectious, even when he grates as the spoilt brat Om Kapoor. Shreyas Talpade is effective but thoroughly wasted in a role virtually anyone could have played. Deepika Padukone is striking but curiously passive, lacking in both the expressivity of a genuine actress as well as the charisma that enables a stunner like Aishwariya Rai to make an impact. The surprise performance comes from Arjun Rampal, who is a convincingly nasty baddie in both 1977 and 2007, and seems to be having a ball here. It’s a pity the villain is an endangered species in Bollywood today, for this year both Jimmy Shergill (on the strength of Eklavya) and Arjun Rampal have proved that they would make for good (contrasting) masala bad guys. Ultimately, however, the cast cannot be expected to rescue a film so devoid of drama, so manufactured and mediatized, so focused on promoting its male lead as historically indispensable to the Bollywood enterprise, and so very silly. By contrast, if you want to see how to pull off what could easily degenerate into farce, do yourself a favor and rent Kudrat and Karz instead.