If you want to exude the essence of India, you can’t do much better than the tantric hum of this movie’s title. Om Shanti Om marks the second collaboration between choreographer-turned-director, Farah Khan, and superstar, Shahrukh Khan, and everything about the film brilliantly evokes the cultural transformation of India in the last 20 years, a heady mix of ancient spirituality and pop sensibility. Om Shanti Om lacks the buoyancy and vitality of their first picture, the masala musical, Main Hoon Na, but it’s irresistibly watchable.
Om Shanti Om plays upon the ancient principle that lies at the core of Indian dreams: reincarnation, the belief in new beginnings and opportunities. In 1977, Om Prakash (Shahrukh Khan) is an eager, movie-obsessed young man who with his friend (relative newcomer, Shreyas Talpade) loiters around Bombay and its film studios, daydreaming, catching any insight into the business of which he longs to be a part, and hoping to get a glimpse of his favorite starlet, Shantipriya (model Deepika Padukone, in her first film role). Like Farhan Akther’s superb Shahrukh vehicle, Don, that came out a year ago, Om Shanti Om revels in nostalgia for the swinging late ‘70s, presumably the magical movie years of Shahrukh Khan’s own boyhood. You get a sense of the energetic, slapdash masala films starring Jeetendra and Mithun Chakravarty (who appropriately, have cameos in this movie). The song “Doom Taana” is an ode to the song sequences of the ‘70s era musicals, as it goes from scenes of vivid, stately Bharat Natyam dancers to a jaunty dance on a tennis court - ancient India at worship and modern India at play.
There is, of course, a plot, though it’s not terribly important here. The melodramatic string of events involves the starstruck fan and the starlet falling in love, being thwarted by her menacing Svengali manager (played by Arjun Rampal, made to look absurd in his villainy, like a black leather clad Snidely Whiplash), a murder, a reincarnation, retribution, and reunification. Part Kahoo Na Pyaar Ke and part Somewhere in Time, Om Shanti Om wants us to share its epic romantic idealism, about a love so powerful that it spanned decades and transcended the laws of time itself. Shahrukh makes a concerted effort here, but Deepika Padukone is so blank and unemotive, that it’s hard to feel for her, or to care what happens to the lovers. In the scenes where the love story drips with solemnity and becomes, suddenly, and awkwardly, serious, the entire film becomes flimsy and unconvincing. We get a sense of the hair-pulling that must have happened backstage, with Farah Khan trying forcibly to wrench a plausible performance out of this beautiful, mechanical doll.
There is little on-location shooting, and the whole film is composed on a series of lush, color-saturated soundstage sets, not unlike the quickly staged (but entertaining) Arthur Freed musicals of the ‘50s - Brigadoon, The Band Wagon, and It’s Always Fair Weather. The soundstages here, as lavish as they are, add a tinge of claustrophobia, and as beautiful as all the scenes looks, they seem slightly artificial and confined. Director Farah Khan knows her cinematic language. The mise-en-scene is soaked in the romanticism of the films of the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, Bollywood and Hollywood, particularly the movies about making movies. Guru Dutt’s bittersweet love-letter to the Indian film industry, Kaagaz Ka Phool, the decaying film studio looming large, derelict, full of broken dreams and thwarted potential.
Om Shanti Om, however, is in danger of being undone by its own gaudiness. The soft-porn techno number, “Dard-E-Disco,” with the toned, chiseled Shahrukh striding the stage bare-chested in low-rise jeans and a construction helmet, made me cringe. Shahrukh is a handsome man, but the gratuitous exhibitionism is not his thing. And the extravagant masked ball sequence looked like it was lifted directly from Joel Schumacher’s Phantom of the Opera.
One song has received a lot of hype in the media, and that’s the “Om Shanti Om” title number, which affords several simultaneous cameo appearances by industry heavyweights. In an attempt to outdo the excitement of all cameos before and after, the song crams 31 major stars in the same room for dance number, packing them in like kids in a cafeteria fire drill. But what a show! Some of these actors haven’t been seen together in the same frame in over ten years, some never before at all. In its own way, it’s historic, and the audience is suitably dazzled.
Throughout the movie, I saw echoes of Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful and Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Scenes are full of the elusive, hypnotic nature of celebrity, wanting to be a close and as intimate with a star as possible - the obsession that fuels the existence of TMZ and E! Om Shanti Om doesn’t take itself too seriously with this fixation, but rather trivializes it through sentimental nostalgia for a more glamorous bygone movie era. The movie delights in the illusory pleasures of the past without providing a lot of emotional substance. But it’s entertaining in the way that a good musical comedy, whether it’s Singing in the Rain, or Hairspray, is entertaining. Full of color, energy, and unpretentious confidence.