Feminist Bollywood: Om Shanti Om

A female director-screenwriter-choreographer makes basically the best Bollywood movie ever.

Om Shanti Om is available by DVD on Netflix and on Amazon Instant Video. The movie is partially based on Karz, available on Hulu.

Om Shanti Om movie poster, featuring Shahrukh Khan and Deepika Padukone.
Om Shanti Om movie poster, featuring Shahrukh Khan and Deepika Padukone. From Wikipedia

Om Shanti Om (2007) was, and remains, a huge movie. It made a ton of money ($23 million worldwide box office, on a budget of $5.4 million); it earned the highest number of prints up to that point; set a record in advance ticket sales; was nominated for and won a variety of awards for acting, directing, choreography, and more; and it’s number 7 on Box Office India’s list of all time grossers, 2000-2009. Nina Davuluri, Miss America 2014, danced to one of Om Shanti Om‘s songs for her talent.

If you have three hours to spare, I recommend dropping everything and watching the movie right now.

I’m embarrassed, for myself and for the U.S., that I first learned about this movie from Aasif Mandvi on The Daily Show when he discussed Shahrukh Khan being detained at Newark’s airport. I’ve talked about Shahrukh Khan movies before; he’s my favorite actor and one of the biggest Bollywood stars. Detaining him would be like another country detaining Tom Hanks. (Unfortunately, Khan was detained again in 2012.)

I try to spread my gospel of Bollywood for this reason: Entertainment is a way to see beyond our own borders and our own culture. It helps us see our own racism and biases and move past them.

Anyway. I watched the movie for the first time on New Year’s Eve 2009, and it was the perfect movie for ringing in the New Year. Because of that, I think of it as a holiday movie, though it’s not; it’s perfect for any time.

One caveat: This is still a man’s story, and suffers from some of the same problems as Paheli. The story should really be about women, but the lens is that of a male character and his journey. But it was directed and choreographed by a woman, the screenplay co-written by a woman, and the plot is largely driven by women.

And the music, costumes, story, and acting are all awesome.

Om Shanti Om is divided into two parts: Part 1 takes place “30 Years Ago” (the 1970s) and “30 Years Later” (2007). The plot focuses on Om (Shahrukh Khan) and his two desires: to be a famous movie star and to be with Shantipriya (Deepika Padukone).

The title of the movie refers to the main characters, the name of a movie Shantipriya is set to film and that later Om wants to film, and the opening line of a prayer.

The movie begins light-heartedly as Om attempts to win over Shantipriya. After a romantic evening, she declares she will have love. To his sorrow, Om learns this love is not to be with him but with producer Mukesh Muhra (Arjun Rampal). The twist is that Shantipriya and Mukesh eloped two years before; they have kept the marriage a secret so as not to hurt their careers. Now that she is pregnant, Shantipriya wants to reveal their relationship.

Mukesh reacts in the most logical way possible: He decides to murder Shantipriya on the now-scrapped Om Shanti Om set. Om happens to be in the area and tries to free her from the burning set. Mukesh’s goons beat Om to a bloody pulp; as he staggers into the road, he’s hit by a car. The driver, an actor named Rajesh Kapoor (Javed Sheikh) was driving his wife to the hospital; he takes the injured Om with him. Om dies as Kapoor’s wife gives birth.

Thirty years later, Om has been reincarnated as Om Kapoor (who goes by the nickname O.K.), a rich and famous actor. O.K. now has everything the original Om dreamed of. Gradually, O.K. starts flashing back to his previous life. After meeting with Om’s mother and a childhood friend, O.K. realizes who he was, what happened, and that he still needs to avenge Shantipriya.

O.K. is introduced to Mukesh at a party; Mukesh has been in Hollywood for the last thirty years, has a ponytail, and goes by Mike. Mukesh wants to make a picture with O.K.; O.K. declares it must be Om Shanti Om. He rebuilds the ruined sets and sets about finding a Shantipriya double to haunt Mukesh.

After several days of auditions, he meets Sandy, who looks like Shantipriya but doesn’t act like her. With help from Om’s mother and friend, as well as a team of stylists, Om gets her into shape. She appears on set and is inserted into film. Mukesh worries he is being visited by the dead.

Mukesh is so disturbed, he decides to return to Hollywood. O.K. implores him to at least stay for the music release party, to be held at the refurbished movie set. Sandy, dressed as Shantipriya, stalks around the set, casting evil glares. However, Mukesh sees her cut herself and bleed, and so he realizes the ruse.

Finally, Mukesh and O.K. are alone. Mukesh reveals he knows that there is no ghost. Sandy appears, and as O.K. tries to warn her away, she reveals what happened the night Shantipriya was murdered: This is not Sandy, but the actual ghost of Shantipriya. Mukesh attacks her, O.K. attacks him, shooting him in the leg. As Mukesh struggles across the floor, Shantipriya’s ghost drops a chandelier on him. She has finally been avenged.

The story, then, focuses on Om’s love, his reincarnation, and his drive for revenge. In the first half, a subplot focuses on Om trying to become a star, and in the second half, a subplot focuses on O.K. being a better son and actor. He is a famous actor largely because his father is one, but he is difficult to work with, showing up hours late and refusing to shoot multiple takes.

But there is more to the plot than just Om’s love. And indeed, at first he tries to win Shantipriya over, but once he realizes she is married, he stops his pursuit, only wanting for her to be happy.

The movie presents the bind Shantipriya finds herself in: She is a famous actress, but revealing she is married will end her career. At least Mukesh insists it will, saying that no one will want to watch a movie with a married lead actress. Shantipriya explains that she just wants to be his wife. However, the real issue is that she wants love. She is loved by her fans, but she wants romantic love. She loves Mukesh, and wants to create a family with him. Mukesh is clearly wrong (and evil) for trying to hide their relationship and, obviously, for murdering her. He doesn’t give her the chance to try to work as a married actress and see if her career really is over.

I don’t know enough about Bollywood in the 1970s to know if Shantipriya would have really had problems or if Mukesh was lying. Shantipriya, as a married woman, might have been pushed into “mother” roles. But take, for example, actress Nirupa Roy. She had a career that lasted 50 years and spanned nearly 50 movies; she was already married when she began making movies in 1946. Hema Malini also continued acting after her marriage in 1980. Of course, just because one is acting doesn’t mean one is a huge star or still receiving the “right” roles. I imagine “the mother” doesn’t pay as well as “the love interest.”

And while the second half of the movie is about O.K. seeking revenge, ultimately Shantipriya(‘s ghost) commits the final act of vengeance, killing Mukesh. Further, she needed more than just O.K.’s help, she needed Sandy’s help, as well as the help of Om’s mother (and his friend). O.K. by himself was not enough. Regardless, Shantipriya gets to commit the final act.

Om’s mother, Bela (Kirron Kher), is also an important force. She can be melodramatic, but she is clever and funny. Before Om was born, she had also been an actress. Her input is an important part of transforming Sandy into Shanti; she helps O.K. exact his revenge. Unfortunately, O.K.’s birth mother, Mrs. Kapoor, is never mentioned. She must have died sometime in the last 30 years, but there’s no mention at all after she gives birth to O.K.

Objectification is also an important part of Om Shanti Om. Mukesh is gross; one reason he doesn’t want to reveal his marriage to Shantipriya is because he’s trying to arrange another marriage for himself; later he hits on a much (much) younger actress. O.K. is surrounded by a stylist team he refers to collectively as “Babes.”

Yet.

O.K. tells a director his movie needs an “item song.” Traditionally, an item song is one completely unrelated to the plot (often taking place in a nightclub or similar that the main male character visits), and is an excuse to showcase a sexy actress (not the female lead, but another actress, sometimes making a cameo) in skimpy clothes. This item song, however, features O.K. (surrounded by sexy female background dancers), usually shirtless, and often covered in water. His body is objectified the way women’s bodies usually are. “Dard-E-Disco” has a catchy tune, but I think Shahrukh Khan’s abs contribute to its popularity.

Later in the movie, O.K. attends a party after winning an award. The party is an excuse to feature cameos from a variety of other Bollywood stars. Not only are cute young actresses featured, several older actresses make an appearance. The sequence, “Deewangi Deewangi,” is a reminder that beauty comes in many forms.

(And here’s some cross-culturalism: a German video of the song that lists all of the actors and actresses.)

Despite focusing on a man, Om Shanti Om is very much focused on what women want and who women are.

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Natasha

History. Hindi cinema. Hugging cats.

One thought on “Feminist Bollywood: Om Shanti Om”

  1. I love Om-shanti-om so much! One thing that I find fascinating about Bollywood is the musical culture surrounding it…. the soundtracks to the films are regularly released up to six months prior to the first screening of the film which means that people hear the music on the radio not just in India, but in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and North Africa even if they never see the movie. I find this interesting because the music for these soundtracks has to appeal to people from such a vast geographical area with musical traditions so different from each other.I think that’s why you get that hint of Kawali sound in Dard-e-disco, for instance. There are more examples of that kind of musical fusion/musical transnationalism in this film, but that’s the one I can think of off the top of my head (probably because of love the song!) .

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