Lessons from Bollywood: It’s more woke than The Academy

“If it’s not a happy ending, it means that your story is not over yet”. Though an underrated Bollywood flick, the arc words of Om Shanti Om represent the optimism and dynamic nature of the characters and dreams in one of the most iconic film industries in the world. 

Enter 1970s India. Think disco, think sequins, think bell bottoms. A turning point for both protest culture and cinema, the film marries both in a colourful melodramatic picture with Omi as our unlikely hero. 

Om Shanti Om follows Om, nicknamed ‘Omi’, as aspiring Bollywood superstar…but is not quite there yet. A shameless scene stealer as a film extra or mook in big budget films, Omi is a carefree guy with a heart of gold. Omi is the son of two retired small time actors, his mother in particular believes he has a great destiny ahead of him, hence the everlasting nature of his namesake. She gives him a red corded bracelet akin to the belief of the red string of fate. It is this bracelet that gets tangled in the sari of Bollywood Golden Girl, Shantipriya. Chance encounters and a Dulcinea-effect style crush culminate into Omi scratching the surface of a powerplay of a Bollywood producer and Shantipriya as the unwitting target. 

The unearthing of this dark secret results in Omi’s demise. But because this is Bollywood and because my reviews are spoiler free, this is only the beginning as Omi is reborn to face redemption in the 2000s film scene. 

Audience engagement: Like any good time shift film a la Donnie Darko, there is definitely a re-watch bonus which helps the viewer appreciate the attention to detail in dialogue, right down to costume choice. Note that this film is jam packed and over 3 hours long! It may not be for everyone. But rest assured, the foreshadowing allows for viewers to be engaged with the story through the two arcs of Omi’s life than just having the film as bland action. 

Visual Style: Om Shanti Om is colourful and upfront. This may not be for everyone. In my view, it is both in the true spirit of Bollywood while keeping up the 70s kitsch. Period films are almost completely dominated with productions and settings of Europe or the United States. It’s refreshing to see what 70s India may have been like with adopting disco beats to a local vibrato vocal, reinterpreting martial arts flicks to suit a South Asian style showdown and even the fashion history. The director even sneaks in homage to Phantom of the Opera, Carrie and various real-life Bollywood actors. Om Shanti Om is in many ways a hidden historical and visual treat.

Acting: No film is about a scene-stealer is complete without scene-stealers of its own. Kirron Kher and Shreyas Talpade are endearing and funny in their portrayals of Omi’s mother and best friend respectively. So much so that I think they carry their own scenes well enough to be memorable without the main character. The one who takes the cake however, is Deepika Padukone as Shantipriya, carrying herself with the reserved grace of an ingenue. What really made an impression for me was that through the politeness, the elegance, Deepika carried her character with an undercurrent of sadness. I was reminded of Princess Anne in Roman Holiday. Behind the smile, the eyes always seemed to well with tears as though to sing that line in Super Trouper, ‘facing twenty thousand of your friends, how can anyone feel so lonely?’. Every character’s scene is worthwhile. 

Arc themes and Social Commentary: With a title like Om Shanti Om, how can it not have a deeper symbolic meaning? The symbol Om in Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism represents the soul, signifying consciousness, spirituality and truth. The film does not shy away from questions such as “does one need to relinquish their Indian identity and cultural values to become successful?”. Not only is Om Shanti Om entertaining, key messages of persistence, preserving one’s culture and speaking out and protecting others with truth and integrity are sung and intertwined in an unapologetically Indian way, with love and enthusiasm in film. 

Predating the #MeToo era, Om Shanti Om was the precursor, one of the first blocks removed from the Jenga fort of the dark secrets of the film industry.  The villain, appearing in a cloud of cigarette smoke and dressed like a Don Corleone wannabe, is initially defended as one with great creative vision and as star maker for many a young actress. Yes, Om Shanti Om may be shamelessly ‘troperiffic’ but does this not remind you of conversations about many a disgraced director or producer? Noting that the movie is mainly directed and produced by women is an important part of providing context to the plot and its villain. How do we challenge this rhetoric in media? With the truth. Omi’s quest is one of truth and one of protecting those in future that will be affected by abuse of power and manipulation. 

Ultimately, Bollywood is far from just colours and song, like many an art form, it’s an active protest, a way to communicate issues to the movie loving culture that India…and possibly UoA too. 

For fans of: Avatar the Last Airbender, Phantom of the Opera, La La Land, Shanghai Noon, Queen, 3 Idiots, Cinema Paradiso