Sunday 22 September 2013

From the archive: "Om Shanti Om"

Om Shanti Om is, in every sense, the biggest Bollywood picture of 2007, a film in which choreographer-turned-director Farah Khan manages something Hollywood could only achieve if it somehow conceived a project with roles for Tom Cruise, George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Johnny Depp, Cameron Diaz, Kirsten Dunst, Nicole Kidman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Brad Pitt and Al Pacino. (In other words, this is what those Ocean's movies should have been.) It starts from humble beginnings: on the streets of 1970s Bombay, at the very centre of the Hindi film industry, where we find Shah Rukh Khan as Om Prakash, a "junior artist" (i.e. speaking extra) who falls for his ultra-glamorous leading lady Shanti (Deepika Padukone), though their courtship - curtailed by a possessive producer - will head towards tragedy on an operating table. The film's second half - sparked by an early speech Om has insisting there's no such thing as an unhappy ending, just an unfinished picture - begins all over again in 2007, with the star reincarnated as the spoiled moviestar son of an acting legend, who - while filming his latest, silly superhero flick - starts to feel as though he's walking in some very familiar footsteps, and sets about righting the wrongs of the past.

Déjà and vu are Khan's watchwords: the film's a riot of in-jokes, back-references and recreations. The 70s scenes return to the screen not just the dancing girls and courtesans that still adorned Bollywood films around this time, but also the naff chopsocky wherein grown men wrestled with patently stuffed tigers. All of this could be construed as flimsy nostalgia, but the filmmakers have an extraordinary amount of fun playing off the look (and, thanks to Javed Akhtar's A-grade songs, the sound) of 70s Bollywood against its 21st century equivalent. To counter any accusation of cheap shots, no expense has been spared; the credits thank Yash Chopra, and Om Shanti Om shares the veteran filmmaker's ability to put every penny of the production values right up there on screen, whether through lavish costumes, the blue-chip cast or some stunning location work. Chandeliers plummet from the sky like raindrops, while the climax of the first half takes place in a lavish ballroom that registers for approximately five minutes before being burned to the ground.

Khan's beloved status within the industry - as a choreographer on several prominent projects, she's done more than most to make sure no-one looks more foolish than they need to on the dancefloor - pays off in an award ceremony sequence just after the interval where anyone who's anyone in Bollywood circles shows up as themselves for a line of self-mocking dialogue or a dance, but the film also has moments - all connected with fire - where the knowing, postmodern pleasures of pastiche are superceded by pure and thrilling emotion. As the second half essentially replays the events of the first with narrower trousers and a more palatable ending, it's better structured than the majority of Bollywood releases, and the two Khans overcome anything hackneyed or nonsensical in the reincarnation plot with boundless energy and enthusiasm. As an expression of movie love, it's very hard to beat.

(April 2008)

Om Shanti Om screens on Channel 4 tomorrow night at 12.30am.

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