Om Shanti Om tells the story of Om, a junior artist in the Bombay film industry of the 1970s, and Shanti Priya, a big star in a secret marriage with a film producer, Mike. Om is in love with Shanti. Om witnesses the brutal murder of Shanti by Mike because he wants to marry an industrialist’s daughter. The murder takes place at a palatial set that is burnt down by Mike leaving Shanti locked inside. Om is a helpless witness to this and is finally killed in an accident when he tries to get help. This story is largely set in the period of the late 1970s and early 1980s. We then move to the present and the story of reincarnation. Om is now a young man and a big star known as Om Kapoor (O.K.). In the second half of the film O.K. recalls his previous birth in flashes. The climax of the film is staged in the same palatial set with Mike, now a major Hollywood producer who has returned to India to resume business. A lookalike of Shanti becomes the bait through whom O.K. takes his revenge, killing Mike at the same site where Shanti was murdered.
Om Shanti Om was released amidst much fanfare. The film takes a popular reincarnation story to splinter the film industry into two moments of the present and the recent past. A junior artist’s relationship to the film industry, his murder, rebirth and act of revenge forms the narrative thread of the film. In taking Hindi cinema’s biggest star, Shahrukh Khan to play the lead, Om Shanti Om also displays an affectionate disposition for the cultures associated with popular stardom. Farah Khan’s portrait of the industry takes the spectators through a journey of film memory, insider knowledge and genre mythologies. Some have referred to Farah Khan as a historian of popular culture who brought to life an imagination of cinema set in the quintessential 1970s and early 1980s, particularly as some of the insider stories go back further to the 1950s.1 In an early part of the film, Om saves Shanti on a set that catches fire. This scene clearly cites a well-known accident on the sets of Mehboob Khan’s Mother India where the actor Sunil Dutt saved Nargis from a similar accident.
The film references the history of popular cinema through gestures, iconic moments, posters and narrative style. The title of the film comes from a film Karz/Debt (Subhash Ghai, 1983) with Rishi Kapoor in the lead. A moderate hit in the 1980s, Karz presented a revenge narrative based on the theme of reincarnation. Reincarnation was deployed earlier in 1958 by Bimal Roy in his film Madhumati but Karz had a different story and as the director Subhash Ghai himself has acknowledged, it was inspired by the Hollywood film The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (J. Lee Thompson, 1975). Farah Khan’s Om Shanti Om borrows its title from a popular song from Karz. Paying tribute to Ghai’s film, the director begins her narrative with the original sequence of the song which has Rishi Kapoor dancing to it on stage. The difference is that Shahrukh Khan, as Om, the hero of her film is standing and cheering with a crowd of junior artists. While the title Om Shanti Om is borrowed from Karz, the mise en scène draws a lot from Roy’s Madhumati.
Om Shanti Om is an ironic film that affectionately carves out a world of the film industry. But the film also presents a space of work that is not usually visible in a star-studded cinema. Thus throughout the narrative we are made to see the role of stunt artists, music directors, junior artists, set designers and various other kinds of work. Khan manages to use the two different periods of the film to showcase the changing landscape of cinema, stardom and other working practices of the industry. Thus in the first part, posters, costumes, gestures and dialogues evoke the high melodrama associated with the 1970s. Bela Makhija (Kiron Kher) as Om’s mother is a caricature of the mother phenomenon popular in the cinema of the 1970s. But behind this performance is the fact of identity, that of junior artists who live and work on the periphery of the industry. The film is clearly interested in foregrounding this world of work that exists beyond stardom, even if it is in the form of a feel-good fairy tale and revenge narrative.
Om Shanti Om lampoons the overall film culture associated with popular cinema and offers a fairly astute account of its functioning. This is most significantly developed in the comic interludes, the lavish costumes, and the award ceremonies. The typical and most recognizable gestures of wellknown stars such as Rajnikant are paraded in a series of comic sequences. The film’s desire to dialogue between two moments gives it a retro aesthetic. Retro as has been argued is a culture of revival, an imaginative phenomenon that can be tracked across different kinds of media. A retro past is also implicitly linked to either playful nostalgia or a loss of faith in the future. There is a desire to memorialise the utopian values associated with an earlier time and retro tends to embody a collective visual memory of the recent past.2 But how does one recreate this memory imaginatively on screen? This is where the role of production and costume design is so critical. It wouldn’t be wrong to suggest that Sabu Cyril as the production designer of the film performs the role of a playful historian of design, architecture and objects. The recreation of a material world temporally distanced from our present was staged in Om Shanti Om with an explicit desire for fantasy and irony, never to attempt realistic verisimilitude.
The role of sets is something the film highlights throughout. We are taken through these artificially constructed structures in Film City and the frames are busy with people moving objects and wood panels.3 The set becomes the temporal connection between the past and the present and is the place of memory and recall. The set is in fact created, burnt down, and then recreated for the final climax. The staircase, high ceilings, the chandelier, and the dazzling light draw on the space of the typical Hindi film living-room. In the studio we move through a maze of make-up rooms, editing rooms and projection rooms, drawing us into an invisible world of film production. Sabu Cyril created an ensemble of surfaces to mark the 1970s – from billboards advertising products such as Exide batteries to Ovaltine placed next to a banner of Sholay (Ramesh Sippy, 1975), a major blockbuster of the 1970s. Cyril’s detailing of the set was geared to enhance the director’s mobilisation of film culture as the backdrop for the story. For instance, the Sholay billboard says at the bottom – ‘still running’ – marking the film’s temporal world a few weeks or months after the release of the film in 1975. Cyril also presented a series of vignettes such as the art deco facades that dot Bombay’s urban scape. As someone who has one of the largest collections of design books, Cyril did extensive research to present the audience with the texture and identification marks of well-known Bombay buildings but combined this with his knowledge of Miami deco. Bombay deco’s original inspiration was always the Miami form and in combining building facades from both cities to create a hybrid texture, Cyril evoked a fantastical art deco architectural imagination for Om Shanti Om.4 The theatre where Shanti Priya’s film is premiered is sculpted by the camera to highlight its art deco ceilings, its facades and the single screen experience.
The first part of Om Shanti Om has a fairytale form that turns awry. In the second half we are introduced to film culture associated with the contemporary especially via song sequences. In a comic sequence, Om Kapoor, now a superstar arrives with great pomp to the studio. The crew has been waiting for a while. As soon as the star arrives he is told by the director that he has to perform grief as the woman he loves is being married off to someone else. Om is informed by the director that he is playing the role of a deaf, dumb and blind person with amputated arms! Om reacts to this and says the film will flop with such a handicapped hero. He then suggests that an item number be introduced (a typical song and dance performance commonly deployed as an attraction in mainstream Indian cinema). Though item numbers have traditionally been associated with women, in Om Shanti Om, Shahrukh Khan as the star performs the dance in a dream sequence. It was for this item number that the star worked on his body for over six months something that was released as information during the publicity campaign of the film. The very popular song ‘Darde Disco’ (‘The disco of heartache’) was used for the performance and became one of the high points of the film. This comic moment presented spectators with a bizarre set of mannerisms where the narcissistic hero demands an item song to which he would dance with a bevy of item girls. This sequence in a sense also establishes the two different moments of filmmaking staged in the film. The circulation of information about Shahrukh Khan working to build his body for the song generated a lot of discussion clearly showcasing the centrality of stardom and star discourses in the making of Om Shanti Om’s song sequences.
This fascination for star power is also visible in the other popular song of the film, ‘All cool boys come on make some noise’. Here the director draws on iconography associated with the spectacle of star-studded live stage shows performed across the world. These live performances by Bombay’s film stars have catered primarily to Indian diasporic audiences. Tickets for these shows sell on an average from around US$35 to US$500 and every show is almost always sold out. The shows are shot on video, generally using a 14-camera set-up, and rights for the telecast of these shows are sold to television channels like Zee, Sahara, Colours and Sony.5 The stage shows are lavishly mounted extravaganzas of stars, dance, fashion, music, brand advertising and technological wizardry – an event choreographed and laid out for an enthusiastic and highly receptive audience. The power of the live show and its attendant mise en scène is now a significant part of television iconography and not surprisingly the concept makes its way into Om Shanti Om when with the extremely popular song ‘All cool boys and girls’ we see the coming together of 31 stars for the first time in Hindi cinema. Performed like a little show within a film about film, the sequence foregrounds star spectacle as an important marketing device. Noone recognises the power of the live show more than Shahrukh Khan. Khan’s 2004 concert, Temptation, was produced by his own company, Red Chillies Entertainment. Temptation became a legendary tour of 27 cities around the world which was then organisationally managed and shot on video for telecast on television. It was Temptation’s success, captured on video along with the presence of wild and enthusiastically cheering crowds that made Khan realise just how popular he had become over the years.6 In Om Shanti Om, Khan’s own stature and position is displayed through his ability to bring together so many big stars. At the same time the star retains an upper hand working his way through the song’s aesthetic of ‘liveness’.
At the time of its release, Om Shanti Om was the highest grossing Hindi film ever. Its combination of ironic storytelling, nostalgia and exhibition of film culture via sets, costumes and songs was unique for its time. It also joins a number of films about the film industry made by directors with insider knowledge. As a film text about film culture, Om Shanti Om temporally marks a certain historical moment of industrial transformation and for this reason alone will continue to fascinate historians of cinema in the years to come.
1. Interview with director Anurag Kashyap, Bombay, January 2008.
2. Elizabeth E. Guffey, Retro: The Culture of Revival, London, Reaktion Books, 2006.
3. Film City in Bombay is an integrated studio set up built by the Mharshatra State Government to help the film industry. The space is landscaped and has lakes, rivers, grounds, mansions, recording spaces and many other facilities.
4. Interview with Sabu Cyril, January 2012. See also Mushtaq Shiekh, The Making of Om Shanti Om, New Delhi, Om Books International, 2008.
5. Interview with Mohammed Morani of Cineyug, Bombay, January 2005.
6. Mohammad Morani and Ali Morani of Cineyug recall how they were completely taken aback by the extent of Shahrukh’s popularity during the tour. (Interview, Bombay January 2005.) Nasreen Munni Kabir who travelled with the tour, had the same observation. (Interview, London, June 2009.)
Cast and Crew:
[Country: India. Production Company: Red Chillies Entertainment. Director: Farah Khan. Producers: Gauri Khan, Shahrukh Khan, Sanjiv Chawla and Anil Sable. Screenwriters: Farah Khan and Mushtaq Shaikh. Dialogue: Mayur Puri. Cinematographer: V. Manikanandan. Music: Vishal Shekhar. Editor: Shirish Kunder. Production Design: Sabu Cyril. Cast: Shahrukh Khan (Om Prakash Makhija/Om Kapoor), Deepika Padukone (Shanti Priya/Sandy), Arjun Rampal (Mukesh ‘Mike’ Mehra), Shreyas Talpade (Pappu Master), Kiron Kher (Bela Makhija).]
Charles Affron and Mirella Jona Affron, Sets in Motion: Art Direction and Film Narrative, New Brunswick, NJ, Rutgers University Press, 1995.
Ranjani Mazumdar, ‘Film Stardom After Liveness’, Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies, Vol. 26, No. 6, December 2012, pp. 833–44.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.