Om Shanti Om: Bollywood for the Rest of Us

Singing, dancing, colors you’ve never even seen! Plus a Bollywood primer for us regular uneducated types.

It is certainly possible that you are thinking, “A Bollywood movie? Aren’t you going out on a limb here?” But listen up, people. I have a proposal.

SRK … abs?Are you tired of the endless onslaught of Britney paparrazzi video clips? Sick of seeing Brangelina all over the tabloids at the grocery store? Want a new set of celebrities to admire, ridicule, support, and drool over? Then the world of Hindi cinema is yours for the taking. It comes complete with tradition, history, lore, feuds, drama, romance, and scandal, and best of all, India’s finest actors and actresses don’t take breaks to do charity work or drug rehab, they churn out like a billion movies per year! Don’t have time to catch them in the theater? Live in a city where it’s hard to find a Hindi film on the silver screen? Don’t sweat it! They all come out on DVD in just a couple of months, ready to be Netflixed to your door.

No, no, no. Water, The Namesake, Monsoon Wedding, or any other Indian-made films that have made waves over here do not count as Bollywood. Bollywood movies are films that are made within the Bombay cinema system for a Hindi-speaking audience. They are usually at least three hours in length, almost never show people kissing (although that is slowly changing), and are completely saturated with very, very thick cheese. Oh, and they’re musicals. Bright, colorful, elaborately costumed musicals.

Please don’t misunderstand me, they’re not all going to be of Om Shanti Om‘s quality, for this film is jam-packed with acclaimed director Farah Khan‘s trademark humor and charm. But hey, even in Hollywood, you have to kiss a few M. Night Shyamalans before you find that special Bryan Singer. But do a little research, try a couple of films out, figure out how to adjust your expectations, and you’ll be on your way.

Just…don’t watch Om Shanti Om. Yet!

Deepika PadukoneIf you’re a seasoned Bollywood enthusiast, full speed ahead. Om Shanti Om is utterly enjoyable, exciting, moving (in its own way), and rich with fun details. The only problem for B’wood newbies is that much of its wit relies on a fairly good knowledge of Bollywood, present and past. By far the most popular Hindi actor, Shah Rukh Khan (or “SRK,” as he’s usually dubbed) is Om, an actor working for bit parts (“junior artiste”) in Bombay at the height of classic 1970s Bollywood. He has a major crush on Shanti (played by newcomer Deepika Padukone), the reigning It-girl of his cinematic world. Well, one thing leads to another, she dies in a fire set by her secret husband, he gets reincarnated into a major actor’s son, he has to avenge her death thirty years later, singing, dancing, rock hard abs…same old, same old. The plotline is pure Bollywood, but the setting allows F. Khan to do some pretty clever stuff with endless yet still thrilling cameos, jokes and puns that allude to past movies, and even fake trailers that poke fun at the repetitiveness of the industry. And sometimes it’s almost a relief when Hindi films make fun of themselves, because after awhile you start to wonder, “Are the audiences for this film seriously convinced by that dude’s feeble attempt at crying? I mean he blatantly just said ‘Shit! I am sad! Boo-hoo!'”*

Now, I’m not what I’d call “seasoned,” but I’ve actually seen dozens of Bollywood movies, my interest piqued in 2001 by Lagaan. I’ve sampled films from a few decades. I know a few of the family trees. I own a few soundtracks. I’ll drink a few glasses of wine and force people to watch the train scene from Dil Se. But I missed at least 50% of the jokes in Om Shanti Om. I could tell they were supposed to be funny due to the masses of Indians surrounding me in the theater, laughing it up, but I myself only caught the most completely obvious references.

Even knowing that you’re missing out on Farah Khan’s subtleties doesn’t dampen the experience, though. I took some total rookies with me to the Byrd, who were kind enough to shell out $12 and sit for 3.5 hours. But man, did they love it. Despite the mysterious allusions, blaring soundsystem, and, let’s face it, song-and-dance numbers, they still thoroughly enjoyed themselves. So maybe I’m wrong, maybe Om Shanti Om is a fantastic place to start. After all, it does wet your whistle by giving you an entertaining look at Bollywood then and now. It does feature a million cameos that you won’t get now, but might appreciate later on when you’re watching Amar Akbar Anthony or Kal Ho Naa Ho. And it certainly does feature SRK at his saddest, happiest, silliest, and hottest.

So, OK, if you didn’t catch Om Shanti Om at the Byrd last weekend and you’re interested in starting up a relationship with the world’s largest movie industry, here are your action items:

  1. Get a copy of Lagaan, it’s one of the easiest Bollywood movies to take seriously. A big epic underdog story, Lagaan is light on the cheese and heavy on the good, not-ridiculous songs (by the Andrew Lloyd Weber of Bollywood – A. R. Rahman). The guy who produced it, Aamir Khan, is also the star. It’s his thing to be taken seriously now, but later on you can find some of his earlier films and laugh at his leather outfits.
  2. Now that you know a little about what to expect, Netflix Main Hoon Na. Also directed by Farah Khan, similar cast, elaborately entertaining. Now you have an SRK comedy under your belt, and you won’t be weirded out by sudden, unexpected weeping in the future.
  3. While you have SRK on the brain, I think it’s safe for you to rent Dil Se, which is a film about serious jams in Kashmir. If you watch it after an American drama, it will seem ridiculous, but if you watch it after Main Hoon Na, it will be the gravest piece of art cinema you have ever seen. (With songs, of course.)
  4. Let’s do a contemporary drama with some really light-hearted stuff next. Kal Ho Naa Ho features my second-favorite Hindi actor, Saif Ali Khan, as well as SRK an the adorable Preity Zinta. The songs in this are among the best, and Kal Ho Naa Ho features a really funny scene that makes a fun of Lagaan, and at this point you will be all “Hey whoa! I get the joke!” Congrats!
  5. Next, treat yourself to Sholay. This will be your introduction to the biggest Bollywood legend ever, Amitabh Bachchan. Sholay is a good film on its own, and references to it are constantly popping up in other movies. I believe it even got an Oscar nod in 1975 for Best International Film.
  6. You are now sufficiently primed to watch both Amar Akbar Anthony and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, two of the most famous and most popular Hindi films ever made. The former (made in 1977) is a complicated and almost Shakesperean tale of three brothers, starring Amitabh Bachchan, Rishi Kapoor, and Vinod Khanna. If you’re feeling brave, and easing into things isn’t your deal, watch this one first. It is guaranteed to entertain and charm. DDLJ is the quintessential romantic comedy, Hindi-style. It is SRK and his most lovable leading lady, Kajol at the top of their lovesick game. Warning, you will want to own both of these, but that’s OK, because you can usually find Hindi DVDs online for reasonable if not suspiciously cheap prices.
  7. I can’t withhold Om Shanti Om from you any longer. By the time you are finished with the above flicks, it will have been out on DVD for months, and the frenzy that will inevitably follow its release will have died down. You may now enjoy it to the fullest. (If you need to cheat and watch it early, go ahead and watch it again now. It’ll be like re-watching a Disney movie you loved as a child. Oh, the jokes you will get!)

SRKThis should get you on the right track (that is, the track that ends with SRK’s glorious 8-pack). From there you should be able to pursue your own likes and dislikes (I predict you will like Aishwarya Rai, particularly if you are male. She is the equivalent of the aforementioned 8-pack). Now go, queue things up, and practice saying to yourself in the mirror, “It is OK to jump up and dance in my own home.”

*One of the most jarring things about Bollywood cinema is that the actors tend to curse in English at really odd times, but no one seems to find it strange. The best example of this that I can think of is a part in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, when Salman Khan (my least favorite Bollywood actor) throws his arms out wide in rapturous agony, yells “Shit! I love her!” in English, and falls backwards, fully-clothed, into a pool.

**And if you’re still not convinced, let me be the one to inform you that
there is a major Bollywood star WITH ELEVEN FINGERS. True story!

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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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