(I relented for Archangel. But now you are being a bit… ridiculous. What possible warning could I give for this film that would ruin your experience, at least plot-wise? So no, you won’t get the warning. Nyaah Nyaah! )
If the postmodernist aesthetic is characterized (sometimes) by the collision of multiple worlds resulting in a deranged hybridization of incoherent mumblings springing from information overload, eventually leading to a welter of narrative wisps devoid of meaning, then what form would the Indian postmodern aesthetic assume? Postmodernism has been a largely Western concept, and my question seems irrelevant as Indian films have barely addressed modernity itself. Of course, I write this even though I am fully aware that I am no film historian, let alone Indian film historian, but the prevalence of modernity in the mainstream at least is barely visible. Some films, like Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Ellipathayam and Satyajit Ray’s The Music Room, observe the gradual decay of nobility in an increasingly capitalistic world, but both films are through the lens of an antiquarian, and while they might offer commentary politically, the modern condition isn’t addressed viscerally. ‘Modern’ films largely deal with the political, be it in caste, religious or gender politics, but the addressing of emotions increasingly unique to our times – alienation, dissonance and ennui to name a few, isn’t prevalent. But for a maverick like Kamal Swaroop, these demurrals, like his unclassifiably irreverent film Om Dar-B-Dar, are meaningless.
By gleefully bypassing modernism through absurdly fragmented surrealisms, Swaroop posits that our Indian society is postmodernist intrinsically, regardless of the prevailing religious conservatism and contradictory philosophical musings, or rather, because of it. Om Dar-B-Dar abounds itself in contradictions stemming from a pre-colonial aspiration to ape our imperialist masters and a post-colonial nationalism to forge our identity based on the self-designated superiority of our culture (a euphemism for the arts and philosophy dictated by religion). These contradictions, supplemented by a smattering of quasi-scientific religious aphorisms, pseudo-moralistic science fiction, religiopolitical philosophical restructurings and pop mythicisms, form a crudely tenuous postmodernist pastiche that explains the film’s (and our society’s) idiosyncratic inexplicability.
To summarize the plot of Om Dar-B-Dar would be a mere tossing of nouns and adjectives, an exercise in frivolity. A sense of incomprehensibility is common to most postmodernist works, as its aesthetic tends to soak in the confusion and meaninglessness of its themes. But even the most difficult of postmodernist works have a loose narrative or thematic thread that the work is woven around, allowing us to latch onto the thread as we spout our theories. Om Dar-B-Dar, on the other hand, is avowedly non-committal to any theme, let alone plot. In my previous review of Archangel, another postmodernist film, I wrote that film’s evolution according to its whimsical logic is perfectly suited for Maddin’s deranged universe. With Om Dar-B-Dar, there is seemingly no logic, so is this film a mere aesthetic exercise? If I chastised Joker for its empty aesthetics that amounted to nothing politically substantial other than its glib edginess, shouldn’t I also accord the same response to Om Dar-B-Dar?
With Om Dar-B-Dar, one gets the feeling that Swaroop was teeming with ideas to explore Indian postmodernity but lost his narrative focus as he continually refined his aesthetic. This is probably the reason why any semblance of a coherent narrative is snatched from us to our annoyance, only to regale us with ingenuity in the subsequent scenes. I don’t mean this as any form of insult, but rather, a compliment of sorts. Instead of straining to edify the film through the grandiosity of his ideas like Aronofsky in mother! , colluding multiple political viewpoints to give the veneer of penetrative intellectuality or awkwardly jutting a narrative, Swaroop delights in subverting all Indian cinematic expectations to create an anti-cinema of sorts, riveting us in his hilarious ingenuity even as he frustrates by refusing to give even a whiff of conventional narrative. This gleeful abandonment of meaning and theme strips the film of any grandiosity and pretentiousness while allowing us to bask in the sheer absurdity of not only its unique aesthetic but of Indian society itself.
A film of its time and still, sadly and surprisingly, relevant, Om Dar-B-Dar relentlessly mocks our interspersing of Western concepts with Hindu religion, thereby mingling the sacred with the profane, the carnal with the divine, and antiquity with modernity. I say sadly because the shotgun marriage of two conflicting concepts is still prevalent today, and it is indeed as shown in the film. Advanced scientific concepts are imbued with a condescending religiosity, and Hindu beliefs are given a modern twist through the introduction of edgy trends and cinematic titbits. This manifestation of the hip INDIAN personality results in the establishment of the ‘cool’ astrologer in the film who dabbles in pseudo-scientific claptrap to give his astrology some more heft. Religious veneration, casual sexism and burning sexual passion all commingle in a man’s love for his woman, depicted by his hesitancy to touch her even though he stalked her with unbridled lust initially, burdening the woman to make the choice instead. A more bizarre film dialogue but unfortunately not false is the equation of the emancipation of women with wearing of …. sleeveless dresses. Even when the film’s characters wish to address the independence of women a bit more seriously, religious parallels are drawn to imprison them further. Nearly every chimeric societal notion echoes strongly under the BJP government today, be it in the form of religious science congresses or the puritanical theories of sex and women foisted on us.
The aforementioned paragraph speaks more about the Hindu religion more than anything else. Since India is a melting pot of diverse religions, it would be more accurate to call this a Hindu postmodernist film than Indian. No, this is not me being ‘politically correct’ or pedantic. Swaroop himself tacitly acknowledges this, with the Muslim postmodernist experience registering merely as a footnote. But even in a footnote, Swaroop shows his ingenuity, with the prayers of a Muslim man in a mosque overlaid by the sounds of Hanuman Chalisa (a Hindu hymn). Even for the Muslim, it’s impossible to extricate himself from the dominant Hindu narrative. Swaroop acknowledges his privileged Hindu gaze through this, probably saying that the postmodernity of the minorities involves, in some form or the other, the hegemony of the majority.
Om Dar-B-Dar challenges Indian cinematic conventions not only through its aesthetic and subversion of narrative but also through its inclusion of three songs whose appearance is impossible to predict, thereby critiquing mainstream films that inject songs inorganically and purposelessly. Even in its evocation of songs, Om Dar-B-Dar satirizes some aspects of Indian society, and this is especially true of Bunty Babylon Se, a song that figures only in radio shows as requested by the family. While the song is meant only for two lovers, they dedicate it to the entire family as is expected of Indian households. When one removes his name from the song dedication, the host explicitly mentions his surprise at this removal on the radio, lampooning our officiousness and notions of the grand Indian family. The other song, Meri Jaan A A A, made a little more famous because of Anurag Kashyap’s open acknowledgement of its influence on Emotional Atyachaar in Dev D, is even more inventive in its staging and enjoyably daft. By invoking the brass band in its instrumentation, Meri Jaan A A A successfully portrays the outlandish celebrations of the grand Indian weddings, while toying with flippant Freudian symbolism. The film too is laced with Freudian ideas and imagery, but as a line from the song – ‘Oh my Freud, Oh my fraud!’ indicates, it’s better to laugh rather than analyse its silliness.
To call the film merely quirky is a disservice to its ingenuity, especially when it packs in so much aesthetically and satirically. Arguably, it’s the quirkier portions of the film that occasionally cause its uproarious intensity to sag a little. Swaroop’s possible penchant for alliterations makes him coin a unique sci-fi concept in the form of terrorist tadpoles (Only a bloated, bombastic buffoon would adopt alliteration always as a justification for his indolent indulgences masquerading as mannerist, and term it as sophisticatedly silly style. I am a bombastic buffoon.) characterized by a student’s aversion to zoology. While the quirkiness of the concept and the schlocky special effects of the Rana Tigrina song initially held my interest, the quirkiness gradually atrophied to mild boredom because it just couldn’t sustain its humour, unlike the film’s postmodernist affectations.
Om Dar-B-Dar, by casting aside any intellectual pretensions, gives us a riveting and unique cinematic experience while propounding a manneristic postmodern aesthetic through the dialectical synthesis resulting from the convergence and convolution of multiple ideals. Its why the film operates with a ridiculous ease that never seems heavy-handed. Swaroop offers us various postmodernist templates that are ripe for exploitation for more cogent works on these subjects. The important question from the Indian cinematic perspective is, has there been any?
I tried googling ‘Postmodern Indian films’, and all I got was a book talking about postmodernity and Bollywood. Naturally, there is some postmodernity involved in all films, with many invoking other films to inspire its aesthetic, mood and character as it subsequently reshapes them according to the times. Again, I accept my glaring lack of knowledge on Indian cinematic history, but at least the internet should provide me with some sources in the right direction. I drew a blank again, though I tried altering my search terms. Unfortunately, even Swaroop’s career after this film is unknown, with no critical auteurist reading and the only information available is a list of his films on Wikipedia. This made me wonder: Just how many inventive Indian films are consigned to the margins, waiting to be excavated by dedicated cinephiles?
Considering its irreverent subversiveness, I am surprised that the film managed to get a commercial release, even though it took 25 years to achieve it. The release ignited its flame of fame that was almost extinguished as soon as its theatrical run ended. I say almost because the film’s existence is still known because of its Wikipedia page, which funnily remarks that the film gained popularity among critics and scholars. Realising the veracity of the statement immediately, the article mentions the oft-forgotten blog of a more casual (until now), yet very capable critic (perhaps more than most mainstream reviewers), Srikanth Srinivasan, and uses his review to justify the film’s general critical opinion. Only other ‘critiques’ are offered as videos on YouTube through Anurag Kashyap and Kiran Rao’s praise, Imtiaz Ali’s befuddling comment made perhaps in the spirit of the film’s befuddlement, and the comedy group All India Bakchod (AIB) saying that the film is supposed to be “acid on acid”. Further perusals for critical commentaries only come from two mainstream outlets, livemint and News 18, rest are located in blogs. The film’s supposed renaissance did the bare minimum to catapult it to the fringe, while Swaroop’s career is still languishing in obscurity.
I am not indulging in hyperbole when I consider this film to be among the freshest, most cutting edge and original of Indian films. To those of you who are wondering where I watched it, I saw it on Mubi where it is available for a limited time. Another option would be to rent the film on cinemasofindia.com. It’s probably also there on Amazon Prime, but since I am in Europe, it’s not accessible to me. It’s puzzling to see such a ‘cult’ film not even getting a DVD. It’s an even bigger crime when no palpable efforts are made to resurrect Swaroop’s forgotten career. It’s appalling that few critics go beyond mainstream cinema, and the ones that do go, like Srikanth, aren’t as popular as the rest. The film’s future and possibly, Swaroop’s career, are in the hands of the filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap. I sincerely hope that in some way or the other, he or anyone else can push a DVD release for the film and subsequently bring Swaroop’s career to the limelight. Such a move could galvanize more filmmakers to push the boundaries of Indian cinema.