ओम शांति ओम
This nervy director proves in her reincarnation saga Om Shanti Om what I already suspected after Main hoon na - that she knows better than anyone how to use Shah Rukh Khan. Om Shanti Om is not without its warts, but it's a solidly entertaining film, pure modern masala in the tradition of (and with cheeky homage to) the likes of Manmohan Desai and other masala greats of the past.
Om Prakash Makhija (Shah Rukh Khan) is a two-bit actor, struggling to rise above his junior artiste status in the competitive melee of the 1970s Bombay film scene. Advised by his sidekick Pappu (Shreyas Talpade), Om throws himself into his small parts, dreaming that someday, he'll be a revered hero. He has other dreams as well - he is in love with a young superstar heroine, Shantipriya (Deepika Padukone), and spends his free time pining before her three-storey effigy on a film hoarding. After a mishap on a film set, Om bravely saves Shanti from a fire, and the two become friends. Shanti has dark secrets, though, some of which involve the shady producer Mukesh Mehra (Arjun Rampal), and these lead to a calamity from which Om cannot save Shanti - or even himself. On his death Om is reborn into the body of Om Kapoor, the scion of a filmi dynasty, who grows up to be a spoiled, vapid diva of a superstar known in the biz by his initials, OK. Circumstances conspire to jog OK's memory of his past life, and he resolves to right the wrongs that led to Om Prakash and Shanti's premature demise.
Om Shanti Om is stuffed to the gills with self-referential humor and filmi references. The jokes come fast and thick, especially in the first half, and some of them are ingenious. A constant barrage of filmi jokes might or might not get tiring to someone who grew up with Hindi films, but to me it is a pure delight even to be able to get as many of the jokes as I do. There are hilarious spoofs of filmi conventions and filmi lore, clever uses of footage from classic films, and an absolutely uproarious Filmfare Awards ceremony in which nothing is sacred - everything is skewered, from Shah Rukh Khan's penchant for bubblegum romance to the recent trend toward sequel-mania to industry nepotism to the big egos of the stars. Even my beloved Shabana Azmi is not above the fray, joining a lengthy parade of superstars who give cute, self-deprecating cameo appearances.
And at the center of all the self-referential humor is Shah Rukh Khan himself, who cuts loose with all the body language and exaggerated range of facial expressions that his fans find so charming and the rest of us so irritating. But in Om Shanti Om, subtlety is not the order of the day, and Shah Rukh's special style fits right in, working well as broad, scene-chewing, physical comedy; as his character notes: "overacting mere khandan mein hai" - overacting runs in my family. This is the special intelligence of Farah Khan, and it's what makes her movies with Shah Rukh Khan great watching even for this non-fan - she knows not to use him in earnest. His excess of lover-boy intensity may induce eyerolls in a romance, but it's perfect for a Farah Khan musical dream sequence. Same for his lip-quivery emoting, which doesn't always pass for acting in a serious movie; it's perfect in comedy, as in the hysterical sequence where Om tries to tell Shanti his feelings - his poetically-formed thoughts come out in voice-over, while his eyebrows wobble and lips tremble, unable to form the words.
For all its side-splitting cleverness, the film has been criticized as a series of genius bits in search of a soul, and this criticism is not without merit. The reincarnation-revenge plot doesn't offer much to sink one's teeth into, and yet the film's second half drags in service of its resolution. And, as Beth points out, as fearless and terrific a woman as Farah Khan is, she doesn't give her heroine a whole lot to do. Deepika Padukone, here in her debut, is pretty and elegant as Shanti, and serviceable in her acting, showing the right mixture of innocence and melancholy. She fades in the second half, though; she has a few comic turns that she handles adequately but there's little of substance in her role. Arjun Rampal as the villainous Mukesh fades as well; an amusing homage to slick Danny Denzongpa characters in the first half, he recedes in the second half, losing his villainous edge just as good storytelling would demand that he get nastier.
If such weaknesses deny Om Shanti Om masterpiece status, though, they don't detract from the good solid fun to be had throughout most of this stylish, witty comedy. After an outstanding opening it will surely go on to reach blockbuster status in India, and it deserves to be seen and enjoyed; any fan of Hindi films should find something to laugh at within. And I remain a steadfast fan of Farah Khan and her special cheeky brand of spectacle. Here's to many more.