By Riddhiman Basu
“Forget Bunuel, Jodorowsky or Warhol for a while! If there’s a single Indian film that draws you towards mind-blowing realm of post modernist…absurdist…surrealist blast to the senses, here’s the cult made by Kamal Swaroop.” This had been the reaction of one of my facebook friends(Hiren Dave), after watching ‘Om Dar Ba Dar’. This is considered to be a groundbreaking film in Indian cinema, pertaining to the avant-garde genre.
The term avant-garde film refers to the genre of innovative and experimental cinema. Avant-garde as a film movement started in Europe in the early 20’s notably among filmmakers like Rene Clair, Man Ray, Duchamp etc. In 1929 film auteur Luis Bunuel in collaboration with artist Salvador Dali created a short film ‘Un Chien Andalou’, that would become a benchmark for avant-garde films all over the world. The genre gradually spread to other parts of the world and resulted in various flavors of experimental filming. This was possible because avant-garde did not restrain itself to any particular format, rather opened up a boundless arena for experimentation on celluloid.
India did not lag far behind. Though avant-garde did not emerge as a major movement during the Indian New Wave, there have been attempts at experimental cinema since 1969(Uday Shankar’s ‘Kalpana’(1848) did contain elements of avant-garde, however, it is debatable whether it could be called a full fledged avant-garde film). However the first feature length film that could be classified as avant-garde (though not necessarily synchronous with the avant-garde movement) came in 1988 from the hands of an auteur known as Kamal Swaroop. ‘Om Dar Ba Dar’, was also the first avant-garde film to get national and international recognition and is still widely viewed and discussed among film enthusiasts.
Kamal Swaroop, a 1974 graduate from FTII Pune had previously worked on a collaboration project, ‘Ghasiram Kotwal’(1976) with the likes of Mani Kaul and also assisted Richard Attenborough during filming of ‘Gandhi’(1982). ‘Om Dar Ba Dar’ was his first solo film. Its release was preceded by a huge controversy in the censor board. However, it won Filmfare Critics Award for the Best Film in 1989. Today, after 20 years of its release, this film has attained a cult status.Preview
The film is a satirical representation of Indian life as a whole. However, this statement fails to give any insight into the film that is absurdist to the core. It eludes conventional narrative structure in general and comprises of a series of psychedelic and non-linear imagery that does not attempt to make sense on a whole. It rather comes across as a deconstruction of collective meaning.
At this point, I would try to give a brief overview of what distantly resembles a plot for the film. Om(Manish Gupta/Aditya Lakhiya) lives in Ajmer. His father Veer Shankar(Lakshminarayan Shastri), who is referred throughout the film as Babuji, is a retired government employee cum astrologer. After Om was born, Babuji discovered that he was destined to die at the age of 18 years, from his horoscope. He named the newborn child Om in an attempt to evade the agents of death, since he believed that the sound of ‘Om’ has never been heard in the jamalok. Om’s elder sister Gayatri(Gopi Desai) considers herself equal in stature to men and sits in men’s section of theatre to emphasize this. Jagdish(Lalit Tiwari), a young man shifts to Ajmer from Jhumritalaiya. He falls for Gayatri when he spots her bold demeanor in the cinema hall. He is further elated to discover that he and Gayatri have been requesting the same song on radio for years. Om meanwhile gains popularity in school due to his ability to hold breath underwater for a long time. Babuji buys Gayatri a bicycle. Jagdish takes the task of teaching her how to ride it. They come closer. Om celebrates a friend’s birthday at a terrace on the same night that Neil Armstrong and his crew land on the moon.
As days pass, we see Babuji setting up an astrology centre in his home and Jagdish becoming his typist. Gayatri also helps Babuji in receiving clients and carrying out the business.
Om has grown into a teenager. He is interested in science as well as mystics and occult and has a fascination for frogs. A lady named Phoolkumari(Anita Kanwar) arrives to consult Babuji. Since she is unable to pay them money, Babuji and Gayatri decide to appoint her as a typist, citing that Jagdish’s spelling is bad. This enrages Jagdish and he breaks off contact with them.
Om is in an adolescent phase and is attracted to Phoolkumari. Lala Lotamal, a businessman on fearing an approaching war; hides his diamonds in the soles of a pair of his shoes and gives it to Babuji for safekeeping.
Meanwhile, Jagdish visits Gayatri. She compels him to get involved physically with her. One day, Om runs off wearing the shoes with diamonds, unknowingly. Babuji suspects Phool and she puts a curse on him which would make him unable to leave his room forever. Om arrives at Lotamal’s private land where some of the diamonds fall off and are swallowed by frogs. When Lala Lotamal comes to claim the diamonds, Babuji convinces him that he has crushed the diamonds and mixed it in the food he is being served. He also instructs Lalaji to hold his bowels for fifteen days and defecate in his land on the night of full moon in order to sow an unlimited supply of diamonds. He also warns him that if anyone sees him in the process, that person should not see anyone else till morning. Lalaji goes to his own land on full moon night in order to comply. Om spots him in the act. Lalaji remembers Babuji’s advice and appoints Om as the guardian of his land. Om starts supplying frogs to a local girls’ school for biology practical lessons.
When these frogs are dissected in the Biology class, the girls discover diamonds in them. The word spreads and leads to a frog-hunt on Lalaji’s land by a mob, in search of diamonds. Though the diamonds have actually fallen off from Om’s shoes, Lalaji believes that they have come from his feces. Lalaji tries to stop this and is shot.
When Om returns home, Babuji tries to catch him. In the process he crosses the verandah and dies due to Phool’s curse. Om arrives at Pushkar. A local Brahmin discovers his ability to hold breath underwater and plans to utilize it for moneymaking. Since the time of Pushkar festival is approaching, he convinces Om to do his breath holding trick every night at 12. This brings a mass of pilgrims to the lake every night. The media also get interested in this event and various brands use Om to promote their products. The people are inspired by Om’s feats and decide to hold their breath along with him as a movement. Om’s discussion with his friend leads him to believe that since his nature is to hold breath, he should breathe once in order to participate in the peoples’ movement(A Saans a ra andolan). He dies underwater when he tries to breathe and his dead body floats up.
Jagdish comes to visit Gayatri after a long time and finds that she has given birth to a child(presumably a result of their lovemaking). He pleads for forgiveness and Gayatri finally obliges. In the end they contemplate suicide by taking potassium cyanide(KCN) and plan to let the world know about its taste. Jagdish takes it first and instructs Gayatri to take down the taste of KCN, since he is weak at spelling. He utters “Gobar”(implying that KCN tastes like cow dung) before dying. Gayatri changes her mind, abandons the suicide plan and returns home in a bike.
Though the above summary seems logical and linear, the actual treatment is far from it. Many parts of the plot come in reverse and juxtaposed sequences with respect to time. For instance the event of Om arriving at Pushkar is shown before he meets Lotamal in his land. Also the sequence of Lalaji coming to console Gayatri after his father’s death is shown after the sequence of him being shot dead during the frog-hunt. However, such non-linearity is perhaps the least of befuddling elements in the movie.
As mentioned before, the film does not have a collective meaning, a fact that aligns it with the principles of absurdism (human beings’ inability to comprehend an absolute meaning in the universe). However, characteristics or symbolisms can be discerned if we look at the movie in parts. Indeed, the film contains a myriad of varying themes and traits referenced at multiple junctures in the narrative/anti-narrative.
My attempt would be to enumerate some such key elements of this unique film:
- Examples of non sequitur logic(e.g: all a’s are b’s) are strewn throughout the movie. One example that comes to my mind is towards the beginning, when Gayatri asks Om, “Tujhe kaise pata barish hone wali hai ?”(How do you know it is going to rain?) and Om replies “Tu Kangi jo kar rahi hai”(Because you are combing your hair. Many of the dialogs in the film follow this pattern. Besides this, many of the dialogs are deliberately incoherent and incongruous to produce a nonsensical effect.
- Another central theme of the movie is the effortless intertwining of science, religion and superstition in Indian life. When Gayatri asks, “Kya koi ladki ladke ke bina Everest chad sakti hai?”(Can any woman climb the Everest without the help of a man?); Jagdish replies, “Parvati ji Chadi Thi”(Godess Parvati did). Again when Gayatri says, “Suna hai chand pe nani ka post khali hai”(I’ve heard that the post of the old lady on moon is vacant), Jagdish in turn asks, “Tum kat leti ho?”(Can you sew?) . The chand ki nani is referenced again on the day when man lands on the moon. Amidst the celebration on the terrace, we see a woman with white hair smiling just when the time of the moon landing arrives.These aspects may seem to be abstract amalgamations, however if we think how science, religion and superstition serve as driving factors for an average Indian citizen, this treatment assumes a very significant relevance.
- Gayatri’s part in the movie is perhaps the only linear aspect in the whole film and integrity can be found between the fragments of the narrative relating to her. This is perhaps because views on women’s liberation come through her. She considers herself equal to men and sits in the men’s section of movie theaters, rides a bicycle etc to prove it. In one sequence, she asks Jagdish to make love to her. When Jagdish fumbles with the strings of his underwear, it is Gayatri who brings the scissors and cuts the string. Their lovemaking in portrayed through a humorous metaphor. We see Babuji calling out Gayatri’s name and cycling to and fro in front of their house. Here Babuji is physically not present, rather is a symbolism for the patriarchal inhibition, seemingly for protecting a woman’s virtue before marriage. Babuji collapsing with the cycle signifies the event of Gayatri’s capsizing this inhibition.
- The scenario of a woman asking for sex rather than succumbing to a man’s desire was seldom seen in the cinema of that time. This is one of the aspects among others, which illustrates that Kamal Swaroop’s masterpiece was much ahead of its times. The director has maintained an egalitarian outlook throughout the movie. Thus, Gayatri gives birth to a child without marriage and raises her alone. Towards the end Jagdish takes Gayatri along to the edge of a cliff in the attempt to commit suicide by tasting KCN. He mentions about udhna or flying together. However, we witness, only Jagdish taking KCN and dying. Gayatri changes her mind and returns on a scooter, as a strong departure from Bollywood love stories depicting the hero and heroine dying together. Here the flying becomes a double ended metaphor, one for suicide and the other for Gayatri’s liberation.
- The sequences involving Om comprise of the most bizarre and abstract imagery in the whole film, be it the dream sequence hinting at his fear of examination (biology), or the ‘Rana Tigrina‘ song. Om’s fetish with frogs is evident from the sequence of this song ending with Om supposedly gripping the picture of an attractive woman and the sequence where a dead frog is referred to as ‘ladki ki laash’(Corpse of a lady). This could be a subtle hint towards zoophile tendencies. Om’s comment about his growing nose obstructing his view(“Jab bhi mai padta hun, naak akshar kha jaate hai”) and the fact of his nose bleeding, is an indicator of the fact that Om has grown up, reached an adolescent age. Phoolkumari puts her black glasses on his eyes, which she claims would enable him to read properly.
These simplistic scenarios in my opinion represent Om’s adolescent craving and the sexual undercurrents between Phool and Om. Interestingly, these are not represented through Freudian symbolisms, which is generally a favorite of filmmakers. The director rather conjures up an assemblage of unique metaphors for this and many other instances in the movie.
- The Pushkar lake, that plays a significant part in the movie is a place of immense religious importance for the Hindus. In the texts of Padmapurana, it has been described as the place where Brahma had once held a jagna. Consequently this is the only place to have a temple dedicated to Lord Brahma. It is believed that people who take a dip in the Pushkar during the time of Karthik Shukra Paksha(Full Moon), supposed to be the time of the year corresponding with Brahma’s jagna, wash away their sins and open the gates of heaven in their afterlives. The opening of the Pushkar festival is declared through the statement “Swarg dharti par utar chuka hai”(The heavens have descended to earth) delivered in an airlines announcement-like tone. It is during this time that Om’s magical feat in the Pushkar is put up as a moneymaking prospect for the local Brahmin. The reference of the ‘Promise’ toothpaste(a brand which was available back then) stresses the use of religious platforms for advertising. The use of God as a brand is equally relevant in our times.
- Songs have been an integral part of any Indian movie, since inception. The avant-garde songs of ‘Om Dar Ba Dar’ play a very important part in this avant-garde movie as well. The song played on radio is an attempt towards nonsense verse. The song ‘Meri Jaan AAA’ is partly in English, illustrating the English speaking tendencies of the youth and is a reflection of urban men’s outlook toward women in the then India. ‘Rana Tigrina’ depicts the adolescence of Om and his fascination with frogs. The lyrics by Kuku and the music by Rajat Dholakia are very appropriate.
One could go on an on writing about this movie; there is so much to write and so much yet to discover. Every time I watch this movie, I find an unexplored nook, a new aspect which I had previously overlooked. Even after all these years, Kamalji gets emails, messages and posts in facebook(he is active in facebook, by the way) from fans of this movie and he is very earnest in replying back to them and discussing about his movie. I was fortunate to have interacted with him on facebook and resolved various doubts about ‘Om Dar Ba Dar’. There are a considerable number of people, who want this movie to be remastered and released with English subtitles. However, when I mentioned this to Kamalji, his reply was, “Too late. I am too tired by this film. I like to move on.” However, the ardent lovers of the film will keep on expecting.
We have had very few examples of feature length avant-garde films in the arena of world cinema. The prominent ones among them were made mostly by Alejandro Jodorowsky. Even considering those, ‘Om Dar Ba Dar’ is unique and Indian to the core. Kamalji does not like to call it an avant-garde film however. In his opinion, “Avant-garde is a technical term applied to a different movement. In Om Dar Ba Dar, I was reacting to the parallel cinema of that time.” He acknowledges Surrealist and Dadaist influences in it. It is certain that if someday, an Indian film theory is developed; this cult classic will receive a special mention as a pioneer in Indian avant-garde, a very deserving accolade for this film and for its creator.
Riddhiman Basu is a Senior Software Engineer at Accenture. He lives in Calcutta.