Kamal Swaroop’s cult film Om Dar-B-Dar has been restored and its finally in the theatres. Don’t miss it.
DON’T . MISS. IT.
And we are going with the mood of the film, so recycling an old post by Varun Grover which was written 3/4 years ago. Don’t worry, it still reads new just like the film and its ideas. If you have seen the film and are still wondering what the real story is, this post got all your answers.
Death and mythology in a small town
बबलू बेबीलॉन से, बबली टेलीफोन से (Bablu calling from Babylon, Babli listening on telephone)
Om Dar-B-Dar. Om here and there. Or more precisely, Om here and there, helpless. That’s the name of a film I first heard about around 10-years back. It sounded like a typical wannabe ‘Indian Parallel Cinema Movement’ film of the 80’s. Though the ‘movement’ never went beyond the occasional film festival screening in India then (and now, much later, beyond the difficult-to-find DVDs in malls with bad architecture and heavy security) – it did give the otherwise angry-for-no-reason 70’s and colored-clay-pot strewn 80’s some credibility. Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Basu Chatterjee, Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani and with a much lighter hand, Sai Paranjape made cinema which was sometimes as local as a small stretch of highway in north India (Uski Roti (Our Daily Bread), Mani Kaul, 1970) or a residential chawl in a Bombay suburb (Katha (The story), Sai Paranjpe, 1983). In fact, they were the only people making cinema with a very strict sense of time and place – love letters which started with a date and place on top.
But then, art cinema movement too had groupies trying to pass off as the real rockstar. Films with dim lights, grim faces, and half a social issue (invariably leftist in thought) would instantly be termed as ‘parallel’, get the government of India funding, and be sent to film festivals abroad. Om Dar-B-Dar sounded like that kind of film, especially after one article I had read which described the film as some kind of existential study into the life of a teenager in a small town of Rajasthan.
Watching it recently for the first time, I realized, it is anything but me-too. Or even close to ‘art cinema’, as we know it. It exists in a league of its own. And though that may not be intended as a high praise, but that’s the only way it can be described.
मिथ्या है संसार – माया है संसार (The world is a lie – the world is an illusion)
Kamal Swaroop, a scientist with DRDO (Defense Research and Development Organization) of India, turned a filmmaker, graduating from FTII, Pune, to debut with Om Dar-B-Dar. He calls his only feature film to date a kind of spoof on ‘art films’ of the time. “If anything, I wanted to make an anti-intellectual film. I didn’t want to make a film on some social issue or sad people. I just wanted to make a film about a small town”, said Swaroop in a personal interaction after the screening a few months ago. Having stayed in Pushkar in Rajasthan, famous for its annual Hindu mela (fare), probably helped him nail the setting of the film. His love for science and mythology admittedly helped in deciding the next two important aspects – the central character of teenaged Om and the basic conflict points in the story.
But is there a story in Om Dar-B-Dar? Kamal Swaroop insists there is – though the group with which I watched the film was clueless. Swaroop calls it bad conditioning – looking for story and only story in cinema. He says cinema is not necessarily mass communication, it can be a personal expression too; a painting or a poem. Though many were not convinced, Swaroop claims that the film, when screened in small villages of Rajasthan, was completely ‘understood’ and enjoyed by the simple villagers. Reasons being – less conditioning and more connection to the vibes and idiosyncrasies of a small town.
Next question – does the film have a form, a structure? Swaroop’s crisp answer – even deform is a form. What about accessibility? Comprehension? Head and tail? Again – Swaroop’s answer – why should cinema be objective? Why a film should be only one of the two things – I got it or I didn’t get it?
That raises some very valid debate points – story, form, and accessibility in cinema. Indian cinema, traditionally has been a story-driven exercise in videography. Starting off with mythological tales in the 30’s and 40’s, and evolving into equally simplistic good vs. evil (Hero vs Villain) cinema of the 60’s and 70’s – there is a long and deeply ingrained history of accessible stories pushing ‘cinema’ more and more into the ever-expanding space of ‘mass-media’. Rumor has it, two of the greatest films of Hindi cinema (Mughal-e-Azam, Guide) had their endings tweaked to accommodate popular tastes. (Anarkali being given a safe passage by the emperor and rains arriving on Raju’s death respectively).
The third aspect – form or structure, was also rarely played with in popular cinema, with the most adventurous of the lot taking the ‘flashback’ route as the only standout narrative element. It can be noted here that most of the art cinema movement films too had a strong focus on story-accessibility couple – they differed majorly in the structure/form department. In addition to having more realistic settings and acting, they succeeded in creating a new cinematic-clock for themselves – a form where time moves slower and hence more details are visible, and vice versa.
And here lies the most distinct element of Om Dar-B-Dar – cinematic clock, here, moves as fast, if not faster than a regular commercial Hindi film while the other two aspects (story and accessibility) are given the least respect. In fact, it would be much enjoyable to watch it as 20 short films (a lot of them very funny, and an equal number completely nonsensical) about Om’s family and friends, stitched together with music, surreal dreams and a mythological back-story. So, for the math-minded – ODBD is an anti-art, anti-commercial film moving at the pace of a commercial film and having the details of an art-film.
टैडपोल से हम (We are like Tadpoles)
After the film screening is over, and after heated debates on whether it can even be called a film in the first place are done with, Kamal Swaroop smiles and asks whether anybody still wants to know the story. A few hands go up and Swaroop relents.
(SPOILERS) Om, a teenager, is blessed with a magical power and he can hold his breath for any desired duration of time. This results in him putting up a show at the holy place of Pushkar (ascribed as the only heaven on Earth in Hindu mythological texts), where he goes inside water and holds his breath. Once, to protest against Brahma, the Hindu God credited as the creator of the world, who has decided to remove the ‘heaven’ status of Pushkar, the locals decide to put up a non-cooperation movement against Brahma. The only non-cooperation they can do to Brahma is to stop breathing, as that’s the only gift he has given. But since Om’s natural tendency is to not breath, for him, the non-cooperation would be the act of breathing. At the time of protest, Om happens to be inside the pond where he puts up his show. He breathes, to support the non-cooperation, and dies. (spoilers end)
But then, one has to watch the film many times to get this story – and as I said, there are at least 20 more stories, all equally layered, and delivered at a crazy pace. At times, it looks like an MTV Production, with the kind of visual liberties, caricatures, and abrupt cutting involved. (No wonder, Swaroop later helmed the launch of Channel V in India, playing a crucial role in defining the ‘funky’ auro-visual space it’s known for now.)
कसप (How do I know)
In a crucial scene in Hindi novelist Manohar Shyam Joshi’s ‘Kasap’, the male protagonist’s naada (thread of pajamas) gets stuck in a knot in front of the girl he is wooing. In Om Dar-B-Dar, a similar thing happens when a young man is about to start making love to his girlfriend. Funny, sad, frustrating, and deeply observational at the same time – moments like these make ODBD a watch to remember.
Whether it’s a film with story, structure, accessibility, or (latest buzzword) ‘take-homes’ is a debate worth drunken nights with friends. The film released in 1988, and has been getting buzz (positive, negative, both) at regular intervals. Though that doesn’t guarantee a great, path-breaking, or cult status to any work of art (or mass-media) – it surely means there are enough cinema crazies in the world.
As for whether you will like it, the only answer is ‘कसप’.