A woman dressed in pink walks down a red carpet and extends her long arms to wave at the crowd that has gathered for her. A man from the crowd reaches out and returns her greeting. As she walks, the wind entangles the end of her scarf with his bracelet and forces him from the crowd as he follows her. A Bollywood love song has been playing since she stepped out of her car, but it swells as the man is carried away by the woman’s long scarf — his heart is enamored with her, connected to her as tenuously as the piece of fabric stuck inside his jewelry.
Most people who grew up watching Bollywood movies probably know where this scene comes from — the 2007 film “Om Shanti Om.” It came out when I was just in kindergarten, but it has stayed in my life ever since. Every year, my family and I watch this movie together — sometimes because there is nothing else to watch and sometimes just because we want to sing along to the songs — but it has never once gotten old for me. My siblings and I quote passages from it as we watch, adding hand motions for dramatic effect. I’ve watched this movie as I have grown up, noticing changes in it each time, marveling at the storytelling and the wonderful, melodramatic genius of it.
For those that don’t know, “Om Shanti Om” is a classic Bollywood tale of drama and love and family. It starts in 1977 following Om Prakash Makhija (played by Shah Rukh Khan), a junior artist whose dreams of becoming a big star are tarnished by his last name and lack of connections. He laments to his mother and his only friend about his rotten luck, saying that his father lived and died as a junior artist and that he would too. One night, he drunkenly stands on a box and gives a Filmfare Awards acceptance speech, pretending that his bottle is the award and a comb is his microphone. “If there is no happy ending,” he says, his voice slurring. “Then it isn’t the end. The film isn’t over yet!”
Despite his dismal prospects, Om pines after the superstar beauty Shanti Priya (the woman in the pink dress) and after a series of chance encounters, the two become friends. He falls in love with her, not knowing that she has already secretly married a film producer.
The first half of the movie pays homage to all of the Bollywood classics while simultaneously satirizing famous filmmakers and actors in the industry. It makes fun of its own melodrama — Om frequently jokes with his mother about her being too “filmy.” This first half sets the contrast between the superstars of the late ’70s and junior artists like Om, and the pain that comes from not being able to succeed because of the family you are born into. In the film (and often in real life), actors were given roles based on their last name, not necessarily because of their talent. And when Om realizes that Shanti Priya is married, not having thought twice about the junior artist in any romantic way, his jealousy turns sour and the unfairness of it all becomes more palpable. Om roams around the set in a teal sherwani after he realizes that Shanti’s heart belongs to someone else with a ballad of unrequited love playing in the background as the rain drives the rest of the crew away. A few nights later, Shanti and Om are both killed.
As a child, I wasn’t the biggest fan of the first half of the movie. The stories of love and heartbreak were common for almost all Bollywood movies, and the songs from this half were more reminiscent of “old” Bollywood styles than they were of 2007 pop. As a recurrent viewer, there is an unsettling feeling of knowing that something bad will happen to the lead, the person you are supposed to be rooting for because Om will die soon. I knew this even when I was young, dreading the fact that Om and Shanti will never be together. A strange sort of sadness used to overcome me when Om died in the first half of the film — not for the character himself, but for the life that he wished to have with the woman he loved.
Om’s heartbreak is unexpected because Bollywood movies are a form of escapism, not reality. The hero always gets the girl. But before any of that could happen, Om dies and the first half ends. Here, the movie takes a turn from a light-hearted rom-com set in the ’70s to a darker story of revenge.
After Om dies, we see him again 30 years later. He has been reborn as the son of a superstar, living the life he had always dreamed of as a junior artist. He wakes up in a large circular bed with servants sliding slippers under his feet before they can hit the floor and as he walks to the balcony to greet his fans below, more servants walk beside him and offer apples and orange juice. This Om (this privileged reincarnation of him) has no memories of the struggles or the loves he had in his past life. Instead, he has only known comfort. He is offered plenty of roles, and even when he shows up on set late, the directors give him a free pass because of his last name.
But when someone takes Om back to the set where he had been working before he died 30 years ago, he starts remembering his past life. After meeting the man who had killed him, Om remembers Shanti, his mother and his friends. Om spends the rest of the movie looking for ways to bring the killer to justice.
While the first half of the movie paid homage to the ’70s, the second half satirizes the industry during the time the film was released. Nepotism was (and still continues to be) an issue in Bollywood, and so was crazy fan culture and celebrity entitlement. Countless famous Bollywood celebrities — from legends like Rekha to modern superstars like Salman Khan and Akshay Kumar — make cameos in the film, some of them even making fun of themselves.
Even as the story becomes darker, comedy reminds us of what the story is actually about — love. The love that binds Om to his mother, who had known that he was still alive, his friend and Shanti, who hadn’t been reincarnated as Om had.
As I grew older and started to write, I started to appreciate the movie in a whole new light. Om Shanti Om’s characters are well thought out and satisfying to watch. As theatrical as they may seem, they advance the plot perfectly while still fulfilling both comedic and dramatic roles. Om’s mother in particular stands out as a woman who was initially destroyed by grief from the deaths of her son and husband only to be reinvigorated by the quest to find a killer. After watching the movie countless times, I still watch enraptured as Om tells Shanti to reach her hand towards the things that she deserves, as Om stands on the Filmfare stage in 2007 and accepts an award that he had wanted with his whole heart, so much that the entire universe conspired to bring it to him.
It is this speech, the award speech, that shapes the heart of a movie more than the scenes of drama or love or revenge. There is simply a desire for an achievement, a want so great that even the universe is bending laws to provide it for you. And there is the implication that this desire exists in all of us as we all have the potential to fulfill our once-in-a-lifetime wishes. Maybe they won’t be as drastic as Om’s, but they exist nonetheless in little variations in our daily lives like meeting friends through a coincidence. Om says that our lives are like the movies with happy endings, that things smooth themselves out as we move and live, and even if more things get in the way, we learn to smooth those out too. Five-year-old me liked to believe in it, and 13 years later, I still do.
MiC Columnist Safura Syed can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org