Monday, October 8, 2012

Oh. My. God!

Not related to the post, but you can't say Oh My God without thinking of Janice.

I'm something of a food snob - I hate substitute ingredients and short-cut procedures. Now when this friend claims that she can whip up chicken biryani in less than half an hour, I can instantly see how. She's taken the vegetables, spices, chicken and rice and cooked it all together. In other words, made a chicken khichdi. Not the real deal, but nice and spicy (actually hot). And most people who eat it, appreciate it.

Me, I need my biryani to be more textured, with plain rice and flavoured rice and meat and gravy playing hide-and-seek in my mouth, subtle and sharp spices making their presence known. But then, I'm a food snob. Better people than I, the high thinking, simple living sorts will appreciate the aforementioned chicken khichdi as a tasty, rich, nourishing dish. Just like better people than I can appreciate OMG - Oh My God.

The good people will point out that this is one of the rare films in recent times with a Message. They'll also point out how it has a Different Story, in that there is no central romantic plot to grab audience's attention, and how the Story is supplemented by Good Performances. To all these points I must agree.

Atheism is a difficult subject to present on film, not only in India, but anywhere in the world. Let's be honest -  how many mainstream Hollywood productions feature an atheist as the hero? The leading men and women may not be religious people, but that is mostly written off as laziness or indifference rather than defiance of religion. There might be some occasional smirking at organised religion or clergymen or religious fanatics, but never at religion itself. And hardly ever is there a serious discussion about the very idea of God. In Indian films too, the nastik does make an occasional appearance, but even in a film titled Nastik, atheism is, to quote Jai Arjun

"...more a case of “bhagwaan se katti hoon” – I’m not on speaking terms with Him because He allowed bad things to happen to my family." 

So it is refreshing, to say the least, to even hear such a term as "Saccha Nastik" in one of the more lucid moments of OMG. The rest of the film, alas, is like all the ingredients of biryani thrown into a pressure cooker for a quick dinner.

I cannot conscientiously call it a bad film - being agnostic myself (and Paresh Rawal's character is agnostic, not atheist), I'm thankful someone dared to come up with this subject at a time when prime time television feeds us superstition and the most ridiculous manifestations of religiosity in steady doses. In a world where filmmakers are forced to delete Mochi from a song and Barber from a film title and digitally change saffron head-bands to black, it is no small feat to make thinly veiled references to actual cult leaders of our times.

But what's with the terrible scripting and tacky editing? With a cast of commendable actors, a powerful concept such as this film has, it is criminal to mete out such shoddy execution to what could have been a milestone in Indian film history. In tip-toeing through a minefield of religious sentiments, the director has wasted all the potential for dark humour and surrealism he had in his hands and opted instead for what looks like 150 minutes out of a SAB TV comedy.

For most of the first half, Paresh Rawal wisecracks about religion and everybody around him appears shocked. Govind Namdeo as a saffron clad religious leader cannot keep his voice down and we're treated to multiple shots of his underarms. Mithun as a more senior, white robed leader is more subdued, and his dark glances hint at someone more sinister, more complex and more perceptive underneath the amicable, effeminate, magic-tricks-displaying Godman - but that complexity is never fully played out. None of the other characters are worth mentioning. Except for God.

*Omitted: about 300 words on how Akshay Kumar plays a bizarrely inconsistent version of God displaying a curious Jaani Dushman hangover in what could have been his most interesting role so far*

I may be wasting my breath talking about the film that this could have been rather than the film that it is. But the glimpses of a better, more intelligent film behind the dull final product here are too bright and too beautiful to ignore. I'm still glad someone made this film and thank them for having the balls. The film does say a lot of gutsy things, and I'm glad someone said those things on celluloid. Just like I was happy for 3 Idiots - it said a lot of right things, but I cannot bring myself to appreciate the garbage surrounding the good message, nor forgive Hirani for screwing up Chetan Bhagat's only good work.

I'll be very happy if a lot of people watch OMG and at least some of them take the message seriously. Me, I'm a snob and I can't help but notice that what could have been the next Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro - a wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee kind of sad, funny, dark satire - ended up being another Billu Barber. Well-cooked, wholesome and nourishing, but nowhere close to the masterpiece that could be crafted with the same ingredients.

What a sad, sad loss to cinema.

P.S. I know the film is adapted from a play, but I'm not interested in how good or how bad the play was. The film needs to stand on its own feet, which in my narrow opinion it fails to do.

* Real biryani is prepared with meat; Veg Biryani is just a ruse invented by Udupi restaurants to sell you a slightly more sophisticated form of Khichdi. So if you've always been vegetarian, you've never tasted biryani - small price to pay for the purity of soul and animal-lover-eggless-brownie points.

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