Oh Darling Yeh Hai India! : I Feel Like I Got to See Shahrukh Khan, the Stage Actor

I finally saw Oh Darling Yeh Hai India!  Now I just need to watch Guddu and Devdas, and I will have seen every Shahrukh movie ever.

I gotta say, this was not my favorite movie in the world.  I could do with a little less OBVIOUS METAPHORs hitting me over the head, and with a little more humor and lightness.  But, if we are talking about OBVIOUS METAPHOR movies, I still would take this over Fitoor.  Fitoor had a bunch of “do you get it?  do you do you?” moments, but it was also really really pretty; Oh Darling Yeh Hai India! had a bunch of “look at how cool and cynical we are!” moments, but it also had a great cast.  And in this case, the great cast trumps the pretty images as a saving grace.

I can’t believe they got Amrish Puri, Anupam Kehr, and even Paresh Rawal in this!  Oh!  And Tina Anand!  To play these parodies of standard Hindi film types, they got the actual actors who usually play those types!  Magombo to play Magombo!  How did they DO that?!?!?

(If they’d gotten Bob Christo to play Bob Christo, then they really would have had something)

Having the actual actors play those roles added to the Brechtian-ness of it, but more importantly, while being paradies, they were also wildly entertaining!  I mean, you could have thrown any random character actor in a bald wig and a fake uniform and made him into a Mogambo-type.  But he wouldn’t have had the sneer and the gravel in his voice and everything else that makes Amrish Puri so awesomely evil.  The same goes for Anupam Kehr, you could have grabbed any older looking actor and told him to play peaceful and gentle and charming, but he wouldn’t have been able to be nearly as peaceful and gentle and charming as Anupam is!

I can see why they agreed to the roles too, because the script gave them so many fun notes to play.  It’s not like these were deep characters, but they were characters who got to play scared and then angry and then sneaky, all in rapid succession.  Anupam alone, his intro was this great scene where 5 identical Anupams have to “audition” by reading off the same lines.  And we got to see Anupam deliver the same lines 5 times over in 5 totally different ways.  Such fun!  Both for the audience and for him.

Amrish Puri gets to re-imagine his Mogambo character (who must have been super fun to play even the first time around), as an even evil-er villain, with a secret crisis of self-esteem.  Paresh Rawal and Tinu Anand both show up for tiny roles, right in their usual wheel house, but even more over the top than usual.  I especially liked Tinu as an almost supernaturally evil pimp/father.

And then there’s Shahrukh!  I feel like, I finally got to see Shahrukh as a stage actor.  I mean, I’ve actually seen him on stage, but he was playing himself (the SLAM tour), not a character.  In this movie, he was acting like you act on stage, not in film.

In some review, I’m trying to remember which (found it!  Student of the Year, of all things), I talked about how film started, and how it took a while for directors to realize that they needed a different kind of acting from their performers.  Film is so intimate, the smallest gestures and expressions have great power.  So actors have to learn to be restrained and subtle in their movements.  And at the same time, to be very controlled of their face, in order to avoid conveying the wrong message to an audience that is seeing every little lift of the eyebrow and twist of the list magnified a hundred times.

But in this film, stage acting is what is required.  We want to be aware at all times that they are “ACTING!”  It’s Brechtian, the point is to confront us with the artifice.  But at the same time, to entertain us.  And boy, does Shahrukh entertain!  He is so over the top all the time, huge gestures, huge leaps, big speeches with lots of tonal modulations, it’s the kind of thing you can only learn through lots and lots of practice in front of a live audience.

He never gets to let loose and act like this in movies, because he has to be all dignified and starlike.  Well, unless he is playing silly in character, goofing off to entertain Juhi in “Main Koi Aisa Geet Gaoon” or something.  He is kind of goofing off as part of his character in this, but I think that is just part of it, I think even the moment when his character switches into “entertainment!” is more a fourth wall breaking kind of move than an honest character moment.

(I love Juhi’s dress in this song.  I know that’s not a very deep comment, but it’s all I can think of every time I watch this)

I kind of can’t believe this movie was made the same year as DDLJ.  That Shahrukh was willing to do it, and had the time and energy for it, right at the peak of his early fame.  And that he was willing to risk all that fame by flipping his persona over and showing us the underpinnings.  And that he already had such extreme awareness of his persona, he knew just how to deconstruct it.

This whole movie, really, is about deconstructing the Hindi 90s romance, with the meet cute, the sudden tonal shifts, the over the top villainy, and the happy ending against all odds.  And, okay, it is a little blunt!  Feels just a tad like some undergrad who’s just discovered Tom Stoppard’s idea of “clever”. “What if the simple heroine is a prostitute!”  “What if the “hero” has no name and is just listed as “Hero” in the credits?”  And so on and so on.

Making it more confusing, in the middle of these super blunt statements about the superficiality of filmdom, there are some really blunt references to actual historical events!  Like, Anupam Kehr’s “evil” Prime Minister character is named “Nathuram”, which has got to be a reference to Gandhi’s assassin, right?  And the “evil” plan of throwing the country into uproar through riots and outside arms and bombs, is shockingly close to Dawood Ibrahim’s rumored plan with the 1993 bomb blasts.  And I am sure there are all sorts of other references I missed.

So, are these blunt references to historic type stuff a meta commentary on how Indian films tend to pull in really obvious political metaphors?  Like, bad guys being killed by the Indian flag which this film totally stole from 1942: A Love Story?  Or did the writers/directors actually think they were making a sincere political point with these things, but then at other times they were being carefully insincere?  I don’t know!

My real question is, was the basic message pro- or anti- film?  I think pro.  It could go either way, in the anti-camp you have the idea that it is showing the superficiality and stupidity of the typical movie.  But in the pro-camp, you have the reason this whole thing starts.

And, I guess, SPOILERS?  This is such an odd movie, it barely even had a “plot”, but still, I’m about to SPOILER what little plot there is.

 

 

It opens with the typical carefree heroine introduction song, only this time instead of village girls going to a fair or whatever, it is a bunch of prostitutes (and at least a few hijras I think) riding a horse cart down Marine Drive looking for costumers.  Deepa Sahi, our heroine, jumps off and declares she is taking a night off to have fun.  Meanwhile, Shahrukh, our hero, is being moved off the sidewalk by some cops because a politician is about to come through.  He explains to the cops that he has no money, because he came to Bombay to chase his dream of being an actor.

Deepa Sahi saves him from the cops and offers to buy him dinner, in return for him “entertaining” her, since he is an entertainer.  Now, here’s the thing, immediately after that request, Shahrukh sings her a silly song, and then she buys him dinner.  But, on a deeper level, this is the moment when the film starts to let loose and get silly.  Because Deepa (standing in for all the downtrodden and forgotten people of India) is looking for an escape from her life and Shahrukh (standing in for all the silly entertainers) is providing her the adventure she wants.

(This isn’t the very first song he sings her, there are so many quick little songs in these, but it is the first big song sequence)

And so we get the perfect filmi adventure, not one grounded in natural emotions, or in beautiful images (this movie is definitely made on the cheap with a bigger focus on actors than on epic), but one that hits all the standard emotional marks.  Shahrukh is in love, he gives a love speech.  Deepa needs to be saved from a villain.  Two villains, her father and the evil Don’s son who is in love with her (Jaaved Jaffrey who plays “evil” here almost exactly the same as he does in Bang Bang 20 years later).  Shahrukh is dying (sad scene!).  Deepa is captured!  Oh no!  The villain is defeated by the rising up of the people, yay! (also, nice little Pyaasa homage shot here).  And the hero and heroine embrace.  The End

(this shot, the single light source coming from the door at the back of a slightly angled audience seating area)

There’s even several make over moments, which are acknowledged each time as “you think just changing my dress will change everything?”  Oh, and songs!  Always introduced very abruptly, so we notice just how odd it is to have a song in a film, instead of the usual seamless integration where they flow natural out of the emotions of the moment.

But, even with this nice sort of meta commentary going on, all with (I think) the underlying theme that the value of these stories is their ability to provide solace to the downtrodden, this movie still is just kind of a clunker for me.  It’s the heaviness to it, that’s what bugs me.  And the unrelentingness.  I couldn’t help compare it with, for instance, MF Hussain’s Gaja Gamini, where Shahrukh played a similar sort of character who just pops in to make you happy for a moment.  Only that time, I felt like the filmmakers weren’t taking their message quite so seriously.

(Also, the song is better.  Both in how it sounds and how it looks)

Or, even something like Yes Boss, which had these little moments acknowledging the fantasy, that our hero is just filling the role of “Hero” to entertain us.  Or Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani, which had Johnny Lever’s crazed gangster to make a statement on the usual film gangster, and Shahrukh and Juhi provided a typical film song to distract from his machinations.  It’s just easier to swallow these things when they are in the middle of a whole real movie with more going on, than when they are just coming one after the other after the other.  Heck, even the Welcome movies (terrible terrible films) have some clever gags about the typical gangster film and action hero.  But they don’t make a whole movie of it.

(It’s played for laughs, but it is also a slight moving of the curtain to reveal the tropes of filmdom.  And again, a better song than any of them in Oh Darling)

I mean, by the time the hero and heroine are saving themselves from falling by using the Indian flag as a parachute and the villain is dying by being stabbed by a million global flags (representing his global ambitions), the line between “we are being over the top to make fun of how over the top other movies are” and “we are just being over the top” got kind of blurred.

(Also, I just now, after writing this whole thing, found a clip of this old interview with Sharhukh, where, I think, he totally agrees with my interpretation!  Woo!  Nailed it!)

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27 thoughts on “Oh Darling Yeh Hai India! : I Feel Like I Got to See Shahrukh Khan, the Stage Actor

  1. I’m glad you finally saw this, and also that you found plenty to discuss (as evidenced by the length of your review), but, in thinking this is all about deconstructing “film”, I’m sorry, but you’re wrong. Not that that isn’t also going on — I never thought that when I saw it, but you make a good case for it. Normally I would never argue with another person’s interpretation of a film, but here I do, because I’m not countering your opinion with mine, but the director’s! 🙂 Yes, I attended an event a long time ago where the director was present (along with others), and I actually got to ask him about this film, and he gave quite a lengthy answer, explaining his motivations for making the film, what he intended to convey, and so on.

    But before I get into that, I’d like a clarification on something. Are you sure this film was made the year after DDLJ? It may have released then (though I’m doubtful even about that), but even if it was, I’m sure it must have been produced before that. When did Maya Memsaab release? This was after that, I believe. As for why Shahrukh would do it, well, though you seem to think Ketan Mehta’s only claim to fame is using SRK in a nude scene in MM, he’s actually a very acclaimed director, one of the leaders of the “parallel cinema” movement, so SRK would have counted his lucky stars to work with him. (Of course, now he doesn’t even mention ODYHI, since it was such a flop.) I definitely don’t think he was deconstructing any star persona of his, since it hadn’t yet been established. So figuring out the correct timeline is very crucial to understanding this film, I think.

    Anyway, on to the director’s comments. It seems to me that you picked up on a lot of the intentions of the film (that it’s Brechtian, for instance), but you didn’t have the socio-political context to understand/interpret them correctly. In 1991, the Indian government started what is called “economic liberalization.” Basically, it allowed for foreign investment in Indian businesses, and also started to encourage a capitalist economy. This was a HUGE break from the policies up till then, which were completely and strictly socialist. So, for the first time a lot of foreign companies were coming into India, and there was a lot of resistance from the more leftist political parties, as well as ordinary people with that kind of political orientation. When you’ve been told for 44 years that all capitalism and capitalists are evil, and that the U.S. is the greatest evil of all, it is certainly very disconcerting to see the country lay down the welcome mat for American private companies. Many people felt that the government was completely selling out the country. At any rate, Ketan Mehta said that he made this film to express all that unease and angst felt by himself, as well as many others he knew. He felt that the country was selling its soul, and that’s why he put in that scene of various foreigners bidding for India. Now that you know that background, maybe you can approach the film with a fresh perspective some time?

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    • You got to see Ketan Mehta in person? That’s so cool!

      The release date seemed odd to me too, so I double-checked it a few times. August 11, 1995. So, an Independence Day release, which adds on to the whole message. And personally, I would guess it was filmed around then too, just based on my personal SRK hair timeline. He had more of the styled and finished look, less the raw gawky look he had in the 92-93 films.

      What is stunning to me, is that Shahrukh had 7 releases in 1995, so the time he was working on this film was one of the busiest in his career. And in the middle of doing these 3 shift 20 hour days with powerful industry figures like Subhash Ghai and Ramesh Sippy, he carved out the time to do this art film that was never going to be popular, and he poured a ton of energy into his time onscreen! It was clearly a bad business and career decision, so he must have done it purely for the love of the script and the director.

      I did catch the globalization message, it just didn’t strike me as much as the meta statements on film, because I’m more of a film person than a political economy person. Although it was cool to hear them use the phrase Non-Resident Indian at one point! I didn’t realize that term was in wide use in 1995, especially in the context of chasing after their money and letting them influence Indian policies.

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      • If my memory serves me right, that’s around the time when the NRI term came to be in vogue, just like the term “Bollywood.” 🙂 BTW, did you know that the hyping of “Bollywood” as a brand was a direct result of the economic liberalization policies? It was supposed to be a way of increasing trade or something, by popularizing Indian films around the world.

        On another note, I can’t understand why you haven’t seen Devdas yet. Guddu I can understand. 🙂 But not the film that put Aishwarya on the international stage?

        P.S. SRK had seven releases in 1995? What were they? I can’t remember any year when he had more than four. But, it just struck me, DDLJ also released in 1995, so this film wasn’t “after” his success with that, and getting established as a big star, etc. He was successful before that, too, but mainly in his negative roles in Darr and Baazigar. So the idea that the purpose of his role was to deconstruct his star persona as a romantic hero becomes even weaker, I think.

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        • Darn, you’re right, DDLJ was 1995! I’ll update the post. Along with this film and DDLJ, SRK also did Zamaana-Deewana, Karan-Arjun, Guddu, Trimurti, and Ram-Jaane that year.

          I don’t think he is deconstructing his star persona as it is now, with all the King Khan global power stuff. But as it was then, when he was barely established, just known as the boyish charming lover. His “role” in this is very similar to what he did in Raju Ban Gaya Gentlemen and Dil Aashna Hai and Deewana.

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          • See, that list of films shows that he was basically signing on to anything that came his way. I don’t think he had any particular hankerings to do an “art film.” That argument can more persuasively be made about doing Gaja Gamini. And he definitely wasn’t known for being a “charming lover” before DDLJ. There is an interview I read some time ago, where SRK says he was very wary of doing DDLJ because he had the image of the violent anti-hero from films like Darr & Baazigar, and even Anjaam to an extent, and he felt he wouldn’t be accepted in a romantic role. Heck, I read the Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema (or something like that) when I first got into SRK’s films, and it had entries for both Aamir and SRK, but not Salman. And its entry on SRK was all about the impact he made on Hindi cinema by introducing the violent anti-hero character. Now I can’t remember its exact date of publication, but I think it was before DDLJ. However, it was definitely after HAHK, and I remember being surprised that they didn’t include any entry for Salman, considering that he had just given such a stupendous film that had completely rewritten all rules of Hindi films. So at least for the editors of that book, SRK’s negative roles were a more important contribution than Salman’s family drama.

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  2. I had no idea ODYHI was anything like this.At the time the movie was released(90s?) there was no word of mouth,no trailer,no promotion,nothing.Just a song of them dancing in the rain.I always got the impression that SRK is a better actor than Bollywood allows him to be.No wonder he wants Suhaana to do theatre too.Have you seen Maya Memsaab which IIRC has SRK and the same heroine and director?

    Speaking of Juhi’s dress in Yes Boss, it was much talked about.Same as her outfit in ‘Tu he meri Kiran’ song.Juhi,Madhuri and Ayesha Julka were the style icons of the 90s.Girls at that time wore long flowing skirts and dresses like that.Yeah, there were shorter dresses but they were not the norm.Now that the fashion is for dresses to be short, I kind of miss Juhi’s long flowy dresses.

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    • I saw Maya Memsaab once years ago. Actually, the first time I was in India, I went to a Landmark books and just blindly bought every single SRK DVD they had. And then I got home, and got sick (of course, because it was my first time in India), and watched all my DVDs. And when I got to Maya Memsaab I went “Oh my gosh, I am so embarrassed! What must the Landmark books people have thought of me buying this?!?!?” Anyway, I haven’t seen it straight through since that one time.

      Interesting to hear this film wasn’t really promoted. I don’t even know how they could have promoted it, it is just so odd and unusual. It’s not the kind of thing you can easily boil down to a 2 minute trailer.

      Glad to know I’m not the only person who liked Juhi’s dress in Yes Boss! Makes me feel less superficial. The long flowing dresses are just so much prettier, and more flattering, than the skimpy tight things people wear now. I love the “Mehbooba” song from Duplicate, but it is another one where I get distracted by the clothes, because Juhi has this comparatively modest and very very pretty big flowing dress, and Sonali is wearing this tiny tiny tight outfit with the big slit. And Juhi looks so much prettier! I can totally see why she is the one Shahrukh really wants.

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  3. I am a whole lot newer to this scene, but I got a glimpse of “stage actor” Shahrukh in one of the apartment scenes in “Chalte Chalte”. Can’t recall which one right now, but as someone who used to do tech work in live theater (costuming, of course), there was something simultaneously big and intimate in that scene. His stage training always close to the surface, for me, and one of the things I enjoy about his work. He is acting for his coactors, the camera, and the “distant” audience all at the same time. The difference is that the distance is not physical, as in the back of the theater, but people who are not fully watching the scene and need to be pulled into it.

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    • Fascinating! I have no connection to live theater at all (beyond being in the audience for live performances), so I hadn’t really noticed his training before. Although, now that I think about it, he has always been excellent with monologues, able to modulate his voice and change speed and stuff to convey complex concepts clearly and interestingly. The way I think of really good Shakespearean trained actors being able to do it.

      Have you read Anupama Chopra’s book on him yet? She has some interesting interviews with Shahrukh, and others, about his time in the theater troupe. He wasn’t usually the lead in the play, he was the comic relief or similar who would come in and wake the audience up, like you were describing, “pulling them into it”. And he talks about how he loved working in theater, because he felt like he had permission to do whatever he needed to keep the audience involved and feeling what they needed to feel.

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      • I was able to get Chopra’s book at my University library, and have renewed it twice already. I figure I will keep doing that until someone recalls it! It is such a valuable reference, and it was your blog that told me about it. By the way, I am also working on watching all of his films, am currently past the half way mark. Devdas is one of my favorites, especially since I managed to score the DVD for $4 at a local used book store! Can’t wait to read your take on it.

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        • My copy has a bunch of permanent bookmarks in it, I refer to certain areas so often! Keep your eyes peeled at used bookstores, and you can probably pick up a copy for $1 or $2. I’ve bought 3 copies that way (and then gifted them around to others. It kind of feels like I’m one of those missionaries giving out free Bibles or something!).

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  4. So which was your favorite scene of SRK’s in this film? Mine was the jail scene. I suppose you could call it stage acting, but I was very struck by it.

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    • That scene was so impressive! And definitely showed his stage training, the way he was able to do this very long monologue and keep us entertained and interested the whole time.

      For me, I really liked his scene the first time he tells her he is dying, when he goes from tragedy to laughter in just a few seconds. I just like seeing how fast he can put it on and take it off.

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