Theory Teacher's Blog

The Suits and Trappings of Shanti; or, The Pain of Disco

If you like Bollywood movies — with all the singing, dancing, costumes, and scenary — you’ll love Om Shanti Om, produced in 2006. I just watched it yesterday. One of my colleagues screens a Bollywood film every semester for her friends, followed by a lot of delicious food and things that go with food… such as conversation. Usually, these films are like 3 hour music videos with predictable romantic plots, but Om Shanti Om is somewhat different than the usual Bollywood fare, because it is a parody of itself… and of the whole Bollywood film industry.

I’m blogging on this in part because my theory class just began reading The Holder of the World by Bharati Mukherjee, which is an amusing novel that takes place in seventeenth-century New England, alludes multiple times to Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, and then travels to the cost of India via the ships of the East India Companyat the very beginning of England’s mercantile and colonial project there.

What do these two texts have in common? Honestly, not much, except that I happen to be teaching one at roughly the same time as I watched the other, and both have something to do with India. Mostly, I just want an excuse to post up this YouTube video of a song from Om Shanti Om — “Dard-e-disco” — because I think it’s hilarious.  The chorus translates as “In my heart is the pain of disco, pain of disco, pain of disco.”

For a translation of the lyrics to the song, go this website here, and scroll down to “The Pain of Disco.”

But perhaps I can think of a more significant relation between the two texts. The “Pain of Disco” scene in the movie reminded me of a passage in Holder of the World, which is just as much a “romance novel” as it is a “postcolonial” one. In this one passage, a fisherman on the Coromandel Coast of India witnesses an English man and woman riding horseback on the beach  and kissing in public. He is very excited and decides to move to Europe to experience what he imagines must be an exotic and liberating world “without rules.” Of course, at the time, Puritan New England, where the two characters came from, had just witnessed repressive witch trials, so it was hardly a liberated world without rules. But in seventeenth-century India, the sort of European one was likely to encounter would have been an outlaw. (Is it any different today? I don’t know.)  What I like about this passage is the way it flips the gaze — an Indian fantasizing wrongly about Europe in the same manner that the Europeans were at that time fantasizing about India (and the novel proceeds to allude to one of those fantasies: John Dryden’s 1675 play, Aureng-Zebe.)

And I guess I like how the movie Om Shanti Om also comments (very indirectly) on India’s relationship to America through this video and through the plot. In a sense, the movie is reversing the scopophilic gaze we got in Slumdog Millionaire, that I blogged on a few months ago [here]. So, basically, that’s the topic of my blog post today — how the novel Holder of the World and the movie Om Shanti Om both deconstruct the long,  historically convoluted, transnational relationship between East and West.

SPOILER ALERT: Seriouisly skip this paragraph if you haven’t seen the movie and want to. The plot has two parts. Part one takes place inside the Bollywood of the 1970s, as a young man named Om struggling to become a famous actor falls in love with a rising young starlet named Shanti — the star of a movie fittingly titled Dreamy Girl. Om eventually discovers that Shanti is not only secretly married to the producer but also pregnant with his child. The producer fears this might interfere with the success of his Bollywood film company, so he decides to kill her and hence becomes the arch-villain of the story. When our hero Om finds out, he tries to save Shanti and also dies. So ends part one. Part two is thirty years later. Our hero has been reincarnated as the son of the most successful Bollywood actor — something like the Bollywood version of Charlie Sheen, son of Martin Sheen, or Michael Douglass, son of Kirk Douglass. Anyway, his name is still Om, but at first our reincarnated hero is a spoiled, self-centered brat (like Charlie Sheen). This all changes when he accidentally visits the scene of his and Shanti’s death. There, he is psychically merged with his previous self. His two identities become united, and he remembers the crime that he witnessed. For the rest of the movie, he attempts to catch the villain the same way Hamlet tried to catch his uncle in Shakespeare’s play — by reproducing the crime in art form. Coincidentally, the villain has just recently returned from America, where he has been making millions of dollars as a film producer for the past thirty years — ever since that fated day of his criminal act. As in Hamlet, Om’s efforts fail because the woman he hires to be Shanti can not convincingly play the role, but fortunately for our sense of poetic justice, the real ghost of Shanti (not just her “suits and trappings”) appears and gets her revenge.

Although the villain’s detour in America is a minor part of the plot, it is significant. It  reminds me of Salman Rushdie’s novel Fury (published 2001, just a month or so before 9/11)  in which America is a place of refuge for a character who has committed crimes in his home country, and hence “America” psychically and symbolically takes on all sorts of strange, convoluted, and contradictory connotations that you might imagine it would take for a character who is running from his past and toward an indeterminate future. In the case of Om Shanti Om, consider that this movie is a parody of Bollywood, and the fact that the evil film producer would flee Bollywood because of his crime and go to Hollywood (which doesn’t just rhyme with Bollywood, right?) seems more than a little bit suggestive. And what it seems to me to be suggesting is something about the transnational nature of the culture industry itself.

But what?

As I mentioned in my blog about Slumdog Millionaire, the real question one should be asking about it is not “what does this say about India” (which is what the mainstream media was asking), but rather “what does this movie say about Europeans and Americans?” Similarly, Om Shanti Om and its self-consciously silly video on “The Pain of Disco” suggests not something about American disco or Hollwyood, but about how India feels about its relationship to the American culture industry — perhaps at the heart of this relationship is both a dream and a crime.

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April 28, 2009 - Posted by | global, movies

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