OM DAR-B-DAR (Dir. Kamal Swaroop, 1988, India) – The magical absurdities of Ajmer

Mani Kaul’s razor shape cinematographic sensibilities pervade the very essence of Om Dar-B-Dar. Particularly in the shots of characters from the back of their heads, a seemingly disconcerting framing device that has a striking aesthetic value – not only can this be interpreted as a Brechtian device but it creates a disruption in the mise-en-scène conjoined in the incessant sense of perpetual motion and piercing edits that create a tidal wave of on-screen audio-visual violence in what amounts to nothing short of a carefully co-ordinated sensory assault. Try not to apply any semblance of logic. This is a work that explores what cinema, literature, music and cultural mythology meant to Swaroop in the 1980s yet it seems totalizing and relentless in terms of creative ideas. In short, Swaroop only had to make this one film. Everything else in his career as a filmmaker is simply a footnote when you come to recognise how pleasurably Om Dar-B-Dar infects you, for life that is.

Swaroop’s bawdy fairy-tale is one of the creative high points of the Parallel Cinema movement and came towards the end, a culmination of the short lived and intermittent experimental/avant-garde forces unleashed by Sen, Kaul and Shahani in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Ghashiram Kotwal (1976), a child of the Yukt film collective, seem to represent the first real culmination of the limits of experimental filmmaking but it was arguably superseded by Swaroop’s hybridised melange. Dare I even attempt to offer a synopsis as I would fail tragically, doomed to pigeonholing this remarkable work as a coming-of-age story when it clearly belongs in the realms of the unclassifiable, the beyond boundaries category – the hinterland of inexplicable cinematic anomalies, of which Om Dar-B-Dar reigns supreme. Swaroop’s film talks like a Parallel Cinema work and its initial rejection points to the hideous contradictions and failings of the movement. The refusal to grant a viewing certificate was ironically paradoxical, clearing a path for cult status.

Deliciously tactile, characters and events materialise out of nowhere, acting as a subconscious gateway into Swaroop’s lucid, liberated brain. A wonderfully rich musical tapestry underpins the narrative, and while it is randomly situated, there is a sophistication at work. The tentative soundtrack conjures a hypnotic rhythm that is part of a broader aesthetic and thematic hybridity characterised by a nonsensical sensibility and which gives the film a very distinctive hallucinatory quality. Watching Om Dar-B-Dar for the first time is the like the act of being born in the cinema hall; Swaroop forces us to surrender our inhibitions and strips us naked so that we begin to re-think the purpose of Indian cinema as a metaphysical adventure that swallows us whole. It is a triumph of magical absurdity; singular, furtive, and inimitable in the history of both Parallel and Indian cinema.

First seen on the big screen at Supakino’s psychedelic double bill at Rio Cinema, London (15 May 2022) including Corman’s The Trip (1967).

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