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collective, seem to represent the first real culmination of the limits of experimental filmmaking but it was arguably superseded by Swaroop’s hybridised melange.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).

Bollywood Flashback 1# – The cut-price vigilantism of SHAHENSHAH / King of Kings (Dir. Tinnu Anand, 1988, India)

Shahenshah thrives in the darkness, a nocturnal vigilante who stalks the crime infested city streets with a vicious outrage that is manifested through acts of cathartic violence. He is a cultural composite, an uncanny bricolage that absorbs and radiates a surfeit of cultural markers including DC’s The Punisher, Michael Jackson, RoboCop, and of course self reflexively the angry young man patented by AB. Shahenshah is carried by the conceptual symbolism of the vigilante anchored in AB’s outrageously infectious performance. It is a work that also basks in the glory of faux nostalgia that sadly gets undone if you attempt to sit through a viewing with the hope this it might be a forgotten classic from a lost decade. Unfortunately, it’s not. The shoddy production values and greasy aesthetics gives everything a certain sordid ambience that invariably gets under your skin for all the wrong reasons. Nonetheless, conjured from a collective imagination, the subconscious of the oppressed, Shahenshah materialises from a corporeal desire for justice and vengeance but is also part sadist and public executioner who occupies the civic realm on dubious terms.

Returning to the figure of the vigilante may have seemed fairly obvious for AB after three years away from the big screen but was this reactive fantasy wish fulfilment, an admittance of institutional corruption that AB had witnessed during his time as a Congress MP? In some respects, the vigilantism of Shahenshah was an afront to the short-lived nobility of AB’s politicking, a sort of twisted reversal to reassert the illusion of promise that AB had erected through his films in the 1970s. While I’m not even remotely interested in the car crash of a plot line, there is something deliciously wacky about the totalizing iconographic look of AB’s Shahenshah – the salt & pepper wig with the floppy EMO fringe, the iron hand with the lethal adornments across the arm, the hangman’s noose straight out of an Italian Western and the YMCA all leather biker outfit. In truth everything about the film’s latent charm emanates from the outrageously symbolic costume that Shahenshah dons, an iconographic spectacle of super-human strength and maximum chill.

Shahenshah first appears thirty minutes into a lengthy pre-credit sequence, which then segues into the film’s signature song and a montage detailing Shahenshah’s Robin Hood like tendencies. AB’s entry is sensational. After he roughs up the urban dregs, he raises his arm into the air, flexing triumphantly, which is immortalised in a kitschy freeze frame that is a strange but exhilarating edit. One can only imagine how enthusiastically audiences must have reacted to this moment in cinema halls in 1988 given AB’s three-year hiatus from the big screen. The arm flex is a gesture that resonates but uncannily references Michael Jackson’s signature choreography move. It’s as if AB made this work to tell the people that even though he had dabbled in politics he was still one of them; he wanted to re-draw the lines and re-assert his image as one connected to the masses – an opportunity to reaffirm not reinvent. This is best illustrated in the sequence that finds Shahenshah intervening to thwart the demolition of a slum then leading the slumdwellers to the tacky mansion of crime-lord J.K. Verma (Amrish Puri) and inciting them to smash and loot as a form of retribution. Unfortunately, such cut price vigilantism is never truly instrumentalized into a grander, dissenting political discourse but of course all of that is completely forgivable when you have AB swaggering his way through proceedings on a full tilt rapacious drive. After all, he is the king of kings.

Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho! (Dir. Saeed Mirza, India, 1984) – ‘So, who says there is no happiness here?’

A cursory search of the term ‘chawl’ offers a definition of ‘low quality housing’, which can’t be any further from the truth regarding the abject state of housing for the lower and underclass in India. What chawl actually equates to is poor sanitation, overcrowding, cramped living conditions and squalor. Saeed Mirza’s 1984 work Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho! is a didactic socio-political satire that was made around the same time as Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983), and which shares much of the crew including Mirza and Shah who collaborated on a series of projects through the 1980s. Mirza aims squarely at both the state of housing and rampant corruption in the judicial system, adopting a semi realist approach with use of on location shooting at Taher Manzil (Do Tanki) and Goregaonkar Chawl (Dadar) in Bombay, imbuing the narrative with an unembellished level of authenticity.

Anchored in Bhisham Sahni’s dignified performance as Mohan Joshi, an aging unyielding one-man activist who takes on a fraudulent landlord – Kundan Kapadia (Amjad Khan) may have been a risk since Sahni was a writer by trade and possessed little acting experience. Nonetheless, being the brother of Balraj Sahni certainly testified the acting gene was shared with Bhisham who exudes a pathos that is disarming. The gist of the narrative hinges on Mohan Joshi’s stop start attempts to sue Kapadia saab for his totalizing neglect and refusal to maintain the chawl in which Joshi inhabits along with his wife, two sons, daughter-in-law and grandchildren. Mirza opens with a scornful montage of Bombay celebrating the city for its glaring contradictions and which are juxtaposed to the playful lyrics of a song that talks of pride, identity and despair. One of the first shots is of a wagon but as the camera begins to rotate, we slowly recognise the wagon is in fact on its side, a casualty of a vehicle accident, coming to symbolise the duplicitous, topsy turvy nature of events that will transpire but also illustrating the disorderly demeanour of Bombay. As the montage progresses images of people sleeping on the roads and pavements become more frequent and when juxtaposed to the piercing lyrics: ‘This is heaven…’, the idealistic tone gives way to something far more pessimistic.

Cue Joshi’s entry down a flight of wooden steps in the run down chawl, narrowly avoiding water cascading down from a burst pipe. Joshi’s low-key entry radiates an ordinariness but a refusal to back down, to resist, is tied up in Sahni’s real life history as a social activist who not only worked with the IPTA in the 1940s but was also a member of the Communist Party of India. As Joshi makes his way through the chawl, Mirza cuts to a series of establishing shots that are strikingly unfiltered, extenuating the rawness of an indigent milieu. Spurred on by an early morning conversation with a fellow resident in which the courts could help elevate their sense of social deprivation, Joshi is determined to take on the landlord as a matter of principle. As he walks back to the chawl, the inner monologue points to altruistic, socialist inclinations, with Joshi musing that resistance would benefit all of the tenants.

Nonetheless, Joshi’s political idealism is dismissed by his family who either don’t have the time to challenge the landlord or simply live in a state of subjugation. Joshi is joined by his wife and partner Rohini (Dina Pathak) from whom he draws a collective strength, and together they certainly seem to represent a bygone age of questioning the status quo and trying to make the system accountable for their crimes. In this respect, Joshi appears to be the exact opposite of Salim (Balraj Sahni) in Garam Hava (1973), although they both share an unwavering stoicism and self-respect. Joshi’s belief in collective action and community intervention is best captured when he visits the residents of the chawl, trying in vain to get names on a petition that can be used in court to evidence the landlord’s refusal to carry out repairs. Only one resident chooses to sign the petition, reiterating both a widespread disillusionment with civil institutions and a sense of dread that comes with going up against the treacherous landlord.

The figure of the zamindar has often been a popular source of on-screen villainy in popular Hindi cinema, and Kapadia is represented as a contemporary variation of this archetypal convention. Seeing a major star like Amjad Khan pop up in such a low budget independent film is clearly surprising but his imposing on-screen presence as the abhorrent Kapadia is a master stroke of casting and was a real coup given his significant star status. Kapadia’s constant pushback is largely programmed by two promoters (Pankaj Kapur and Salim Ghouse) who are cartoonish manifestations of an outrageously ruthless capitalist neoliberal India that was beginning to chomp through the Bombay landscape, displacing families, uprooting communities and trampling on the rights of the lower classes in order to make way for a wretched blood-soaked skyline of high-rise deluxe apartments. Mirza depicts a tainted system that empowers landlords while institutions like the repair board which are supposed to be providing a public service for the greater good are riddled with delay and effectively ruined.

Much of the narrative is played out in the confines of the courts with Mirza parodying a judicial process that puts up endless obstacles and ties itself up in a maze of bureaucratic red tape that only benefits those with infinite resources at their disposal. The farcical nature of intervention that never transpires to resolve the inhospitable and dangerous living conditions snowballs into an epic six-year court battle that culminates in an over egged visit by the judge proceeding over the case to the chawl to bear witness to the intolerable state of things. The defence and prosecution are inept as each other, using Joshi’s sincerity as a means of massaging their irrespective egos and wallowing in an unholy resignation. Advocate Malkani (Naseeruddin Shah) is the epitome of faux middle-class piousness, taking up Joshi’s cause so that he can revel in financial exploitation while pretending to empathise with the cause of the oppressed.

Upon recognising the gravitas of the judge’s impending visit Kapadia acts speedily to adorn the chawl with an impromptu lick of paint with the aim of hoodwinking the judge into thinking the chawl is not as bad as it has been made out by Joshi and the prosecuting advocates. Unsurprisingly, the judge’s visit descends into a charade with both parties exchanging a beat box parade of empty nothings. In the very end it falls upon the demoralised Joshi to ratify a final act of desperation, tearing down the wooden stilts propping up the chawl and triggering a partial collapse, his body engulfed by the rubble and fleetingly silencing the machinations of hegemonic structures and power.

With a screenplay co-written by Sudhir Mishra, dialogues by Ranjit Kapoor and Kundan Shah as consultant, Mohan Joshi… was a continuing collaboration between a close knit group of very talented artists who were central to the evolution of Parallel Cinema through the 1980s, a period where we saw the satire form used repeatedly as a vehicle for wider social and political dissent, and which subjectively in many ways was in spirit echoing the absurdist influences of Sen’s Bhuvan Shome.

Bhavni Bhavai / A Folk Tale – ‘Our blood is shed day after day…’

(1980, Dir. Ketan Mehta, India)

The story of political modernism in the history of Parallel Cinema had a partial Brechtian impulse to it that resonated sporadically through a handful of films. It would be completely absurd to isolate the trace the origins of cinematic reflexivity to this particular movement but Sen’s Interview in 1971 set in motion a remarkable precedent in which aesthetic hybridity came to the fore more prominently in Parallel Cinema films that came after it. While reflexivity is limited to arguably one major sequence in Sen’s Interview, Sen would return to such a modernist device with totalizing zeal in his self-reflexive masterpiece In Search of Famine (1981), which was made around the same time as Ketan Mehta’s Bhavni Bhavai (1980). Based on Dhiruben Patel’s play, what makes Mehta’s exploration of caste decisive is the Brechtian approach that fuses history and politics into a rich, scathing parody.

The film opens with the imagery of Partition, exile and displacement as a group of Harijans (untouchables) are silhouetted against a fiery sunset. Journeying from the village, they are migrating to the city. Victims of caste discrimination and displaced from their homes, a little boy wants to return to the village but Ujam (Smita Patil) exclaims they have nothing to go back since their homes were burnt down in an act of upper caste thuggery. Malo (Om Puri), the self-designated patriarch of the group, begins to sing and narrate a story about a king who had two wives but could not have an heir. As we come to realise, Malo’s central presence acts as a kind of social and political pendulum, instigating revolt but at the same time functioning as the archetypal lynchpin who narrates the story of caste oppression. Malo’s larger than life representation is carried brilliantly by Om Puri who resorts to musicality to narrate caste politics.

King Chakrasen played with great comic wisdom by Naseeruddin Shah in one of his most overlooked performances is a splendid parody of the ruling elite and is ridiculed for his constant buffoonery by a counsel of treacherous political advisers. Mehta segues audaciously from historical tableau to satirical commentary, imitating the Bhavai form, a popular form of theatre that originated from the 14th century in India. Chakrasen’s ostentatious introduction, showering in milk, is drolly undermined when he is informed the palace smells of shit because the sweepers (lower caste Harijans) are absent due to a wedding. Outraged by what Chakrasen reasons to be insolence, the sweepers are rounded up and whipped. This is the first of many satirical enactments of subjugation in which the Harijans are dehumanized and defiled, remaining completely powerless to retaliate in the face of unchanging historical forces.

When news comes through the eldest Queen is pregnant Chakrasen is delighted. However, the youngest Queen (Suhasini Mulay) enraged by the news plots with Chakrasen’s close political adviser to bribe the Brahmin priest to falsely prophesise the unborn child represents a threat to the kingdom and will bring death to the King. Misled by the priest’s astrological musings Chakrasen orders the disposal of his newly born son. Unable to kill the child, the King’s men put the baby in a wooden box and place it into the river. Malo finds the box and upon seeing the helpless baby claims the child as his own but does not disclose the secret to anyone. The child grows up to Jeevo (Mohan Gokhale).

Wanting to give his son clean water, Malo is caught red handed and lambasted when he tries to use water from the well reserved for the upper caste goons. The upper caste retaliates, resorting to violence and burning the huts of Malo and his friends to the ground. Devastated, Malo and the Harijans are forced to leave their homes. The flashbacks shared by Malo are borne out of the Harijans contemporary situation of exile, migrating to the city through inhospitable conditions. In one of many instances of breaking the fourth wall, Jeevo turns to face the audience and fires of a contemptuous diatribe at those ‘who stare at us from their cocooned darkness’, accusing the apathetic audience of complicity in caste oppression:

‘Our homes are burnt!

Our women are raped.

We are treated like animals.

Our blood is shed day after day.

And you don’t feel anything?


The dark satirical playfulness that characterises Mehta’s approach to the material was arguably an extension of the first phase of Parallel Cinema expressly Mrinal Sen’s Interview, a reflexivity that continued to resurface in formalist experiments like Ghashiram Kotwal (1976). Another key sequence is when Jeevo and Ujam perform a beggar’s opera for the King, concocting a tale of mockery that Chakrasen lacks the intellect to fully understand the two-edged meanings of their social and political innuendos. The Brahmin priest declares that to please the planets a sacrifice is needed, a very special individual – the perfect man who is similar to the King. This, of course, is no other than Jivo, who bargains with Chakrasen through another performative spectacle, asking their demands as Harijans be fulfilled and magnifying the dehumanization they face. Jeevo’s spectacle of revolt irks Chakrasen but he reluctantly agrees to the demands based on the advice from his wretched counsel who remind him that power can be regained in other ways namely through the machinations of state repression.

On the day of the execution, with Jeevo’s head literally on the chopping board, it is announced with great narrative timing that Jeevo is the King’s long-lost son, and we are offered a shamelessly exultant ending in which everyone rejoices and the status quo remains very much intact. Such a contrived, escapist ending critiques the ideological closure inherent in the very DNA of mainstream Indian cinema, limiting what can be said politically, but gives Mehta the ideal opportunity with which to underline such incongruity in showcasing a stauncher ending keeping in spirit with the ways in which caste oppression is unequivocally brutal and monolithic. After Jeevo is executed, his severed head unceremoniously tumbles down the steps of the royal well. Incensed by Chakrasen’s callous actions and the traumatic execution, Malo reacts, grabbing a sword from one of the guards and jumping down into the well in a terrifying act of self-destruction with his horrific, impotent scream echoing into the doom ladened walls of a well that he slaved over to build. Malo’s scream is followed with him cursing the King which results in the well overflowing and unleashing a biblical style flood that metaphorically seems to sweep away the ruling elite.

Malo’s traumatic rage was part of a deeper anger that flowed right through the late 1960s and well into the 1980s and beyond, caste intersecting with gender. The choice to intercut Chakrasen’s drowning with documentary footage of ‘caste riots in Ahmedabad and the severe drought in Northern Gujarat’ (Willemen & Rajadhyaksha) replicates an equivalent revolutionary political analogy of journalistic reportage deployed at the end of Sen’s Interview. However, the final ELS shot of planet earth with the following words: ‘Seeing the earth at a distance. Boundaries all merge. Differences disappear’ says otherwise, explicating the possibility of co-existence with the hope of overcoming centuries of caste tyranny.