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What a week.

Seventeen January will be a red-letter day for those who care about the fate of Indian art house cinema and worry that daring experimental films are doomed to gather mould in an archivist’s vault or remain preserved but inaccessible in an overseas art house cinema’s library.

Ashim Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely opened in cinemas on the same day as Kamal Swaroop’s Om-Dar-Ba-Dar—one a richly atmospheric take on 1980s seedy Mumbai chic, and the other a blast from the past made in that decade but not released until now.

Produced by the National Film Development Corporation in 1988, Swaroop’s uncompromisingly experimental movie did the rounds of festivals and gained cult appeal on YouTube before being finally programmed for release by PVR cinemas’ Director’s Rare label.

The silver-hair enfant terrible’s only feature, which has been digitally restored, is routinely described as a “trip", with its fans recommending the imbibing of narcotic substances before and during viewings. Rather than tripping off into unknown realms, Om-Dar-Ba-Dar is firmly tethered to the Ajmer of the film-maker’s childhood and adolescence and the Pushkar of the annual religious fair.

The movie keeps shuttling between real places and phantasmagorical worlds, capturing their chaos, colour and cacophony through jerky editing, intrusive background sounds, self-consciously arch dialogue (by one Kuku, who is Swaroop himself), and caricatured characters.

Indeed, the entire experience, in which visual and sound are inseparable, is designed to satirise the very small-town nostalgia that is the movie’s most accessible legacy. Om-Dar-Ba-Dar is the original vernacular spectacle that has been endlessly imitated by advertising, music video and popular cinema.

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The plot, which is difficult to digest in a single viewing, follows the dreams and misadventures of Om and those around him, and involves astronaut Neil Armstrong, diamond-spewing frogs, and the main character’s transformation into a tourist attraction advertising the Pushkar Stop Watch.

There’s some Phalke, some Dadaism, some surrealism, some Puranic allusions, and plenty of Swaroopian mischief throughout. The film-maker mashes together ancient myth and contemporary pulp, half-remembered dream and real texture, moving from one idea to the next mid-sentence and mid-visual, constantly subverting any fondness you may develop for the characters and their antics, and preventing any attempt to read coherence or deep meaning into the material.

The relentless assault on the senses actually makes Om-Dar-Ba-Dar quite difficult on the eyes and ears. Swaroop snaps out of his aural-visual dissonance only right at the very end with a quiet and lovely panning shot of the landscape that inspired this movie’s unique and unusual mindscape.

A 101-minute-long riposte to the dictatorship of linear storytelling or a textbook experimental exploration of the self? Om-Dar-Ba-Dar prevents easy analysis, let alone glowing reviews, but there is little doubt about its status as a rare gem from India’s arguably sparse trove of avant-garde treasures.

Om-Dar-Ba-Dar has been released through PVR Cinemas’ Director’s Rare label. See www.pvrdirectorsrare.com.

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