Om Darbadar (1988) (aka Om-Dar-Ba-Dar)
Kamal Swaroop
Hindi

“To Prime Minister. Subject: The Googly. Dear Raju, Please ban googly in cricket and life in general. Thanks, A freedom fighter, Babuji B. Sankar.

 

Om DarbadarIf one is asked to describe briefly what Kamal Swaroop’s Om Darbadar (1988) is, some of the answers could be: carefully constructed non-sense, endless dream of a cinephile, a satire on everything, full stop to Indian parallel cinema, random footage, extremely challenging piece of filmmaking, the great Indian LSD trip, landmark Indian film that aims big. With all the ingredients required to make a cult classic, Om Darbadar is the kind of movie that can easily polarize critics and audiences alike. It is, in fact, surprising that the National Film Development Corporation consented to produce this film. Using image, sound and montage to the maximum extent (and often gratuitously) and dialog that seem like knitted from parts of different sentences, almost always making no meaning (written by Kuku, also the lyricist and the art director of the film), Swaroop’s film is an antithesis to whatever is recognized globally as Indian cinema – a reason good enough to make Om Darbadar a must-see movie.

Here’s the plot of the film: Horoscope, dead frog, cloudy sky, the moon, radio program, caste reservation, bicycle, Mount Everest, women’s liberation, communism, sleeveless blouse, Yuri Gagarin, miniature book, Nitrogen fixation, man on moon, terrorist tadpoles, computer, biology class, turtles, Hema Malini, typewriter, sleazy magazines, hibernation, text inside nose, googly, James Bond, severed tongue, fish rain, shoes in a temple, World War, assassin creed, Gandhi, illicit trade, the lake, goggles, hopping currency, helium breath, counterfeit coins, underwater treasure, diamonds inside frogs, fireworks, the zoo, explosives, town at night, dead man, visit of God, the Panchsheel Pact, foreign tourists, Promise toothpaste, holy men, Fish keychain, Ram Rajya, food chain disruption, anti-cooperation movement, birth control, bagpipes, gecko, Jawaharlal Nehru, Aviation centers, Potassium Cyanide. And I guarantee you, this is as lucid as it can get.  

Om Darbadar

Om Darbadar is, hands down, the most confusing movie I have ever seen and not many movies can come close to dethroning it. Some might propose Buñuel’s first film, but one could at least find one pattern in that work – of anti-narration. This one regularly tantalizes us with a somewhat coherent narrative and just when it seems to get steady, snap! Or Last Year at Marienbad (1961), which is, in fact, an incisive study of the human memory. Om Darbadar, on the other hand, overwhelms us with its utter irreverence for integrity of reality, unity of content and consistency of form. Or the very many avant-garde films of Brakhage, Warhol, Anger, Snow or Smith, which, I believe, have always had a strong theoretical basis. No, this film does not have any single, central factor as its theme or motivation. Of course, one can find shreds here and there in the film that do make it seem like dealing with the idea of identity crisis in suburban India, but that’s strictly on a speculative level.

Often we witness directors claiming to show the world what real India is – a statement negated by the films themselves. Leave alone filming, it is to be accepted that even understanding the dynamics of such a largely diverse country is near impossibility. But, if there was ever a film that attempted to capture the workings of real India almost in its entirety, it has to be this one. Yes, it does bite much more than it can chew, but surely, digestion is not its intention. In a country where science, religion, mythology, arts, politics and philosophy seep into common lives trying to overpower each other, there is no single way to separate these threads so as to examine their influence on the way of life. This is a nation where the apparently inexplicable supernatural walks hand in hand with the most modern of scientific theories (In one scene in the film, Gayatri (Gopi Desai) asks Jagdish (Lalit Tiwari) if women can really climb Mount Everest without the help of men, he tells her: “Why not? After all, goddess Parvati did it”), a culture that is exposed to all the isms of western thinking yet revels in having its own interpretations of them (wearing a sleeveless blouse is equated to emancipation of women) and a country whose emotions are largely dictated by cinema, television and pop culture (Om Darbadar can be seen as a jab at just about every genre in Indian cinema).

Om Darbadar

Conventional (and good) cinema has relied on the fact that human psychology manifests itself in the form of their behaviour and speech and hence, an unhindered documentation of their lives would help us understand them better. But not many filmmakers seem to have embraced the reverse process – an entry into the real via the surreal. Kolker fittingly calls Buñuel “the neo-realist of the unconscious” and each one of his films testifies that. Likewise, the whole of Om Darbadar could well be the ultimate Freudian exercise that could help us (de)construct the actual world that Om lives in – a world that is as much fuelled by a love for pulp novels and thriller movies as it is by an aversion to zoology. But all is not so simple and the film is far from an extended dream sequence. Swaroop could have easily had Om (or his father, who begins the film’s narration) wake up at the end of the film, thereby taking us back to our comfort zones. Instead, he seamlessly blends present reality, past reality and fantastical reality to create an elusive work of cinema that defies literature, science and rationality.

Om Darbadar is an utterly frustrating, endlessly irritating and supremely hilarious film. Is it nonsensical? Yes, that is precisely its function. Is it pretentious? No, that can happen only when a film attempts to be something. Is it a one-of-a-kind movie viewing experience? You bet. Whatever one calls it, you cannot deny one fact – Om Darbadar is an indubitably addictive and thoroughly riveting piece of work that simultaneously repels a viewer by not pandering to his needs and yet, keeps him hooked on to the screen from frame one. Quarter hour into the film, I was completely disarmed and found myself laughing out loud through the rest of the film despite (rather, because of) the meaninglessness of it all. Om Darbadar is perhaps the kind of vision that flashes moments before one’s death. Call it the birth of Indian cinema, call it its death, call it Dadaist, call it anti-art, but be sure to bask in its absurdity while it lasts.

[Meri Jaan A A A…!]

Los Olvidados (1950) (aka The Young And The Damned)
Luis Buñuel
Spanish

Watch out, here’s the mangy dog. Look, he’s coming. That’s it. I’m falling into the black hole. I’m alone. Alone! As always, boy, as always…

 

los-olvidadosIf there is a synonym for “iconoclasm” in cinema, it might well be Luis Buñuel. It’s almost as if it is a need for him to go against conventions and established practices, – social, cultural and cinematic – pick out their weak points and hit them so hard that their absurdities are exposed. I’m far from being qualified to make general statements (including the above) about Buñuel, but the few films I’ve watched of him provide a more than clear picture about his role as a cinema pioneer and a social critic. In the legendary debut work Un Chien Andalou (1929), Buñuel and Sali present us a plethora of images – ones that would be termed “Lynchian” nowadays – that refuse temporal and spatial continuity on which popular cinema thrived on at that time. Apart from a filmmaker’s impulse to break stereotypes, what Un Chien Andalou showed us was the way we looked at movies and the elements of cinema that we had taken for granted. The conventional viewer, who tries to assemble the images into some form of theme or narrative, would invariably fail.

Buñuel’s follow up to the first authoritative surrealist film, L’Âge D’or (1930) also shattered conventions, but of a different kind. Apart from employing an experimental structure of the script, Luis Buñuel lashes out at the ultra-prudish morals of the hypocritical aristocracy and our own obsession with sex. Fraught with perplexing and often teasing images, L’Âge D’or confirmed Buñuel’s position as an auteur and more importantly, as a genuine firebrand. His definitive comeback film, which he made in Mexico after years of puzzling silence, Los Olvidados (1950) is no less unorthodox.  After turning Hollywood and Expressionist form of filmmaking inside out in his first two features, it looks like Buñuel had deliberately waited for the next big film movement to establish itself. With Neo-realism rising to power after the war, backed by many critics and theorists, it was but a opportune moment for enter the scenario and create chaos.

Los Olvidados opens with the following lines:

“Almost every capital, like New York, Paris, London, hides behind its wealth, poverty-stricken homes where poorly-fed children, deprived of health or school, are doomed to criminality. Society tries to provide a cure. Success for its efforts remains very limited. The future is not bound to the present: The day will come when children rights are respected. Mexico, large modern city, is no exception to the rule. This film shows the real life. It’s not optimistic. The solution to this problem is left to the forces of progress.”

Following this declaration of depiction of reality, Buñuel cuts to the streets where we see a bunch of noisy kids playing. The setting is apt for another neorealist feature – kids on the streets, the scorching heat and images of massive reconstruction. Los Olvidados follows the life of Pedro, a street urchin and the other children of the locality he spends his time with –  Jaibo, the eldest of the lot who ultimately shapes Pedro’s life, Ojitos aka Small Eyes, a lost kid from the country side and Julian, the only “responsible” person in the gang. The film’s content proceeds from being raw, to cruel, to immoral, to misanthropic and culminates in traumatizing despair.

The older people in Los Olvidados are either sick, perverted, physically challenged or drunk. And the young are no good. But their worlds are not, by any stretch of imagination, mutually exclusive. The youth abstain from responsibility and abuse their agility and power. They could easily be labeled Les Enfants Terrible and Mexico, no country for old men. However, there are no angels in Buñuel’s land. The hypocritical seniors, on the other hand, judge them in plurality. They carry on with their old traditions and spend time cheating each other and cursing the younger ones (The blind Don Carmelo, the first victim of the brats’ “ultraviolence”, supplements his street music with his witch-doctor act). The only neutral elements of the film – the police and the judiciary, possibly representing the bourgeoisie – spend time philosophizing about poverty and the urgent need to eradicate it. This isn’t just a generation gap. What we have here is two competing and almost internecine worlds that refuse to conform.

Buñuel applies magnanimous amounts of violence – both simulated and otherwise – to the already unnerving realism of Mexico streets that is sure to make stomachs churn, especially now that CG has made us numb to everyday violence. But Buñuel’s violence is all the more unsettling, than say A Clockwork Orange (1971), because imminence of its possibility. Kubrick’s mystical and often anti-realistic setting prevents the barbarism of the Droogs to seep into the present and the film itself is, at its best, prophetic. Buñuel, on the other hand, exploits the neo-realist premise to situate the events in the tangible present and, as the opening statement of the film says, universalize the hypothesis. The fact that the victims are the violence are the physically challenged, the “morally” good and children makes it exceptionally scandalous to bourgeois sensibilities. Coexisting with the neorealist wave was film-noir craze where (also) the grey heroes never hesitated to pull the trigger unwarrantably. But even there, the victims themselves were like the protagonists – always carrying with them a fair reason to get killed – thus causing no harm to the existing moral framework.

But Buñuel’s world isn’t an appeasing aquarium which can be gazed at from a safe distance. He gets close to the characters, much more than the neo-realists, even giving us glimpses of their dreams but always eschewing psychoanalysis. Nor does he have one-to-one relation between images and their meaning. The chickens that appear throughout the movie may be a symbol that stands for some deeper meaning or a token for entry into the surreal from the real or plainly, a chicken. Like the eye-slitter of Un Chien Andalou or the cow in the bedroom gag of L’Âge D’or, Buñuel shocks us with one inexplicable image after the other, eventually pushing us to a “zone of no reasoning”, after which one just has to accept the reality that he gives us without questions. “This film shows the real life” says the title monologue. “Reality” here is tricky. It is Buñuel’s reality. He is happy to indulge himself into reality that is not just skin deep. And this is where Buñuel departs from and slays Neorealism.

los-olvidadosThe children in the classic Neo-realist films were sympathetic and often pawns of fate or power plays. Buñuel’s Pedro is also a product of his environment and the prejudices against him. But that does not mean all of Buñuel’s kids are sympathy-magnets. Most of them are, in fact, instigators of social disturbances that the “neo-realist kids” are subjected to. Buñuel breaks away from that “objective gaze” of the Italian pioneers and takes us on a tour into the subconscious world of his protagonists. Moreover, Buñuel questions the moral integrity of its protagonists, or rather does away with that concern completely (Buñuel apparently wanted to put an orchestra as the backdrop to some major scenes which would have broken another tenet of the Italians). But all this subversiveness isn’t just a product of a desperate need to break rules. What Buñuel does here is, like he did in his first two movies, that he exposes the inherent flaws of a cinema movement. In other words, Los Olvidados is a critique of a way of filmmaking written in the form of a film.  Buñuel takes up neo-realism in order to explode it from within and boy, does he succeed! In one of the greatest shots in film history, Pedro, in his reformatory, throws an egg at the soberly observing camera. – An in-your-face advice given by the director asking the neo-realists to cease the nonparticipation and do something about it all. Buñuel has driven the final nail into the coffin of Neo-realism.