Revisiting Om Shanti Om: Bollywood’s Parasocial Relationships And Social Hierarchy

The film is a striking and, at the same time, highly entertaining look at the Bollywood industry in quite a metatextual way
Revisiting Om Shanti Om: Bollywood’s Parasocial Relationships And Social Hierarchy

Perhaps nobody had anticipated that the sudden death of an actor could whip up such an  uncontrollable uproar in the country. And yet, such is the power of the relationships between film stars and their fans in India, a nation obsessed with its cinema alongside cricket and politics. Director Farah Khan's 2007 film, Om Shanti Om, starring Shah Rukh Khan and Deepika Padukone (who made her debut with this film), narrates an uncanny tale of such a relationship between a male fan and a female star. 

Omprakash Makhija a.k.a. Om, played by Shah Rukh Khan, is a film-fanatic. A young man who lives with his aged mother, he works as a 'junior artist' or an extra in commercial films. His best friend, Pappu, played by Shreyas Talpade, vehemently supports his dreams of becoming a 'star' some day. Along with this 'impossible' dream of Om is his equally fantastical desire for a top female star Shantipriya, played by a debutante at that time, Deepika Padukone. The film is a striking and, at the same time, highly entertaining look at the Bollywood industry in quite a metatextual way. It reveals a lot of cracks and spills in the structure of the industry that became important discourses years after the release of the film. Besides that, it primarily draws out the complexities of the relationship between a fan and a star (later also explored in Maneesh Sharma's Fan in 2016). What sets Om Shanti Om apart from Fan is the dual perspective it provides on the relationship between its leads – the relationship between a fan and a celebrity, and the difference in socio-economic status between a junior artist and a star.

Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl coined the term 'parasocial relationship' in 1956 to describe the bond between a celebrity and their fans. They defined the term as "an illusion of face-to-face relationship with the performer" which is "analogous to those in a primary group." (Horton and Wohl, 1956, p. 215) The relationship is therefore of a personal kind even though the person or 'performer' on the screen is someone the fan has never met; they are only present as an optical illusion in his/her life. For Om, Shantipriya is such an illusion and a little more than that. He has only seen her from afar in sets but never interacted with her. So, when her dupatta entangles with the dhaga around his wrist at the venue of her film's premiere, these lyrics play in the background:

"Aayi aisi raat hai jo bohot khushnaseeb hai, chaahe jise door se duniya woh mere kareeb hai."

It seems that the trajectory of a typical heterosexual romance in Bollywood blended with the subtext of a parasocial relationship is what dilutes the seriousness of Om's psychological complexity– his unusual infatuation for a film star. On the surface, it does seem like he could never unite with Shantipriya in a romantic relationship because she is married to a producer and is pregnant with his baby. And then, of course, because they both die in the fire. However, a closer look reveals that Om is only intimate with the on-screen fictional persona of Shantipriya, just like a fan in a parasocial relationship. His personal relationship with her is very brief, not even close enough for her to tell him about her secret marriage. He goes out with her once for a kind of date just like those meet-with-a-star opportunities people chance upon. We almost laugh at his childish hallucinations of dancing with Shantipriya in films, his talking to Shantipriya's poster, his Filmfare Awards speech in a make-believe awards show, until we step into his shoes – he is not at all an ordinary infatuated fan from outside the film industry; instead, he works there! He is an actor – albeit an extra – who, in his strong moments, dreams of becoming a big star, and in his weak moments, thinks he will die working as an extra just like his father.

"Is naam ke saath is janam mein toh hero nahi ban sakta. Bus ek junior artist ki naukri karte karte mar jaunga main, pitaji ki tarah."

–There could not be a more heartbreaking portrayal of how much actors, big or small, have internalized the insider-outsider hierarchy in the Bollywood industry. However, this intense moment is framed in caricature-ish tones just like most of the film's scenes. So, one almost thinks that his desperate desire to change his surname, influenced by Pappu's hypothesis about the impossibility of becoming a top star if one does not have an upper class surname (like 'Kapoor'), is a joke. Until it isn't. Om is not really an outsider since both his parents used to work as junior artists but he definitely lacks social capital. When he dies, the man (an employee under Rajesh Kapoor) who was supposed to inform Om's family, does not bother to carry out the task. We come to know this later in a conversation between Om Kapoor and Pappu in which Pappu tells him that they did not know what had happened to Om Makhija. Nobody misses Om Makhija, nobody bothers to check on his mother, because no one knows or cares about a social inferior, a junior artist.

Not so surprisingly, all it takes for Om Kapoor, on the other hand, to be a top star is his pedigree-son of Rajesh Kapoor. While Om Makhija's mother has been running from pillar to post, looking for her son for years, the Kapoor mansion is mobbed by thousands who have come to wish Om Kapoor a 'Happy Birthday'. Tejaswini Ganti in her book, Producing Bollywood: Inside the Contemporary Hindi Film Industry (2012), writes about the dynastic nature of the film industry which seems to be "physically reproducing itself in all spheres: production, distribution, and exhibition". She confirms that a huge percentage of the top actors (close to 60%) from the mid-1990s to 2008 are from film-families, which shows that the "hereditary trend", as she calls it, seems to be intensifying with time. (Ganti, 2012, p. 198) So, for Om Makhija, like the population outside the film industry, Shantipriya, a top star, can never be a colleague because his parents were not in top positions in the industry and clearly, that misfortune has got something to do with the surname. Om's desperate acts of love result in his death but never in a romantic union with the lady of his dreams. Ganti underlines the strict hierarchy in the film industry where stars are accorded a lot of privileges and comforts on the set compared to other cast and crew, which underlines their "status differences". (Ganti, 2012, p. 205-6)

Om Makhija, a junior artist, therefore, has no part to play in Shantipriya's life other than a fan. His reactions to her death might be read as the pangs of a bereaved lover grieving the death of his beloved but the subtext of mourning in a parasocial relationship remains. In fact, the apparently bizarre nature of a parasocial relationship and the form of a goofy melodrama that its portrayal assumes in the film sometimes undermines the more important issue at hand– the social prejudices that destroy lives and dreams like that of Om Makhija.

Research on parasocial relationships and mourning show that the death of a celebrity can result in bereavement that can take a serious toll on the fans' cognitive abilities, much like the deaths of closed ones. The fans' personal identities are attached to the celebrity, which was true for Om Makhija. (Courbet and Fourquet-Courbet, 2014, 276-77) His entire existence revolved around Shantipriya just like an obsessed lover. Therefore, Om Kapoor post his recalling of his past life almost has no other purpose but to avenge Shantipriya's death. But Om's plans to seek justice for Shantipriya is heavily lacking in pragmatism. He decides to direct and act in a film whose script is the story of Shantipriya from Om Makhija's perspective and then his rebirth and plans to avenge her murder. He plays this plot out in the music launch in front of the murderer to trigger his consciousness and to make him confess his guilt– a modern adaptation of the trope of play-within-a-play used famously in Shakespeare's Hamlet.

However, Mukesh Mehra's death at the hands of Shantipriya's ghost, if it is to be seen as justice for her murder, is also a retribution for Om Makhija's death–the death of his dreams and of himself. In this regard, the scene in the end where Om Kapoor introduces Om Makhija to Mukesh Mehra (played by Arjun Rampal) quite scathingly is crucial:

"Om Prakash– tumhari bari bari filmon mein chhote chhote role karne wala ek junior artist".

The irony in the statement (that Shahrukh Khan quite powerfully drives in through his voice intonations) lies in how a social inferior employed under a top producer–someone the man did not even care to know–rebels to cause his end. The path shown to stage such a rebellion is, sadly, problematic because it is fictive. The junior artist had to die and be reborn into privilege to gain the clout to bring the producer down. While the trope of rebirth has its own novelty within Bollywood film history and it works quite beautifully in Om Shanti Om as well, this trope in some ways becomes counterproductive in the depiction of hierarchy within Bollywood, where not only are some dreams rendered negligible but also some lives considered disposable.

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