For Hindi cinema, defining a musical itself is a tricky turf, for music is and always has been such an essential part of our narratives. Unlike Hollywood, it’s not a separate genre over here, but rather the heart of almost all our mainstream films. And yet, we think of songs as breaks and breathers in narratives that are light yet dramatic and could use some respite. They are great for heightening emotional moments but do not send them out alone to carry the story forward. At best, songs are beautiful but ornamental. (Never mind that for the longest time, and even today, a film’s success depended on these very ornaments.)
The conditioning, hence, has been strong enough to create a certain aversion when a filmmaker tries to do anything more, anything else. This is why it’s such a pity that no-one today talks of Ketan Mehta‘s Oh Darling Yeh Hai India!, a film that had really tried to push the boundaries for a musical 26 years ago.
With two prototypical underdogs at the centre, a robust tramp (Shah Rukh Khan) who may or may not have long to live and an unapologetic yet melancholic call girl (Deepa Sahi) who desires one evening of pure escape, Ketan Mehta attempted to tell an ironic story about the idea of India, which was going through too many radical changes all of a sudden. Both the protagonists are generically named Hero and Miss India respectively, while in the backdrop, the nation is about to be brought to halt by a megalomaniac of a super-villain who is obsessed with the idea of domination.
Being satirical in nature, the film borrows many Hindi film tropes only to turn them on their head. So while the comedy is broad and tongue-in-cheek at the same time, this heady cocktail of tone works at some places and derails at others. But what really distinguishes Oh Darling Yeh Hai India! is its musical backbone.
It’s perhaps easier to plot and craft a musical in terms of convincing the audience when your protagonist or key characters are connected to music, poetry or dance in some form (Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje, Heer Ranjha, Jagga Jasoos). But with a concept like this, it’s a huge risk, and Mehta goes at it with great aplomb, relying almost entirely on songs to set up the mood, and elevating the tension by playing on the irony of songs and dances juxtaposed with the impending doom of massive proportions.
The film opens with ‘Aaja Aaja’, a playful song picturised on a bunch of dolled-up sex workers who roam and revel on the streets of Bombay, inviting customers with glee and enthusiasm. It’s a spin on how we see prostitutes in our films, which are usually either as golden-hearted tragic figures or steeped in villainy. It’s a celebration of being the underdog, where self-pity is abandoned in the early evening hours perhaps.
Mehta taps into what everyone has always known, but is rarely captured on celluloid – that Bombay truly comes alive at night. It becomes clear that while keeping the story limited to events on a single night, Mehta is aiming for a certain restlessness in his narrative, like one last bout of celebration before judgment day, and that energy oozes through all the song sequences.
The film perhaps peaks with its title song, where our streetwise protagonists slowly gather people from all over the underbelly as they sing about their woes. It’s a rousing 10-minute ballad, brimming with passion and pathos as Mehta (who also wrote the lyrics for all songs, besides penning the dialogue) paints his vision – the dystopian collage of a nation that he saw India as. The song begins with light commentary on its multi-cultural facets and goes on to assume scary proportions as it climaxes, ranting angrily about the dangers of its ever-so-flexible nature.
To be fair, the film almost exhausts itself in the first half with all the mayhem and frolic, and has a visibly tough time keeping it together through most of its second act – but there are some captivating sparkles later on, too.
After the narrative reaches its conflict point, we have a moment where the villain succeeds in his aim of instigating city-wide riots and major unrest all over the nation. And that’s where the film suddenly cuts to ‘Raat Hai Qayamat.’ It is a sinister-sounding ballad set in the villain’s den (sung by Shweta Shetty, who perhaps had the perfect voice for these noir-techno compositions). It is the quintessential victorious villain’s moment, with dancers veiled in fur swaying in neon lights. But what sets the sequence apart is the real-time visuals from the riots playing on a big screen right behind the dancers, as Don Quixote (Amrish Puri) goes crazy with power-tripping on the sidelines. We also frequently cut back to the actual scene of terror in the interludes, where swords are being thrust into bodies and people are set on fire. This kind of staging creates a sense of great terror, for it’s both removed from reality and attached to it in one go.
The decision to cast Jaaved Jaaferi was a great, novel move, for here we have an antagonist-player who is equally comfortable on-screen with creating folly and footwork. Though not particularly biting with his acting chops, Jaaferi plays Prince with the right amount of brattiness and swagger. And yes, of course, he can dance. In ‘Tujhpe Marta Hoon,’ one of those rare songs where we see the villain express himself through dance while he tries to woo the heroine, Ketan Mehta ensures the musical element is alive even when the goings-on get tense and unlikely for musical intervention.
Jaaferi’s presence also leads to one of the most fun dance-offs of Bombay cinema, where the street guys, led by our Hero, outwit the spoilt Mafia kid. Its Prince’s entry point into the film and the song ‘Baap Re Baap’ establishes the pride of this retro-style gangster, who will soon be defeated by the ruggedness and humility of our tramp (played by Shah Rukh Khan like only he can). It’s a moment of great wit and could have been disposed of as a one-liner-heavy scene in any other film – but Ketan Mehta uses the moment to stage it as a proper musical.
But it’s not just that knack for converting scenes into musical moments that the film excels in. Early on, we reach a point where Miss India challenges Hero to entertain her, doing whatever he can. Now, this is not a sequence that could be handled with dialogue or action individually. It calls for both, and ‘Public Ko Hasao’ has some of the most inspired moments of Khan’s career: he taps into his love for Jim Carrey-like face-contortions and physical exertions akin to those of a circus performer. It’s a riot, just like ‘Main Hoon Kaun’, where Hero is triggered into a tragicomic existential inquiry after being accosted by cops for sleeping on the side of the road. Khan is absolutely brilliant here, creating vivacious ruckus on screen and aptly mirroring the frantic turbulence of a nation unsure of its identity in these changing times.
Those were the days when Khan would choose his roles a little less calculatedly, while maintaining his quintessential manic energy for each. His co-lead Deepa Sahi, though, is one of the weakest links of the movie, unable to keep up with Khan either in its broad comic scenes or in the lavish outburst on the streets. However, together they get one great moment of romance, somewhere around the mid-point, with ‘Chhoo Lene De.’
In terms of execution, this song is somewhere between the out-and-out musical format and the typical Bollywood love ditty where lovers elope to their dreamland. Hero and Miss India’s escape definitely occurs, but right on the Bombay streets, against the backdrop of an old staggering monument of South Bombay. After all the fun and frolic, as they find themselves entangled in a moment of raw desire and intimacy, the statues from the monument come alive and partake in their simmering euphoria as they twirl around in the fountain. It is the kind of fantastical rides we go to the movies for.
The problem with Oh Darling Yeh Hai India! is how Ketan Mehta tried too many things alien to the conventional Bombay film audience and unsurprisingly failed to ensure a palatable concoction. However, his attempt to filter an entire narrative through the lens of a musical deserves far more recognition – and for its daring, uncompromising heart alone, this film remains super-special, and one of the rare true-blue musicals of our industry.
Oh Darling Yeh Hai India! is available on Netflix India.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.