Gopi Desai & Lalit Tewari in Kamal Swaroop's Om Dar-B-Dar(1988).
During the lockdown period, I made a documentary titled What’s Your Story. The idea was to figure out the factors that motivate a filmmaker to make a film. During my interaction with various filmmakers, I came across two schools of thoughts: First, making a film to say ‘something’ that bothered the filmmaker or something they felt strongly about and wanted to share with the world. For these filmmakers, it was crucial that the film is impactful and its underlying message stays with the audience. The second was making a film that was a tailored piece of cinematic craft, one that created an interesting experience for the viewers. For such filmmakers, a story was not as important as the effort to create ‘magical cinematic moments’, which captivated the audience. These artists created a magical moment in every shot or scene and then made their film by stringing these moments together. These filmmakers had practically no written script and created these moments by experimenting with the camera, visuals, light, sound and so on. The moments were not planned; the film was purely a by-product of a creative process, like a painting or a piece of music.
In contrast, filmmakers from the first school felt that a film was a meticulously planned endeavour, first written in words and then planned to the smallest detail of the scenes, shots, acting, sound, lights, camera angles, frames and exposures etc. Both categories of filmmakers have produced great, memorable films. Most Hollywood filmmakers and our own Satyajit Ray, Girish Kasaravalli and Vishal Bhardwaj fall in the first category, shooting with a bound script and a well-researched plan of action. Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani, Ritwik Ghatak, John Abraham, and others comprise the second category that let impulse or instinct guide them.
This preamble is necessary to understand Om Dar-B-Dar (I am Door By Door; 1988) and its director Kamal Swaroop. Om Dar-B-Dar is considered by some critics to be a pioneer of Indian avant-garde cinema. It is a cult classic, with its post-modernist approach extending to absurdism. The common reaction to this film is ‘incomprehensible’ and ‘weird’.
Om Dar-B-Dar spans 110 minutes and was made with a budget of Rs 10 lakh in 1988. The film stars Anita Kanwar, Aditya Lakhia, Lalit Tiwari, Gopi Desai and Manish Gupta and was shot by Ashwini Kaul and Milind Ranade. Ravi Gupta and Priya Krishnaswamy edited the film. Rajat Dholakia (Firaaq, Mirch Masala, Holi) composed its music as well as the sound design along with Kamal Padmanabhan. According to Swaroop, it was Dholakia who introduced the concept of sound design in Indian films, starting with Om Dar-B-Dar.
Om Dar-B-Dar is set in the town of Ajmer, Rajasthan. Though the film, in theory, appears to revolve around a young boy named Om, his carefree adolescence and his delusions and hallucinations, this does not quite translate onto the screen. The film seems disjointed – not because of the structure or treatment, but because this is how its maker intended it to be. This film is a multi-layered satire on mythology, art, science, politics and philosophy. It does not fit into any genre. Influenced by ‘surrealism’ and ‘dadaism’, it is a stimulant and an attack on the senses. Surrealism was a 20th-century movement in which unrelated images and events were put together in a strange or impossible way, like in a dream, in an attempt to express what happens deep inside a person’s mind. Dadaism was a movement in art and literature based on deliberate irrationality and negation of traditional artistic values.
The film, at least to my mind, cannot be fully interpreted or expressed in words. Every frame seems to have meaning, yet appears meaningless. The dialogues (written by Kaku, also the film’s lyricist and art director) seem coherent yet absurd. Its music seems familiar yet unfamiliar.
The songs are sporadic, choppy and without logic, yet they catch your attention with their apparent mockery of familiar Bollywood numbers. All of this bewildering setting is deliberate, and that is what determines whether a viewer finds the film watchable or avoidable. It is like the moving pieces of broken glass inside a kaleidoscope, where no two persons will see the same image. Similarly, Om Dar-B-Dar evokes a different experience for each viewer. While trying to explain the film in an interview, Swaroop said that his intention was to elicit a ‘wah!’ or a ‘wow!’ for every moment of the cinematic experience. He wielded the cinematic craft like a musician, who tries to evoke admiration for their rendering through experimentation. According to the filmmaker, he gets his ideas in dreams and relies on his craft and instincts to make his films. That is why perhaps his films stand out as original creations.
The film was financed by the NFDC and premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in 1988. It won the Filmfare Critics Award for Best Film in 1989. Though not released commercially at first (only on video), the film entered Indian theatres after 26 years on 17 January 2014, after it was digitally restored by the NFDC.
Kamal Swaroop was born in Kashmir. His father was a teacher and a palmist. The family eventually moved to Ajmer, Rajasthan, where Swaroop studied biology. No wonder you see so many toads in the film, apparently as a symbol of fertitlity. In 1974, he graduated from FTII. His other films include Pushkar Puran (2017), Battle of Benares (2014), Rangabhoomi (2013), Bandish (2007), When the Image Meets the Shadow (2004), Ghasiram Kotwal (1988) and Dorothy(1976). Rangabhoomi won the National Award (Golden Lotus) for Best Non-Feature Film for 2014, Swaroop’s second National Award after his film Phalke Children got the National Award in 1994. Swaroop also worked with Mani Kaul on Maati Manas and Siddheshwari, besides assisting Richard Attenborough in the filming of Gandhi.
O.P.Srivastava is a Mumbai based filmmaker & writer.