13 years of Saawariya vs Om Shanti Om: Revisiting one of Bollywood's most iconic theatrical clashes

There’s something fundamentally iconic about the clash between Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Saawariya and Farah Khan’s Om Shanti Om, particularly when you look at those films and that clash in today’s context.

Pradeep Menon November 09, 2020 11:41:21 IST
13 years of Saawariya vs Om Shanti Om: Revisiting one of Bollywood's most iconic theatrical clashes

Those were simpler days. Back then, when the word ‘clash’ didn’t conjure up images of the harsh terrain of Galwan Valley and the threat of war, but instead referred to a bumper bonanza for audiences, usually around festivals, when big-budget, star-studded movies deigned to arrive in theatres on the same day. You remember them, don’t you?

Just in the new millennium, we had Lagaan and Gadar: Ek Prem Katha duke it out, Mohabbatein and Mission Kashmir take each other on, Jab Tak Hai Jaan and Son of Sardaar fight for honours, and most recently, Raees and Kaabil vie for attention by releasing on the same day respectively. (Why Shah Rukh Khan finds himself in the midst of so many of these clashes seems like a delicious topic for another day.)

But even among these, and so many other big films clashing with each other, there’s something fundamentally iconic about the clash between Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Saawariya and Farah Khan’s Om Shanti Om, particularly when you look at those films and that clash in today’s context.

It was the year 2007. The year of Shilpa Shetty’s brouhaha in Big Brother UK, the year India won the inaugural T20 cricket World Cup, the year an SRK film named Chak De India arrived quietly and won hearts of all shapes and sizes, the year we posted opinions about these and other things mostly on Orkut. And yet, come the festive season, there was only one thing on the nation’s mind (or so it seemed.)

While Farah Khan was returning with her second popcorn entertainer featuring SRK after Main Hoon Naa, Sanjay Bhansali’s follow-up to Black was a grand, operatic launchpad for Rishi Kapoor’s son and Anil Kapoor’s daughter - both of who assisted the filmmaker on Black (a snippet appended to all introductions to them, back then).

13 years of Saawariya vs Om Shanti Om Revisiting one of Bollywoods most iconic theatrical clashes

Ranbir Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor in a still from Saawariya.

The impending Diwali clash had been played up by the media for weeks in the lead-up to release, and the stars of both films had been all over TV, in ads and trailers and reality shows. If Shah Rukh’s spanking new torso gave national relevance to the ‘six-pack’, then newbie Ranbir Kapoor was happy to let a towel drop to reveal his arse-crack. It seemed, for a while, that this clash was the most important event in the country.

Back on 9 November in 2007, I remember lining up, first day, first (and second) show, family in tow, to catch both these films back-to-back. Almost 13 years to the day later, I did it again, this time on streaming. I watched the two films back-to-back, in the same order I saw them back then – Saawariya followed by Om Shanti Om – just to remind myself of a simpler time, when a trip to the movie theatre was as essential to me as drinking 2.5 litres of water a day. And the most lasting takeaway I have of this latest attempt at a walk down nostalgia alley is this: thank god movies have changed.

For starters, I cannot tell how you audacious an attempt like Saawariya feels, in the context of the present. It seems staggering, the amount of time, money and effort expended on a magnum opus, to launch two absolute newcomers who ostensibly bagged the prestige project primarily because of their film industry lineage.

Given the change in attitude towards Bollywood’s ‘dynastic traits’ (the N-word should be retired), were Bhansali to make his films today instead of when he did, he would probably have found it easier to release Padmaavat and Goliyon Ki Rasleela… Ram-Leela, with their original titles to boot, rather than Saawariya. (Meanwhile, OSO had to deal with the controversy surrounding its portrayal of veteran actor Manoj Kumar in a passing comic scene.)

Not nearly enough attention was paid back then to the irony of the glitzy launchpad for star kids on one side, clashing with a film that managed to both lampoon and celebrate this very quality of the film industry on the other, starring arguably the most successful ‘outsider’ to make it in Bollywood and launching an ‘outsider’ alongside. No, back then wasn’t a time for nuance – something that both films make amply clear today.

Even though the two films do have some redeeming qualities, primarily their music, revisiting them reminded me of how both films were so devoid of relatability, so presumptuous of how basic their audience was, so utterly dismissive of the need to create actual characters that say things that actually make sense. Bollywood has always been pulled up for ‘escapism’, but even if you made allowances for that, these two films were supremely guilty of being bloated, self-indulgent works that didn’t really care for their audience, even though they pretended to, considering all the fanfare they came with.

Saawariya had a threadbare plot based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s short story White Nights, though I wonder why Bhansali would need to go to Dostoevsky for what seemed like the story of the first half of a typical Hindi movie of the time – boy falls in love at first sight, but girl already has a lover… (In fact, that also describes the first half of Om Shanti Om, before people died and were reincarnated.)

13 years of Saawariya vs Om Shanti Om Revisiting one of Bollywoods most iconic theatrical clashes

Deepika Padukone and Shah Rukh Khan in a still from Om Shanti Om.

Thankfully, the reviews of the time actually give us cause for hope, because despite all the hype and hoopla, both films were almost universally acknowledged as underwhelming, though Saawariya came off the worse for wear, ‘because at least OSO is entertaining’, or so they said.

“Why nepostic Rajeev Masand always give 5 star to Khan movie and nepo-kid” may be a frequent refrain about the film industry on social media today, but the recently-vilified movie critic gave Saawariya a solitary star out of five, calling it a ‘fall from grace for the country’s most celebrated filmmaker’, while his 3-on-5 review for OSO termed it ‘a swell song-and-dance drama that’s sensationally senseless’. Baradwaj Rangan, on the other hand, called the Farah Khan picture a ‘barely-okay potboiler’, while he described Saawariya as a ‘fascinatingly dark anti-romance’. Most other critics panned the Bhansali film outright, with mixed reviews for Om Shanti Om.

Needless to say, Om Shanti Om easily outperformed Saawariya at the box office, though the next time Shah Rukh Khan and Sanjay Leela Bhansali were to clash, with Dilwale and Bajirao Mastani in 2015, it was Bhansali’s film that would walk away with the acclaim and the moolah. Personally, back then and even now, I preferred Saawariya to Om Shanti Om, because between the two films, it simply had better cinematic craft on display, with memorable frames that were hard to forget. (With the writing in both being mediocre at best, it had to be the technicalities that separate them.)

But really, it’s not so much the quality of those films that made them iconic, but how much they impacted pop culture then, and for generations. SRK’s ‘picture abhi baaki hai mere dost’ and Deepika Padukone’s ‘ek chutki sindoor’ became a part of the national lexicon after Om Shanti Om. The film also had the first recorded usage of ‘enna rascalla, mind it’, a phrase that has haunted Indians hailing from the south of the country ever since. Ranbir Kapoor and his towel, of course, were the 2007 equivalent of the dank meme, while Saawariya instantly became a handy metaphor that looked (or made you feel) blue.

Looking back, the two films seem like such missed opportunities. Imagine if they had the kind of character building we see more often in the movies today. Imagine if they had spent a proportional amount of time and effort actually writing them, in relation to the time spent producing and marketing them. The clash may have been one for the ages, but the two films belong precisely to when they were made. I’m glad our movies have moved on.

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