How Ketan Mehta’s Oh Darling Ye Hai India, released in 1995, predicted the future of Indian politics
Mehta’s absurdist reimagining of India, despite its flaws, holds a mirror to the future of politics and social freedom.
In Ketan Mehta’s Oh Darling Ye Hai India (1995), the typically wide-eyed soliloquist, Amrish Puri addresses a conference of scheming collaborators.
‘Ye desh nahi ek jawalamukhi hai, jisme sadiyon se nafrat ubal rahi hai’, he says. The rot that has consumed India from the inside, he believes, is born out of trivial issues. ‘From language to land, from forests to rivers’ he claims, anything trivial can be weaponised.
Mehta’s film that came out 25 years ago disappeared without a whimper, its parodist premise and stage-like execution eluding an audience hooked to more mainstream fare. It starred Shah Rukh Khan, among others, who would later in the 90s go on to become the king of romance i.e. Bollywood back then in a nutshell. Mehta’s absurdist reimagining of India, despite its flaws, holds a mirror to the future of politics and social freedom. If not for its lack of humour (think Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro), it would, and probably should be regarded as a curious classic.
Mehta’s film, which came out a couple of years after the Bombay riots, stages a night in the city. A broke, despondent protagonist called ‘Hero’ (SRK) meets an exuberant prostitute, cheekily named ‘Miss India’ (Deepa Sahi). Hero is constantly accosted by two policemen, but Miss India comes to Hero’s rescue and hires him for ‘entertainment’ for the night.
This was also the decade of India’s obsession with pageantry, the caustic platforming of women for their beauty even when most of them continued to suffer at the hands of the country’s men. It probably ended up burdening women, with ghastly social demands of ‘looking fair’ or ‘looking nice’. In Mehta’s film, Miss India is a decorated yet repressed doll, her flesh pawned by an alcoholic father, her soul unacknowledged. ‘Just make me laugh,’ she shouts at the hero, after he tries to protect her. Miss India would rather experience true laughter than true freedom. But can one exist without the other?
As Hero and Miss India get to know each other, through song, dance and and some aimless walking, Puri, endearingly named ‘Don Quixote’ plans the fall of the country. With a snake tattooed to his bald head, Puri plays, with signature charm and menace, a villain who plans to ‘sell’ India to the highest bidder by replacing the President (Anupam Kher) with a lookalike. All this under the garb of a manufactured riot and therefore, a civil emergency. Meanwhile, Don’s son, the entitled ‘Prince’, played by Jaaved Jaaferi, also takes a liking to Miss India.
Because Oh Darling Yeh Hai India is both absurd and a mock-musical, Prince dances every time he wants to convey anger or lust. His convoy by the way is an open-top Cadillac with a flame thrower, ala Mad Max. Both Hero and Miss India, looking for nothing more than a good time happen to cross paths with Quixote’s plan, and must therefore, unwittingly, act as saviours.
Mehta’s film can at times seem ridiculous because it randomly transitions between farce and fantasy. In one scene, a riot abruptly switches to a cabaret performance for the Don, pointing perhaps to the dissonance between the street and the powers that supervise its atrophy for gain. The film, though an absurdist allegory, isn’t always subtle. The title song, performed in the first half of the film, is an open-chested rant against a decaying country. From ‘yahan dharm ke naam pe dhool bikti hai’ to ‘apne hi desh mein pardesi’, the song openly critiques everything from corruption to religious identity.
Anupam Kher, who plays the counterfeit president, in one scene, lustfully embraces a map of the country, his greed hilariously choreographed. Our middle class hero is continuously battered and beaten but isn’t allowed to feel grief or pain. In one late scene, he confesses, bloodied and indisposed, to Miss India, ‘thodi acting zyada ho gayi’. It speaks of the burden of morality and responsibility that the middle classes in India have had to carry for decades. In another scene, the blood smattered across the hero’s lips is overdrawn to create a smile (ala joker). Also, he has brain tumour that he hides, because who in this country empathises or understands suffering, anyway.
It is the repressed citizen, one who can neither find joy nor reprieve from constant socio-political depression, that the film, cleverly, hints at.
Eventually Don Quixote is burned alive by a mob he himself created. The climax is a chaotic and despite being preposterous is aimed at easing discomfort. That said, Oh Darling Ye Hai India, although prophetic, can seem odd because Indian cinema has never developed a taste for the parody or the stomach to take on the chin the many cruel ironies that underline our existence.
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