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Saturday, July 21, 2018

The Return of the Prodigal

25 years after it was made,Om Darbadar,Kamal Swaroop's cult underground film,is being restored for theatrical and home release

Written by Prajakta Hebbar | New Delhi | Published: September 8, 2013 11:57:04 pm

25 years after it was made,Om Darbadar,Kamal Swaroop’s cult underground film,is being restored for theatrical and home release

In the 1950 French epistle La Mémoire Collective,philosopher sociologist Maurice Halbwachs talks of how collective memory can be shared,passed on and constructed by groups both small and large. He also adds,that in many ways,collective memory parallels individual memory,especially as it has better recall of pictures than of words. Filmmaker Kamal Swaroop was an assistant director working on Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) when he came across Halbwachs’ account. It influenced him so greatly that Swaroop wondered how he could take it to a home-grown audience. The answer was,obviously,films. Swaroop wrote a script that treaded the thin line between surreal and abstract. “We had just wrapped up Gandhi’s shoot and I wanted to make a film that would resonate with the viewer,” says Swaroop.

It took him another six years to make Om Darbadar (1988),a post-modernist multi-layered non-linear narrative on the coming-of-age of a boy,Om (Aditya Lakhia),in an idyllic town in Rajasthan. The film,however,got mired in controversies and never got a theatrical release. Animal rights activist Maneka Gandhi protested against the killing of frogs (frogs were used as a metaphor through the film) for a dissection scene in the film following a comment made by Swaroop,while the Censor Board had issues with a few scenes in it. “There were four cuts suggested by the Board. There was a scene in which Om wears a locket with a book inside it. They wanted the scene removed because they thought that it was the Quran,” says Swaroop. Even after these scenes were edited,eventually,the film found no distributors. “Everyone started calling it a ‘mad film’ or a ‘film that should have never even been made’,” he says in a matter-of-fact way.

Now,almost 25 years later,the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC),also the primary financier of the film,is restoring it and planning to release it for home entertainment and theatres. “We received a mandate from the government of India (ministry of I&B) to restore and digitise 77 NFDC films. These have been done. NFDC has now begun the process of taking these films across the value chain: theatrical,home video,television and digital platforms,” says Vikramjit Roy,general manager,NFDC.

For those who had managed to see Om Darbardar soon after it was made,the 101-minute film became a cult of sorts. Om’s passage into adolescence is peppered with interactions with his family — his father (Lakshminarayan Shastri),who quits his government job to dedicate himself to astrology,and his elder sister (Gopi Desai),who is dating an idler (Lalit Tiwari). His equal interest in science and astrology takes the viewer into the realm of mythology,arts,politics and philosophy. After garnering praise at prestigious international film festivals in the ’80s,the lone VHS tape copy owned by Swaroop was passed around among art groups,film students and others. Students at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII),Pune,swore by it,and artistes called it a masterpiece.

“Om’s journey was not my story,this was the story of a dream that I had,or wanted to have,” says Swaroop,now 60,who was heavily influenced by surrealism and Dadaism (the belief that intellectual and cultural conformity are the root cause of war and unrest) when he made the film. Over time,Swaroop’s original VHS was converted into CDs and DVDs,passed along by friends and sold by local vendors. Finally,it found its way online where it received equal applause and an affirmation of Swaroop’s genius.

The news of the restoration has been happy tiding for Swaroop. “A film has a life of its own,” says Swaroop,who has worked with noted filmmakers such as Mani Kaul,Mira Nair,Aparna Sen,Saeed Akhtar Mirza,Shyam Benegal and Sai Paranjpye. “You make a film and you show it to a group of people. What happens after that,is another story,” he says. The reception of the film in 1988 had left him disillusioned. He abandoned plans of directing feature films and concentrated on shorts instead. “I decided to start where it all began — with Dadasaheb Phalke. I decided to find out what made the father of Indian cinema fall in love with this world of motion pictures,” says Swaroop. Over the course of 20 years,he has made seven short films on the legend and recently released a limited-edition illustrated coffee-table book titled Tracing Phalke,in collaboration with the NFDC.

But Om Darbadar has always remained close to his heart. Swaroop says he had deliberately made the film allusive,even if some found it too abstract. “Imagine India’s collective memory after Independence — freedom at midnight mingled with the pain of Partition; Hindi-Cheeni bhai-bhai; Nehru’s speech about Indian women becoming self-sufficient by learning to use the bicycle; the caste system; racism; the first man on the moon; films,theatre and politics — all jumbled up and juxtaposed to form a cacophony. Now imagine all of it in 70mm glory — visuals and sound,dialogues and dream sequences,” he says.

The film’s dialogues,which took Swaroop two years to pen,are double-edged and Om’s dream sequences,mostly centred on his sexuality and obsession with death,are masked in symbolism. Swaroop creates an elaborate framework of symbols — including a bicycle,skulls and falling frogs — from contemporary socio-politics. “I picked up the bicycle from Nehru’s famous I-Day speech in the 1960s and used it to connote different emotions. Om’s destruction of his sister’s bicycle can be interpreted as the Freudian death drive. Likewise,her sexual encounter with her boyfriend is juxtaposed with her father cycling furiously in circles,symbolic of desire,” says Swaroop.

The director is more optimistic about the DVD release of the film than a theatrical one. “Om Darbadar was made 25 years ago using technology that’s long been outdated. I don’t know how youngsters will react to that,” he says. But he is sure the modern audience will enjoy trying to unravel the complicated narrative of Om Darbadar and see it in context. “More than anything else,the film tries to depict the subtleties of adolescence as well as life in a small town. I think everyone will be able to relate to that,” he says.

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