The terrorist tadpoles
This coming Friday a film will be released to roughly a quarter century, after it was made, in 1988. Kamal Swaroop’s Om-Dar-Ba-Dar is often spoken of as India’s first avant-garde film, though it’s perhaps better described as a surrealist film. The film is rich in language — cinematic, mythic and social. It is made up of highly textured references and images in which the everyday and the mythic or mythological co-exist vigorously, if not always peaceably — requests on Vividh Bharati, science exams, astrology, calendar art, magic, bio lab dissection religious belief, phrases like ‘out of course’ (today some may say ‘not in syllabus’), wedding bands, and the swirling collisions of the subconscious. Like a very overpopulated tapestry, the trick to ‘getting it’ is to give in to the experience and allow yourself to intuit the film without necessarily being able to articulate it except perhaps with a counter story of your own (in an ideal world anyway!).
For this very reason, that the film does not announce its identity so clearly, it has had a shadowy existence. It struggled for a censor certificate because, according to a blog that quotes the filmmaker the censor board felt, “The film has got some hidden meanings and people may get some wrong messages from it” and also maybe, wasn’t quite the toast of the festival circuit because “the commercial guys didn’t think it was commercial enough and the artistic people thought that it was not art enough.”
Nevertheless, the movie has enjoyed a unique cult status among filmi zara hatke types. And the intensely local elements, of small town life and culture, which make up the surface of the film have shown up in other work.
It has doubtlessly influenced the language of early Channel V promos — in fact Swaroop too made a Channel V promo featuring a liftman and a goddess.
More famously, Emosanal atyachar, the famous shaadi song from Dev D, is a more or less direct, but somehow caricaturish transposition of a song in Om-Dar-Ba-Dar.
The taking from lesser-known works, without elaborate attribution, and in the absence of any sense of this film legacy in our media and audience raises a question: Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but isn’t flattery the most insidious form of conquest?
Eventually, these trace elements in later works, devoid of the larger worldview about art, politics, society and the self that inform works like Om-Dar-Ba-Dar, become a sort of merchandise version of the small town, like Elvis dolls. They seem to be homage, but in fact replace it with something flatter, stripped of the political and artistic charge which is what makes the original work feel dangerous, uncontrollable. Often, though not always, to exist in the current market scenario, a film should have the window dressing of apparent radicalism — that surface makes the market look liberal — without actually having a radical heart.
In Om-Dar-Ba-Dar there is mention of atank-kari, or terrorist, tadpoles who refuse to grow up into frogs. Sometimes, genuine indie films are like those quicksilver tadpoles — they seem to travel with grace and speed in the subterranean worlds of YouTube or small-time piracy of individual fans, like a truth that is felt but not uttered. Once uttered in the form of a theatrical overground release, it is as if this truth has been domesticated; flattered with a release, but not given the necessary publicity — no word-of-mouth campaign, no ‘viral video’. Still, for the sake of the atank-kari tadpole you once were, I hope you will go see it.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevi.com.
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.