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25 years of Oh Darling Yeh Hai India! (1995): Irreverent, piercing film about the state of the nation

Ketan Mehta's film, which was released on 11 August 1995, is an entertainingly exaggerated take on socio-political issues and the formulaic films of 'Bollywood'.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Action, comedy, drama, dance, songs, an over-the-top villain, elaborate fight sequences, Ketan Mehta’s Oh Darling Yeh Hai India! (1995) has all the ingredients of any Hindi masala potboiler, but with a big twist. In an interview with the India Today magazine in 1994, the director said of his then forthcoming film, “It’s as freaked out as freaked out can be.”

Oh Darling Yeh Hai India! tracks a streetwalker Miss India (Deepa Sahi) who wants a night off from work and wishes to escape the grim reality of her life. She meets a struggling, penniless, hungry actor (Shah Rukh Khan), known simply as Hero, and they strike a deal. Miss India agrees to feed him in exchange for being entertained, quite literally ‘food for entertainment’.

As they traverse the streets of Bombay, they are joined by a motley crew of people for whom the roads at night are home or business sites — beggars, streetwalkers, pimps, gangsters and, of course, the police trying to make a sleazy buck off all of them.

Prince (Jaaved Jaaferi), son of a powerful gangster, is in love with Miss India, but she spurns his advances because of which Prince is called weak and useless by his father Don Quixote (Amrish Puri), the epitome of all underworld dons, who plays the character in an obvious reference to his own Mogambo from Mr India (1987). There is also an excellent song that is so relevant to the current nepotism debate in the film industry where Miss India and gang tease Prince about living off his father’s power and influence.

In the course of the night, Miss India and Hero discover a plot where the President of India (Anupam Kher) has been replaced by a clone, who wants to auction India to the highest bidder. His logic is that through the ages everyone has leeched off the nation and made unimaginable wealth, like the British did through the East India Company. So, in a surreal move, the country, with all its people and resources, is being sold.

A political satire, the film was responding to a host of events that had unfolded in the early 1990s, when the liberalization of the economy, aimed at placing India on the global map, was regarded by many as the country being sold off piecemeal. Liberalization became the foundation for a cynical outlook in the film, which also alludes to growing religious intolerance in the country that had witnessed the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 followed by the Bombay riots and the serial bomb blasts. In doing so, the film repeatedly opens up its title for interpretation, making one wonder about the state of the nation and its future every time a seemingly improbable idea or situation is shrugged off with the dialogue, “Oh darling, yeh hai India [this is India]."

The film meanders in parts and the gags become tiresome after a while, but the fabulous star cast and their parodies of characters so often seen on screen keep the entertainment quotient high.

The film was also a comment on 'Bollywood', the crass commercial Hindi cinema, which was been habituated to using tired formulae, throwing in random songs and sequences without logic or explanation of any kind. It’s all so wildly bizarre and the artistes seem to be having a blast playing these over-the-top roles that are staged like a play in part.

Shah Rukh Khan, who had starred in Mehta’s previous film, Maya Memsaab (1993), returned to his theatre roots in a role that demanded great energy, charm and versatility. Interestingly, Khan’s big blockbuster, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), was also released the same year, making him the undisputed king of 'Bollywood' in the 1990s.

In the year 2000, in an interview with the World Socialist Web Site, Ketan Mehta spoke of the furious reaction his film evoked, which even saw him being labelled ‘anti-national’ long before it became a fashion to stick the epithet on anyone and everyone who is perceived as critical of the government. In the same interview, the filmmaker said, “The right of artists to express themselves is the most sacrosanct right of all.”

Looking back at the film through the lens of current-day India, one wonders if such a film — an entertaining, over-the-top, irreverent take on socio-political issues — would even be possible today.