Thursday, November 9, 2017

マサラ・ミュージカル『オーム・シャンティ・オーム -恋する輪廻』・Masala Musical Om Shanti Om: Reincarnated For Love

(Poster from TakaWiki)

Despite not having written about “Bollywood” in some time, I still occasionally find myself thinking about the films. From time to time I may even pull out a DVD or watch a handful of clips on youtube. My tastes have not changed. I still love melodrama, ambitiously outrageous storytelling, character actors stealing scenes, slapstick comedy, strong moral values, and, above all, good music and dancing.

I still think there is no better dancer than Helen.

But Bollywood doesn’t really make those kinds of films anymore. The more Hollywood-ish films it does make aren’t really to my taste and so I drifted away.

Still, my tastes haven’t changed.

So, imagine my shock when I found out there is a theater company in Japan that takes all of the above, adds even more feathers and sparkles, and specializes in stories to make ladies swoon...

宝塚へようこそ!Welcome to Takarazuka.

I’ve written about Takarazuka before--here and here--if you want to read a longer intro to the theater company first but here’s the short version: Takarazuka is a 100+ year old all female theater company. The actresses (called Takarasiennes) play both the male and female roles. Much like Bollywood has “heroes”, Takarazuka has “top stars”. The company is split into five different troupes--Star, Moon, Flower, Snow, and Cosmos--and each troupe has its own top star who is essentially the hero of every production the individual troupe does. Just like classic Bollywood, Takarazuka productions are very personality driven. Different actresses have different strengths, different images. A single production can be staged multiple times with different troupes, and each troupe gives it a different shade of meaning depending on the top star. (Hell, Takarazuka even has their own version of the aging hero who still romances 20 year olds, much to the groans of fans across the globe.)

And just like classic Bollywood, not only are the productions richer with meaning if you know all the stars but they’re intended to be seen multiple times and fans enjoy discussing the subtle variations between performances. How were the adlibs? Did the timing improve on the dance number? Which background player is the most adorable in the big group scene?

Because I don’t live in Japan my experience with Takarazuka unfortunately comes mainly via DVD, which does not nearly capture the experience of being surrounded by dozens of dashing, handsome women singing their hearts out in tall boots and feathers.

Still, the DVDs are enjoyable in their own way. A single performance captured forever.

The DVD I want to discuss today is the マサラ・ミュージカル『オーム・シャンティ・オーム -恋する輪廻』(Masala Musical Om Shanti Om: Reincarnated for Love).

I remember seeing Om Shanti Om (2007) in the theaters and enjoying it in the moment. Ten years and an encyclopedia’s worth of Bollywood knowledge later and Om Shanti Om is as obnoxious in its ego and its winking nostalgia as Forrest Gump. Given the choice between Om Shanti Om and Karz, the film that “inspired” it, I’ll take Karz every time.

But I was curious when I heard the Takarazuka version announced. How would a story so specific to Bollywood be adapted to a medium where the audience knows absolutely nothing about Bollywood? What sense would people make of lines like, “Dosti ka ek usool hai madam. No sorry, no thank you”? Or the jibes at the great Manoj Kumar?

As it turns out, there was no need for worry.

The original film goes something like this: The film opens with a remake of Rishi Kapoor’s famous song from Karz, “Om Shanti Om.” It’s the 1970s and Om Prakash Makhija is a small time “junior artist” dreaming of becoming an big time hero. Om and his best friend Pappu spend most of their time hanging out, talking big, making references to films, and giving Om’s mom a hard time. Om has a giant crush on Bollywood heroine Shantipriya (the “Dreamy Girl”) and one day he lucks out and gets the chance to attend her  film premiere where he first gets tangled up in her dupatta and then we’re treated to a song in which Shantipriya dances with CGI versions of classic Bollywood heroes (“Dhoom Tanna”) until he busts in and ruins the scene. Drunk with Pappu afterwards, Om playacts what he would say if he ever won...

Om ends up working as an extra on a Shantipriya film and rescues her from a fire--just like Mother India!!!!--and uses the opportunity to become friends while quoting lines from Maine Pyar Kiya. There’s an obnoxious side plot which mainly serves as an excuse to make fun of “South Indian” movies before Om invites Shanti to a romantic dinner on an empty movie set that looks like Helen’s stage from “Piya Tu Ab To Aja” and we get another song (“Main Agar Kahoon”).

Things seem to be going swimmingly but then Om happens to overhear Shanti explaining to her husband (!) film producer Mukesh that she’s pregnant (!!). Om is devastated. Mukesh is also devastated but he pretends to be happy. Shanti being pregnant has ruined Mukesh’s plans for an upcoming project that was to star his wife. The sets have already been built, the money borrowed… Om mopes in a montage set to “Jag Soona Soona Lage”.

Mukesh tricks Shanti into visiting the set of the film and then eliminates both problems with the flick of a lighter, cremating both the set and his wife. Om rushes in and tries to save Shanti but he’s too late. Escaping from the fire, Om wanders into the street where he’s hit by Bollywood star Rajesh Kapoor’s car on the way to the hospital where Rajesh’s pregnant wife is about to give birth. Om passes away at the exact same moment that the baby is born… and the baby’s name? Om.

30 years later. “Om Kapoor” is a huge Bollywood star with a strange fear of fire.

This new Om is a big jerk but extremely popular. On the set of his new film, he insists on a “cool” number for his lament song, the uncomfortable, joyless, six pack flashing, “Dard de Disco”. But flashes of his former life haunt him.

Om attends the Filmfare Awards and wins best actor after some genuinely funny cameos from Abhishek Bachchan and Akshay Kumar. The speech he gives echoes the speech from the first half and Om continues to feel very strange. He tries to shake it off by attending an interminable song picturization (“Deewangi Deewangi”) in which every actor who knew Farah Khan in 2007 is paraded out and around. (Seriously, this song is an unforgivable 10 minutes long so we can fit such timeless stars as Zayed Khan into the picture.) And then amidst the ego-stroking entrances, Mukesh returns.  The sight of Mukesh now grey-haired and a big time Hollywood producer, triggers all of Om’s memories of his past life.

How to get revenge? After a reunion with Pappu and his mom, Om hatches a plan to get Mukesh to finance a new film that will suspiciously echo the old film that ended with the death of Shantipriya. They conveniently find a dim doppelganger of Shantipriya named Sandy to play the ghost of Shanti.

While Sandy gets trained up, the men put the plot in motion. Everything is going to be revealed in a finale song where--like in Karz--the hero lays bare the villain’s treachery in song form. (“Dastaan-e-Om Shanti Om”). Mukesh lays out his guilt to Om, like any villain in a climax. When Shanti’s “ghost” appears to frighten him, he knows about Sandy so he’s not afraid. Mukesh whips out a gun and Om tries to wrestle it away. The fight ends with Mukesh lying prone under the chandelier. Om has the gun pointed at him. Shanti’s ghost says this is her duty. She’ll kill him. The chandelier drops. Mukesh is killed.

But then in walks Sandy! She’d been trapped in her dressing room! Who was Shanti’s ghost…

Om comforts the weepy Sandy and scene.

The Takarazuka version takes the bones of the story and makes two significant improvements. First of all, it strips away all the layers and layers of superfluous, self-indulgent, massively distracting filmi references. One no longer needs five layers of irony goggles to see past the winking references to 1970s Manmohan Desai films or cameos from Zayed Khan. The few references that are kept are transformed in surprising ways, which I’ll get to. Secondly, this production finds a lot more space for characters other than Om, especially for Sandy in Act 2, who is an afterthought at best in the original film.

One important thing to mention about this production is that it was the Top Star debut for 紅ゆずる (Kurenai Yuzuru, nickname “Beni”) and her heroine 綺咲愛里 (Kisaki Airi).

マサラ・ミュージカル『オーム・シャンティ・オーム -恋する輪廻』begins in the same way as Om Shanti Om--30 years ago in Bollywood.

“Om Shanti Om” from the hit film Karz opens the play, with the lyrics altered to reflect Kurenai’s debut as Top Star.

Just like in the film, “Om Shanti Om” turns out to be in Om’s (Kurenai Yuzuru) imagination. Om isn’t a star, he’s just an extra on a film set. He’s scolded by director Subhash Ghai (Seki Yurito) and forced to return his costume to the star of the film, the director’s son, Rishi (Toa Reiya).

Om and Pappu (Mao Yuuki), an aspiring scriptwriter, retreat to a cafe where Om laments his lack of success. Like in the original film, Pappu suggests he change his name to Kapoor… via a jazzy song titled “エキストラ・エトセトラ” (“Extra・Etcetra”). The gag in the original film lays in the audience understanding that every other actor in Bollywood has the last name Kapoor/Kapur. In this adaptation, however, the meaning is different. Changing one’s name is tied to changing one’s fate. Throwing off the old personality and becoming somebody new. To become a Kapoor becomes an existential question, not a throwaway gag. The friends return to Om’s house where his filmi ma (the great Miki Chigusa) tells Om that it’s not his name, it’s what is in his heart that matters.

Like in the original film, Om goes out to the billboard of “Dreamy Girl” Shantipriya (Kisaki Airi) to mope. Pappu and his mom find him there and his kindly mom sings a lovely enka-style ballad “母の心” (A mother’s heart). She gives Om a bracelet that belonged to his father and tells him that maybe he will meet Shanti…

Pappu scores a couple of invites to the premiere of Shantipriya’s new film where--like in the original--he first gets tangled in her dupatta and falls in love to “Ajab Si” and then busts into “Dhoom Taana”.

Instead of the CGI of the original song, “Dhoom Taana” in the play becomes a comedic trio song between Om, Shanti, and Rishi. It’s a fun, light number. And then after getting chased away, Om gives his drunk, fake Filmfare Award speech. 


On the set of Shantipriya’s new film, Om rescues Shanti from the fire. She comes to thank him and--to my surprise--the Maine Pyar Kiya line was kept in. He says instead of that, please hang out with me.

“Main Agar Kahoon” happens. The two make a connection. When Shanti leaves, she forgets her dupatta like a sparkly Cinderella. Om goes to return it and that’s when he overhears her telling Mukesh (Rei Makoto) about being pregnant and married and so on. He says he’ll use the extravagant film set to throw a wedding party instead but when he turns to face the audience we see his grim expression.

Mukesh, Om, and Shanti then sing a massively angsty version of “Jag Soona Soona Lage”, each character given voice to express his or her feelings.

And then Mukesh’s deception is revealed, Shanti killed in the fire, Om hit by a car.

30 years later. Act 2.

Om Prakash Makhija is reborn as Om Kapoor (still Kurenai Yuzuru), rich superstar jerk. Om is trailed everywhere he goes by a trio of fangirls who fawn over him.

As the act opens, Om is working on a film directed by our old friend Subhash Ghai and co-starring with his (now aged) son Rishi. Just like in the film, Om scoffs at the old-fashioned story of the film and insists on adding his own “Disco” touch… “Dard-e-Disco”.

The flames on the special effects disturb Om and he sulks off to his dressing room, where he treats his former mother and best friend very coldly. He still doesn’t remember.

He sulks off again to a party with a fun number spoofing the recent novelty hit “I’m a perfect human” titled “I’m the King of Bollywood.” The number is a fun break from the melodrama and gives the audience just the right amount of the nudge-nudge wink-wink humor of the original.

And then it’s the Filmfare Awards where, unlike in the original, it’s Om’s speech that triggers his memories. The echoes of his earlier life come crashing in on him and he remembers.

(One fun thing about the Filmfare Awards is that they actually had actresses playing sort of generic actors named Abhishek Bachchan and Akshay Kumar but then a third character was added spoofing Aamir Khan in 3 Idiots, which had been a surprise hit all across Asia and one of the few Bollywood films the Japanese crowd might have seen. I thought that was a nice, very subtle touch from the director.)

Om wanders back to his old neighborhood where he again runs into his former mother and best friend but this time they share a warm reunion after a reprise of the touching “母の心” (A mother’s heart). Om’s picture may now be on the billboard where Shantipriya once smiled down from but he’s still the same Om. And in one of my favorite changes to the plot, “Deewangi Deewangi” becomes a reunion song between Om, his mother, and Pappu set among the regular neighborhood folk. There’s so much more joy in this scene than in the sterile, endless parade of 2007-era celebrities in the original film.

While “Deewangi Deewangi” is happening, we see a girl in the background talking to the Om billboard like Om used to talk to Shanti. As she makes her way to the front of the stage we--and Om--see that it’s… a Shanti doppleganger! But she’s not Shanti, she’s Sandy (still Kisaki Airi) and she’s just a massive fan. Seeing her gives Om an idea… that is essentially the same as the original. Have Mukesh produce a film and then scare him with Shanti’s ghost.

Sandy is then recruited to play the ghost of Shanti and we get a nice extended comedy scene where Miki Chigusa, the actress playing Om’s mom, is given the chance to show off her improvisational skills as she “teaches” Sandy how to act.

And in my second favorite change, Sandy actually talks to Om about how she’s feeling and sings a lovely romantic duet with him about her hopes and dreams titled, “My Shining Star.”

Finally, as Om sets all the pieces in motion, we’re treated to a real old-fashioned Broadway style show stopper of villain number from Mukesh, “バラ色の人生” (My rose-colored life). I cannot emphasize enough how good this is. Bollywood doesn’t really do villain songs but thankfully Takarazuka decided to insert its own fine tradition of actresses who specialize in sexily evil show stoppers.

From there we get the masquerade number, “Dastaan-E-Om Shanti Om”, and a similar denouement. The ghost of Shanti reappears. Mukesh is defeated. Om and Sandy are reunited.

The play ends with a reprise of “Om Shanti Om” with the entire cast. The circle is complete.

Overall, I think the Takarazuka version of the story holds together so much better than the Bollywood version. I loved the highlighting of the “name” motif early on to explicitly and meaningfully tie it to the second act reincarnation. (Plus “Extra Etc.” is really catchy.) But the changes in the second act really deepen the emotional impact of the finale. To be honest, the second act of Om Shanti Omi the film is a real slog after Sandy enters. It drags on and on and on and I’m not sure if Shahrukh was trying to capture some of Rishi Kapoor’s single-minded crazy of Karz but he ends up just seeming like a jerk. Kurenai’s Om, on the other hand, is softened by the reunion song in “Deewangi Deewangi” and is given some scenes to show that he does care about Sandy as a person not just as a puppet in his scheme. (Using Sandy as a pawn makes Om not all that much better than Mukesh in the original film.)

But the biggest improvement is… the restraint shown in using meta references. There are a few, both Japanese and Bollywood. The “King of Bollywood” song. The reference to Mother India is spelled out for the crowd. Pappu gets an idea for a film that sounds remarkably like The Phantom of the Opera. During the comedy scene on the DVD Mika does the choreography to AKB48’s hit song “恋するフォーチュンクッキー” (The Fortune Cookie of Love) and presumably she had other adlibs other nights.

The references weren’t overwhelming however. And they were used deliberately, as comedy, in specific scenes.

And, I’ll be honest, I don’t think it’s very clever to simply laugh at 1970s Bollywood film tropes. I love those old Manoj Kumar films and the more I watched films like the heartbreaking, powerful political film Roti Kapada aur Makaan (Food Clothing Shelter) the less funny I found jokes that reduced Manoj Kumar’s body of work to a gag about his melodramatic acting choices.

For me, Om Shanti Om eventually became a meta-symbol representing everything I hated about modern Bollywood. The self-congratulations, the aping of old styles without any of the substance, the fetishization of romantic relationships and wealth and the upper classes...

Takarazuka strips all that away. Watching the play, I felt like I was watching Om Shanti Om for the first time all over again and I loved it.

Star Troupe isn’t “my” troupe so I’m not as familiar with the actresses or with the overall style of the troupe but I loved Kurenai Yuzuru’s easy humor as Om. She was incredibly charming and funny in the first act and charmingly sullen as Superstar Om in the second. My favorite scene of Kurenai’s was during “Deewangi Deewangi” where Om is reluctant to join the neighborhood dance--until he isn’t! Kisaki Airi was a delightful Shanti/Sandy, giving both more depth than Deepika Padukone did in the film. (Which is what happens when you cast an actual actress instead of a model who’s never really acted before.)

But Rei Makoto. Wow. Her Mukesh stole every scene he was in and then some. You really understood why a naive girl might run off to marry him--her sex appeal is palpable even thousands of miles and months away through my TV screen in America.

And a special shout out to Miki Chigusa for making Om’s mother not just funny but kind and sympathetic. I love Kirron Kher, who played her in the original film, but the script did her no favors. We were usually laughing at her. We laugh with Miki.

So, do I recommend this? YES!!!! Are there English subtitles? NO!!!! If you aren’t afraid of watching a play where you don’t understand the language but know the story, please check it out. And anybody interested in Takarazuka in general, give a wave and I’ll send you to some good places to start that have English subtitles.

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