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Om Shanti Om

Punar Janam: A potted history of Bollywood reincarnation thrillers

Posted on 9 August 2019

For Western audiences unfamiliar with Bollywood films, the idea of the punar janam or the reincarnation film may be a little difficult to unpack. But to South Asian audiences, most of whom will be familiar with the concept of reincarnation in Hinduism, this is a very popular genre of Indian cinema. Ahead of Phizzical’s musical reincarnation thriller Stardust, we took a look back at a few of the key films which have helped to define the genre.

Reincarnation films are often based around the premise of two lovers who meet an untimely end before being ultimately reunited through reincarnation, but this is not always the case. Sometimes, revenge for a wrongful death propels the narrative, or in other cases, the reincarnated characters are not lovers at all, but family, or just one person who has unfinished business.

The first modern Bollywood reincarnation thriller was 1949’s Mahal, a horror movie notable for giving Bollywood celebrity Madhubala her first starrig role. It was also the first film to feature playback singer Lata Mangeshkar, and was a commercial success, paving the way for more reincarnation thrillers in its image.

The reincarnation genre has also allowed Bollywood films to travel through time, exploring history by flitting between the past and the present day. Neel Kamal (1968) and Milan (1967), both centre around historical lovers who are reincarnated after past injustice, and feature a range of colourful period costumes and settings, as well as more modern scenes.

One of the most famous reincarnation thrillers is 1980s Karz, which was itself later “reincarnated” via the 2008 remake Karzzz (which received much less favourable reviews than its predecessor). In a twist on the separated lovers narrative, Karz deals with a young man who is reincarnated after being killed by his wife, and finally takes revenge upon her. One of the songs from this film, Om Shanti Om, inspired the title of the film that we are screening in September – visit the event page for details.

Suryavanshi (1992) was poorly received on its release (partly due to Salman Khan’s universally derided blond hairpiece), and has not aged well in terms of its sexual politics. However, as an action-adventure movie with a revenge plot, it was a deviation from the usual love story, showing that the punar janam genre was ripe for reimagination.

Karan Arjun (1995) continues in this vein, telling the story of two brothers who seek revenge on their greedy uncle for murdering their father, but are killed by him and later reincarnated to finish the job. With its emphasis on family, and both Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan in starring roles, the film proved a huge hit.

Still from Om Shanti Om

Om Shanti Om, released in 2007, is both a tribute to the films that went before it, and a popular reincarnation thriller in its own right. Marking the big screen debut of Bollywood and Hollywood star Deepika Padukone, it tells the story of Om, who falls in love with film star Shanti, and is reincarnated after getting killed by trying to save her. When he meets Shanti’s doppelgnager in his new life, old memories come flooding back to both of them about their deaths, and Om sets out in search of justice (if this sounds thrilling to you, make sure you book for our FREE screening on Mon 2 Sep).

More recently, Bollywood has produced some slightly more leftfield examples of the genre, such as Love Story 2050, which moves between the present day and the future. After Priyanka Chopra’s character dies, Harman Baweja travels to the future to find her reincarnated self. 2012 film Eega, originally in Telegu and Tamil (dubbed in Hindi and released as Makkhi), involves a man setting out to avenge his death after being reincarnated as a fly. Modern filmmakers seem to be having a lot of fun with the genre, and are taking it in very different directions.

This September, we’re delighted to be hosting Phizzical’s Stardust, a new musical that brings the reincarnation thriller to the stage. Continuing their signature style of Bollywood-infused stage productions with Shakespearean influences, Stardust pays homage to some of the best-known reincarnation films, combining the thrilling intrigue of a punar janam with vibrant dance numbers and original songs by Robby Khela.

Stardust makes its world premiere at the Belgrade Theatre 14-21 September. Tickets are available to book now.

If you’d like to get a taste of what a Bollywood reincarnation thriller is like before you come to see the play, check out our FREE film screening of Om Shanti Om on Monday 2 September.