As anticipated as Omkara was, I have watched it twice within the first week. The second experience more fruitful, as in the first viewing amidst the media blitzkrieg, it becomes difficult to keep an objective mind with the air time and reams of pages that the media uses for promotion. Omkara is an adaptation of Othello, the most important of Shakespear's tragedies. This is the second film, that music director turned film maker Vishal Bhardwaj, has made adapting Shakespeare (the earlier one was called Maqbool which was an adaptation of Macbeth). The film had pretty much the entire media machine working over time and has received fabulous reviews in all major newspapers and by all known reviewers except perhaps the Hindustan Times, Delhi edition (all he wants to do is spank Bipasha Basu...hello!).
Othello is the story of a Moor, a North African in Venice who loves the fair Desdemona. In simple terms, his chief lieutenant Iago, when passed over for a rank in favour of Cassius, plots to wreck revenge on Cassius by poisoning Othello’s mind through allusion to an affair between Desdemona and Cassius. Omkara is Othello with Ajay Devgan, Kareena Kapoor, Saif Ali Khan, Vivek Oberoi and Konkana Sen essaying the roles of Othello, Desdemona, Iago Cassius and Emilia respectively. These are the central characters in which this Indian adaptation of Othello plays it self out in the rough badlands of Western Uttar Pradesh using the local dialect of Hindi that is spoken in Western UP, Delhi and Haryana.
Shakespeare’s plays were never meant to be mysteries, it was more like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, where you know the story, and the fun was in its being played out and taking you through the various emotions. And so it is with Omkara. Iago or Ishwar Tyagai aka Langda Tyagi when passed over by Cassius or Keshu Firangi (ne Upadhayay) for promotion, in his affront decides to seek vengeance. Langda poisons Omkara’s mind with false stories about Firangi’s affair with Dolly Mishra or Desdemona. This jealous streak and the suspicion sown in Othello/Omkara’s mind is the central focus of the play which leads to destruction and mayhem as Omkara suffocates Dolly to death and on realizing his folly ends up killing himself. If we persist with this comparison of Othello as Shakespeare wrote it and Omkara as Bhardwaj interprets it, in terms of characterization, there are only superficial differences. And Omkara plays out just like Othello, with the scheming, wily Langda Tyagi; the unconditional affection turned to despondency for Dolly and the innocent ignorance for most of the plot for Keshu Firangi.
The most amazing part about the movie was the setting. Its authenticity leaves you unnerved even if the language is difficult to grasp at the start of the film. It is perhaps the most ‘real’ film, I have seen in Hindi cinema ever! The landscape, the rustic dry humour and the spoken lines are true in their location. The technical aspects of the film are first rate with one of the most exquisite camera work. A camera which is true to the story, a camera which captures the local landscape in its plain drabness or in the beauty of the winter sun and the badland dusty plains interspersed with rivers that North India is supposed to be (though the movie is largely shot in Maharastra). It is a huge relief to watch Omkara for many such little yet integral reasons. It is story telling at its best with all aspects of the film coalescing into a unity. Just like films are supposed to be, or at least the kind of story telling we imagine and fantasize our films to be. Omkara marries Bollywood magic with great story telling skills and remember we do with merely the magic most of the time.
I have already mentioned language and landscape. The other aspects which lend to the authenticity of the adaptation is the rural, semi-urban non metropolitan life that is portrayed in the movie. The close Bahu-bali (Strong man) and police interactions, the drinking revelries together, the parties in prisons, in simple words the simple documentation of the caste-criminal-politician-judiciary nexus that is reality in most of India. But that is besides the fact, for this is merely the setting of the film, a context for the drama to be played out. The sound track of the film is unobtrusive and helps propel the story forward despite their stand alone value. The editing is flawless as the story meanders and weaves through dusty Harit Pradesh (Green Province) and is brought to a denouement in Omkara’s village on the night of his wedding to Dolly.
Much as been said about Saif Ali Khan’s ‘brilliant’ acting as Langda Tyagi. I agree with it, precisely cause if you examine the distance, this ‘anglicized’ England educated son of an ex Royal family, who didn’t speak much Hindi when he started out, has traveled to almost blisteringly give life to the character. He has the best lines in the movie, the crudest and the most important ones and he holds your attention, well by the balls. It is also phenomenal considering he was even considered for the role considering his status as the weakest among the Khan’s (the other three being in order of seniority Aamir, Salman and Shah Rukh) who mostly monopolize the industry among themselves. Add Hrithik Roshan and Abhishek Bachachan and you have the A-grade stars defined. It is also important given the fact that while only Shah Rukh and Aamir’s acting skills ever mattered among the Khan’s, Salman was merely a star, never expected to get his teeth into meaty or non-formula roles. Even in this Khan constellation, one would have placed Saif last among them and at best imagined him as some sort of a Shammi Kapoor dancing and flirting his way through his films. Being a macho man or the ‘hero’, as normal Hindi film expects its leading men to be, was also a far cry for the ‘chikna’ Saif. The violence of Tyagi, in the dusty Indian plains while not as unpredictable and one dimensional as Gabbar Singh of Sholay (perhaps the only unanimous choice as genius portrayal), is strongly reminiscent of exactly that, expect perhaps, I think Saif had a more difficult job especially with the nuances and multi dimensional facets that Shakespearean characters have. Saif lives his role as the evil Iago, it’s the most genuine transformation for an Indian actor in main stream cinema as complete with his lameness, rustic humour and scheming opportunism. The journey for Saif began much earlier, in my view to the days of Love ke Leye Kuch bhi Karega and Rehna hai tere dil main in which short uni-dimensional roles were given interesting life by his acting. To mark his transformation at Dil Chahta hai is in my view late, Saif had already begun his second innings well. And to make statements during times like this is always fun. With this film Saif may be a smaller star than Shah Rukh or Aamir but definitely a better or a more versatile actor.
The rest of the cast all do competent jobs though I have two mentionable. I thought Keshu Firangi or Cassius as the wronged one is expected to generate sympathy from the audience. I didn’t feel any, he was irrelevant to me in the film which was totally about Tyagi’s revenge. Despite his inane pleasantness, Keshu failed to leave any mark. I wouldn’t know if it has anything to do with Vivek Oberoi’s bad media days or plain my own prejudice for his having dared to go out with Aishwarya after she dumped Salman. I mean, how dare he do that, she was Salman’s girl! The second mention I wish it to make is that of Nasseruddin Shah’s role as Bhai Sahib. He plays a politician, very obviously corrupt and his constituency safe due to his strong men, a character we have seen for about 15 years now in every second film. But man, does he do it refreshingly, his look, manner and his patriarchal leadership in that world of men was very exciting and so instructive. Isn’t that what talent is about, playing the same old characters but doing your bit to make it unique. Truly awe inspiring. Lastly, I would like to mention, the character Rajen who is originally betrothed to marry Dolly when she is abducted by Omkara. His was a complicated role as his character is demeaned at every opportunity by Langda but there was a quiet dignity with which Deepak Dobriyal plays his role.
Omkara in the final analysis is a good watch, no, a must watch. If you actually strip off this whole Shakespearean attachment to the movie and treat/assume it is a original story (now how difficult is it to do that in Hindi films!), it is a very real piece of life that it maps. I was laughing my guts out when Keshu Firangi was teaching Dolly how to play the song, I just Call to Say I love you. And the inflections on the word ‘bottom’ as Dolly consistently misinterprets the weak emphasis that Firangi’s more urban background (firangi) lays on the syllables t. That is the Hindi heartland laid bare in all its aspirations and its innocence. Who the hell was Shakespeare anyway? Tau....Chacha...B.C.