Why Omkara blew my mind

Omkara blew my mind.

I can’t remember the last time I said that about Hindi cinema, something I’m force-fed once a week, on average. Vishal Bhardwaj’s film, however, is a superlative-exhausting work of passion and tribute, skill and style. Spellbinding stuff.

Here, in no particular order, are five reasons I love Omkara.

Language: The words, the words. Soiled with heartland grime, the dialogues come at you with a superb realism disarming to most of us used to synthetic (at best; usually just trite tripe) often-familiar Hindi screenplays. Vishal, insistent on writing his dialogues himself, has drawn massively into his Uttar Pradesh upbringing and scripted a masterpiece — the words are raw yet poetic, abusive yet literate, mundane yet metaphoric. Transferring the Bard into bhaiyya-speak (no offense, Bhardwaj bhai) is as uphill as tasks get, but Omkara manages with a flourish, displaying deft nuances while sticking extremely close to the source material. The metaphors and idioms are magical, and there’s a consistent strain of wry humour running through the lines.

And I’m immensely, even selfishly grateful they haven’t bowed down to market strains by toning the dialect down into more-comprehensible Hindi. Spending considerable time explaining dialogues to a bewildered Parsi buddy, I was glad to have been exposed to enough of the flavour and tone of the words up in Delhi. While the feel is as pure as it gets, a massive part of the country will not follow most of what is said, even listening intently. Maybe the reason the film isn’t doing too well here but efficiently abroad is due to subtitled prints. Honestly, even while relishing the lines in the theatre, I couldn’t help but lip-smackingly think how great it would be to savour the words on a well-subtitled DVD.

Loyalty: So sue me, I’m a purist. A fervent Bard lover, I wasn’t a huge fan of Maqbool. In my opinion, the director went too far out on a limb, and his denying the ghost and the witches muddled up the final act. The film was very well-crafted, Pankaj Kapur and Tabu were superb but that’s about it. Anyway, I digress. As plays go, Othello is my favourite among the Tragedies, largely because it features Shakespeare’s finest character, Iago. Bhardwaj too seemed to find little wrong with the original, for even while he transposed it into a completely different time and setting, he’s hardly wavered from the script.

Othello: Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?

Iago: Cassio, my lord! No, sure, I cannot think it,

That he would steal away so guilty-like,

seeing you coming.

The translations are almost literal, even as the characters bark into mobile phones and watch showgirls dazzle policemen. The changes are but superficial, as the telltale handkerchief takes on the avatar of a precious cummerbund handed down from generations past. Not finding much individual use for Duke, Antonio and members of the council, Bhardwaj rolls them all into his wily Bhaisaab. Conversant with the play, it’s a delight to watch Vishal take the familiar moments and play them his way, piling on scene after scene straight from the play, but each given his own quirky twists and styling. The challenge doesn’t lie in the changes, but in staying true. It’s often audacious just how neatly the script references Shakespeare, and the film’s end is ruthlessly, beautifully loyal.

The players, and their choosing: While on beauty, it is impossible to not be mesmerised by Kareena Kapoor, who looks her best as she fittingly plays Desdemona. ‘That whiter skin of hers than snow and smooth as monumental alabaster,’ as the dark moor described his bride, is positively luminous as Kareena’s Dolly Mishra takes over the screen. Her character is one of the hardest to essay, as she goes through love and awe, fear and bewilderment, defiance to her father and submission to her man. Kareena doesn’t have the lines, but she has moments demanding powerful use of expression, and she delivers. Conversely, even as she proves what difference a director makes, Vivek Oberoi’s Cassio is tragically cardboard, as if daring someone to make him act. This results in an unexpected (I’m assuming) effect, as we lose sympathy completely for Kesu Firangi, beginning almost to root for the cripple.

And what a marvellous cripple he is. So much has been written about Saif Ali Khan’s Langda Tyagi, and so much it inevitably falls short. Suffice it to say that it is a bravura performance, and he crucially achieves the rare fine line: he overwhelms yet utterly disgusts; we are incredulous in adulation of his detailing; we will him to die. Omkara marks Saif’s emergence into the very forefront of his acting peers, and we gleefully applaud. He’s so, so wonderfully loathsome, right down to the tiniest detail. And he has the finest, finest lines, each worthy of being on a t-shirt. His only competition there is his wife. Konkona Sensharma, always a great actress, is steadily piling on the brilliance. She has but a few minutes, but they are glorious and vital.

Othello is a tricky role, a leading man eclipsed entirely by the villain. Yet the Moor is a brooding and compelling character, and Ajay Devgan does valiantly with his material. Omkara strips Othello of the racism, exchanging his black skin for surprisingly inconsequential half-Brahminism. Ajay’s best bits are when restrained, and while there is a bit of a seen-that feel to his character, by the time the film is over, you realise just how unflinchingly solid he’s been. Naseeruddin Shah has no histrionics as Bhaisaab, but tons of the quiet dignity his character demands. A warm hand must also be reserved for the excellent Deepak Dobriyal, who’s Rodrigo (here Rajju) turn is precious and integral to the narrative. And finally, just where did Vishal find that terrific old lady?

Sights and sounds: Omkara is a slow film, a poetically drawn out work that mercifully doesn’t try to rush itself. The violence, while rampant, remains atmospheric — it is there for effect, as a backdrop, to pretend that the film has pace. Cinematographer Tassaduq Hussain — whose short films made as a film student in the US thrilled Vishal — has framed the film deliciously, each shot neatly boxing in light, shadows and high drama. Samir Chanda’s art direction is masterful, the sets evocative and realistic, exaggerated enough to be theatrical while detailed enough to be convincing.

Enter Bhardwaj the composer. This is a fabulous soundtrack, as Vishal’s irresistible folksy tunes fit tidily into the film, enhancing and never once interrupting the lazy narrative. The theme song is used unexpectedly, during the first fight scene — and it is this maverick, almost slapdash fashion of filmmaking that makes Vishal thrilling to watch. Even the two full-blown dance numbers work well, Beedi serving almost as an interruption to Iago’s devilish thoughts, and Namak often pacily interrupted, relegated to background score. Best used is the Jag jaa song, and Vishal’s weaving it into the narrative is inspiringly good.

Creativity: For all his loyalty to the Bard, this is such an original take on Shakespeare. Lines from the original manifest themselves sporadically here, and not always in dialogue. Iago is the green-eyed monster, Saif’s character is unmistakably shot with green-tinted light; Omkara plays the black Moor, emphasized by his shawl the colour of midnight. It’s how perfectly the filmmaker decides to incorporate these touches that make this his film. Oh, but then there’s also so much all Vishal’s own. Something that stood out for me was his take on good and evil. Bhaisaab, the kind of warlord who casually orders trains to turn around, bears more than a passing resemblance to Mahatma Gandhi; Iago, the articulate embodiment of all evil, is here called Ishwar.

Omkara is a very special film, the kind that comes around rarely, making you instantly long for a repeat viewing and the filmmaker’s next project. One hopes the wait won’t be long. Salutations, Vishal Bhardwaj, and thanks for the film.

PS: If this is what happens when a music director watches a Krysztof Kieslowski film, maybe we should send around box sets to Anu Malik and AR Rahman.


Published Rediff, August 2, 2006.


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  1. Shubhodeep Pal

    I always used to regard film reviewing as a dubious art. Unexposed to the Internet, I was forcefed rather insipid and plot-revealing tales by critics best left unmentioned. Somewhat surprisingly, I came across you and the redoubtable Roger Ebert (whatever you might think of him) at the same time, about a couple of years ago.
    Needless to say, in these two or three years, I have devoured pieces by you two with relish and anticipation.
    This is a review I have often come back to, on Rediff, whenever I’ve been taken by the genius of Vishal Bharadwaj. It’s always a delight to see good cinema getting appreciated but there’s always the delectable and tantalisingly fine line between superficiality and depth, especially while reviewing ‘the masters’.
    You have mostly(heh) walked this tight-rope with admirable honesty and (perhaps) enviable success. Warm regards from an ardent admirer of your writings.
    Here’s to reading more from you. Write on!

  2. Nishit

    It’s rare that I comment on rediff articles, even if it’s yours, because it’s no use, but I remember commenting on this one. Just can’t remember what!

    That’s not the point. Omkara FTW!!

  3. Small Talk

    think you give too much credit to saif and too little to vivek. saif had the author-backed role! if he hadn’t done well here, there’s little sense calling him an actor. oberoi on the other hand, i thought, did a creditable job with a character no one can have much sympathy for, in any case… when ever did you have a comment on the great acting skills of anyone playing cassio?

  4. Leena

    my problem with omkara was that i never for one second felt a tinge of sympathy for the protagonist. :\

  5. memsaab

    This film would have DEFINITELY been a contender for an Oscar, if only it had been submitted. (Not that India needs to worry about Oscars, I am not saying that!)

  6. Deboleena

    Uff, brilliant review!

    Omkara was my first Bharadwaj movie. And as a chaste, obsessively puritanical sixteen year-old I was repulsed but over-awed and absolutely in love despite myself.

    I was surprised with how much of the coarse UP-lingo I *could* understand. And yes, as you say, it’s crass but it’s absolutely brilliantly written.

    However I disagree with your assessment of Kesu. I think Cassio was deliberately sketched this vacuously. He’s the slightly dull, philandering sort. And although I admit it probably didn’t take much effort I think Vivek Oberoi did a grand job of portraying it.

    And Rajju too. Absolutely fantastic. Especially the bits where he incites Langra Tyagi.

    By the way, did you notice the scab on Langra’s back?

    And I agree Maqbool departed from the original a little too much. Taboo could have just been Maqbool’s love interest and not Abbaji’s mistress. It just made it a little incrongrous.

    Anyway. Wonderful read.

  7. Anu

    A bit late into the discussion but …Much as I liked Omkara, I have to disagree with you – Vishal diverged from the Bard in the most unforgivable way because in my opinion, he diluted Iago – the finest, most chilling Shakespearean villain.

    Langda Tyagi, and I agree Saif was brilliant!, does what he does because he is bypassed for promotion. So there is envy rearing its ugly head. Justified or not, that provides him the motive for his subsequent behaviour. Iago had no motive, no reason, no justification, and that alone makes him the ultimate villain. He likes being evil for the sake of BEING evil.

    Unlike many critics who have a knowledge of European films (maybe) but know nothing of regional films, you seem to actually watch them – so I have a suggestion for you :) – pick up Kaliyattam, a Malayalam film by Jayraj. It is also an adaptation of Othello, and watch how Lal (a well-known director making his acting debut), playing Iago, manipulates events to its eventual tragedy. As events spiral to its inevitable end, you feel for Desdemona (Manju Warrier), her innocence and her pain making you want to reach out and stop the tragedy from happening, something that Kareena did not manage to bring out.

    If you do manage to get your hands on this movie, let me know what you think.

    Again, in Maqbool, Vishal did not give up on the witches, though he wrote out the ghost. Naseer and Om took on the witches’role and were brilliantly scary – especially because their foretelling of events was couched in dark humour.

    I personally thought Maqbool was the better adaptation – because Irfan’s betrayal and his subsequent unravelling meshed so well with Tabu’s ambition and HER subsequent guilt. I also liked the switch to the ‘seas coming home’ (instead of the woods moving) which played out as the Coast Guard raiding his home.

    Such small dissent aside, Vishal Bharadwaj is a director whose work I will always see because of him – not for the stars / actors etc. Kaminey being a case in point. There are very few directors of whom I can say this – Dibankar Bannerjee, Raj Hirani are a couple who come to mind.

  8. sitherdown

    Heck yes!!!

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