Omkara - Vishal Bharadwaj
Omkara has one of the most riveting opening scenes that I've seen in a while. With more than a nod to the Western and to our home-grown blockbusters modelled on the Western (think Sholay), Omkara opens with the epigrammatic bewakoof aur chutiye mein dhaage bhar ka farak hota hai ga bhaiya (a fine line separates a fool and a bastard), a sentence that has already acquired the status of a quote. The interesting thing is that you hear a voice rendering this line and more, while the screen is black and gradually a long shot of a hilly, dusty landscape comes into view. Then from nowhere you get a tight close-up of a man parting a flower veil (the suggestion of a curtain in a playhouse is unmistakable!) and saying Tu to chutiya hai (you are a bastard) as the face of the wearer of the veil comes into the frame.
The opening line sets the tone for the film where most of the men use expletives as figures of speech. Add to this the low angle shot a little later, moving up from Langda Tyagi's woodland shoes to his waist to capture the hulk of the man with a gun perched atop a hill, looking down and gloating on the sad dregs of a marriage party gone awry. That it is his doing is slowly revealed to the audience as the meaning of the epigrammatic line addressed to Rajju (attired as a bridegroom), his friend, is driven home. You cannot but think of Gabbar in Sholay and it is fully intended. Only, this is Gabbar coming of age, delicately balanced between a larger-than-life outsider from nowhere and a small town mafia henchman with stained teeth, pink nailpolish, woodland shoes and a pronounced limp. I have some reluctance to put down the "story" in detail, because one can read about it in most official reviews. Therefore, I'll concentrate on certain aspects of the adaptation and on Bharadwaj's craft.
Omkara plays out the precarious balancing act troughout, between the gritty political realism of small town Uttar Pradesh and the absurdly exaggerated characters of mainstream bollywood, building in the process, a complex, intriguing and phenomenal cinematic text based on one of Shakespeare's finest plays. And, he takes, in my opinion, many more risks than he did with Maqbool. Of the many risks that Omkara takes, the most significant is the denouement with regard to the "villain", Iago/Langda Tyagi. Omkara remains true to the moral universe of Shakespeare's tragedies, but overlays it with the moral world of bollywood cinema. The result of this is that Iago's exit from Shakespeare's play, with the enigmatic and ironic line, From this time forth I never will speak word is interpreted literally. The high moral ground of bollywood cinema dictates that Langda should die, and be killed by his wife. Curiously, Hamlet, is often understood to be the play that ends with loads of dead bodies on the stage. Omkara has a Hamlet-esque feel about it, and Omkara/Othello, Dolly/Desdemona, Langda/Iago and Indu/Emilia are all dead when the film ends. That Indu commits suicide by jumping into well is suggested in keeping with small town stories of women jumping into wells (ironically the sign of life in a dusty, rugged landscape) out of sheer despair. Ultimtely, the film leaves you with the sense of futility and tragic resonance that Shakespeare's tragedies exude.
Bharadwaj's grasp of small town electoral, caste and gender politics is extraordinary. Bhaisaab (Naseeruddin Shah) is the corrupt politician who wins the local election with the help of his Man Friday, Omkara. Othello, the Moor, is Omkara/Omi, the "half-caste", born of an "unholy" alliance between a brahmin (high caste) and a lower caste woman (the suggestion is that she was a prostitute), but he is the local gangster weilding absolute power. Assisting him in his nefarious activities and tied to him by kinship, is Langda Tyagi (married to his sister) who aspires to rise in his henchman's role to being second in command after Omi. And, there is the English-educated, guitar-weilding, suitably hip biker, Kesu Firangi/Cassio, who has a local fan following, and is therefore elevated to second-in-command by Omkara. It is a tactical move to serve Bhaisaab and Omi's political aspirations, but provides a fertile breeding ground for Langda's jealousy. The names of the characters in this film are striking because they reveal as much about small towns as about the characters. A case in point is Kesu Firangi. Firangi means foreign and while his name is Kesu, the suggestion is that people have added firangi almost like a family name to allude to his "western" ways. The same goes for Langda which is a word used to describe a man with a limp.
Dolly/Desdemona is a high-caste girl, the daughter of the lawyer who works for Bhaisaab. She is smitten by Omkara and there is a lovely engagement scene (Dolly is being married off to a man from her caste, Rajju) where she drops her engagement ring into Omkara's tea cup to trigger the silent, brooding lover into immediate action. Dolly is taken away on the day of her marriage by Omkara's henchmen and deposited in his village home, where his affectionate sister waits for the men of the family (her husband, Langda and her brother, Omi) to come back after their heroic exploits. The two women bond well, but Dolly, with her easy elegance and charm, is a sylph-like, uncanny, unreal presence amidst the rugged landscape and the dangerous life of the politician's henchmen. Kareena's casting works brilliantly in this film because she has nothing to do but look pretty and unreal to emphasise the difference between the half-caste Omkara and his ruthless world and her own small town, educated, affluent upbringing. Kareena's white skin and her doll-like looks work to the film's advantage, heightening the darkness of Omkara's skin and his wild, at times uncouth virility.
The difference is worked out in terms of the cinematography as well. Dolly is mostly shot with a warm, tender light against the dusty, earthy colours of the landscape around her, and the songs that sensuously play out the love between her and Omkara are in sharp contrast to the visual and spoken language of the rest of the film. There is a brilliant scene where she tries to impress Omkara by playing a guitar and singing a love song (that Kesu teaches her to sing) in English, and Omkara, already under Langda's influence, finds it highly suspicious and annoying. Suspicion is also motivated by the fact that Dolly and Kesu went to college together and there are more similarities between them than between Omkara and Dolly.
In the world of these richly differentiated cast of characters, there is another gem of a characterisation - Rajju/Roderigo. Frustrated by his aborted marriage to Dolly, he tries to poison Langda's mind. Rajju's appearance (particularly, the streaked hair and the gold chain), clothes (badly cut suits with horrendous yellow shirts) and bearing speak volumes about an upwardly mobile, high caste, small town loafer/businessman on the fringes of local politics. Deepak Dobriyal, in his debut essay as a film actor, is nothing short of brilliant. Throughout the film, he remains a shadowy outsider-insider, whose presence leads to the precipitation of important events that carries the story along. The perception that both of them are victims of the machinations of their superiors, make for a complex, seesawing bond between Langda and Rajju. Rajju is sometimes Langda's buffoon (for instance, the scene where Rajju gets drunk and equates his cowardice with that of Langda, and gets pushed into the water), at others, his accomplice in intrigue (the insult of Billo Chamanbahar, the glamorous, sexy, village performer, to irritate Kesu whose ladylove she happens to be).
Like the extremely imaginative adaptation of the witches as corrupt, fortunetelling police officers in Maqbool, the handkerchief in Othello undergoes a fascinating transformation into a bejewelled waistband in Omkara. That it belonged to Omi's mother and is lovingly gifted to his bride-to-be, brings into the scope of the film a whole new vista about family and the emotional value of heirlooms, giving credence to Omi's suspicion when Dolly loses it. A further layer is added to film by the fact that Indu finds it lying around and steals it, obviously attracted to a piece of jewellery that will never be hers. She wears it to bed to please her husband, who recognises it as the family heirloom that Omi is emotionally attached to, and immediately thinks of using it to implicate Dolly. Through a series of intrigues, the waistband ends up adorning Billo Chaman Bahar and Lagda invents a juicy story full of sexual connotations justifying how the heirloom got to Billo. A similar layer of intrigue is built around mobile phones, which are increasingly becoming the status symbol in small towns.
While the acting is first rate all around, Saif Ali Khan will go down in history for essaying the scheming, gutter-mouthed Langda. From the first shot to his death, Omkara is really Langda/Saif's film. Bharadwaj's genius lies in NOT being overwhelmed by Shakespeare, and being able to extract the central concerns of the plays to create a work that resonates with Shakespeare's tragic intensity while being deeply invested in and attentive to the local context. A wealth of subtle details builds up to the tragic resolution, like Dolly's father's parting shot, "a girl who betrays her father is not to be trusted" and the crucial scene 20 minutes into the film, where Omi selects Kesu as the second-in-command.
In an effort to wind up this never-ending review, I'd like to leave you with this thought that while Maqbool was a spare, somewhat arty (though I dislike such a demarcation) and incredibly well-worked out gangster film with a moral universe, Omkara is much more mainstream, and much, much more ambitious! Nothing about the film is spare. It is a grand film, grandiosely imagined, shot and edited like Westerns. The cinematography by debutant Tassaduq Hussain is fantastic, and the editing so good that it makes you pay attention to each cut.
Vishal Bharadwaj began his career and made a mark as a music director, and his composing skills are in ample evidence here. The variety and the orchestration of the songs speak of a musical sensibility that is quite rare. While Maqbool had the occasional song, Omkara confronts the bollywood convention head on and makes each song serve a different function - narrative in flashback, an avenging shootout or a musical eulogy of the local gangster's prowess.
The Beedi song deserves special mention for mixing electronic groove with the romping strains of a cheap, slightly out-of-tune harmonium so common in small town concerts. The way it is shot is also impeccable. The hastily-put-together stage with the garish, somewhat tacky backdrops announcing Billo Chaman Bahar & Orchestra with phone numbers (a suggestion that Billo may be more than a dancer) is appropriately small town. But, the dance is both bawdy and graceful, teasing the audience within the film and outside it, indulging their deepest fantasies, while keeping its distance from a straightjacket realist portrayal of a small town performance context. The beedi song is like a capsule that brings to attention the fine balance between realism and representation that I allude to at the beginning of this review. Many people who have complained about the dialect (note that the dialogues are written by Bharadwaj too) used in the film being not quite a recognisable brand of small town, Uttar Pradesh Hindi, I feel, have missed the point.
Omkara is a pathbreaking film and holds its own against such reputed adaptations of Shakespeare as Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, Kozintsev's King Lear or Kaurismaki's Hamlet Goes Business. It is a film that reveals more riches with every viewing. Shall we expect a Hamlet next, Mr Bharadwaj, and perhaps a Measure for Measure?