Bollywood Movie Review: Omkara

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By Subhash K. Jha, Indo-Asian News Service

Film: “Omkara”; Starring: Ajay Devgan, Kareena Kapoor, Saif Ali Khan, Konkona SenSharma, Viveik Oberoi, Bipasha Basu, Naseeruddin Shah; Script based on William Shakespeare’s “Othello” by Vishal Bharadwaj, Robin Bhatt, Abhishek Choubey; Directed by: Vishal Bharadwaj; Rating: ****

In the brutal heartland of Uttar Pradesh lives a Shakespearean anti -hero called Omkara. He’s the desi re-incarnation of Shakespeare’e “Othello”.

And he’s everything that Shakespeare couldn’t make him… not his fault, really. When the immortal playwright wrote his best-known tragedy he had no idea of the graver tragedy that awaited India’s political heartland.

Delving deep into the bowels of north Indian politics, Vishal Bharadwaj comes up with a gallery of virile characters who jump out of their literary antecedents and do a dance of crime-driven dynamics on the nozzle of their country-made guns.

Omkara looks, feels and smells authentic. When gang wars break out on the rusty roads of a small town in Uttar Pradesh among Omkara, his mentor Bhaisaab (Naseeruddin Shah) and Omkara’s two favourite disciples Kesu (Viveik Oberoi) and Langda Tyagi (Saif Ali Khan) and their opponents, you’re no longer watching the characters, you’re looking at a world where Shakespeare must sound like a spear that shakes.

Besides the fact that he has cast superstars as characters, Vishal’s biggest achievement is the irony that underlines the murky goings-on in the hellish political cauldron of the cow-belt: these are boorish guys driven by a literary background of which they are clueless.

Shakespeare is as alien to Vishal’s characters as a creative compromise would be to this filmmaker.

Vishal hits you hard and long with his political parable. The most interesting exchanges among the characters are the ones that describe the dynamics of gender and politics in a world where laws are made to be broken.

Into this anarchic wilderness, a tender love story creeps in. Omkara’s uncharacteristic lapse into tenderness when he meets the fragile Dolly (Kareena Kapoor) is a subtle sly Desdemonian touch that makes us want to crave for much more.

Vishal delivers. This is a film that is as picturesque as it is sensuous. If the scenes of gang war are in-your-face, the love scenes don’t flinch away from the truth about these carnal creatures of the night who love and hate in equal measures.

The ‘Iago’ factor from “Othello” is tapped to elicit a kind of de- frozen sentimentality in a milieu that shuns sentimentality and yet wallows in theatrical emotions.

The characters live for the moment and die for a cause that no one really cares to study in depth. That’s what makes the political dynamics of contemporary India so deliciously ironical.

“Omkara” milks that irony to Shakespearean advantage. The dialogues (written by the director) add sizeably to the grotesque but nonetheless grand stature of characters ensnared in their own web of crime, deceit and little or no punishment from any man-made law.

The Omkara-Langda relationship is the film’s pivot. Iago’s Machiavellian jealousy in “Othello” is transposed into a state of stunning bedroom politics. Saif Ali Khan as the ruthlessly scheming cow-belt Iago is so authentic you wonder where all that evil comes from!

The sweet urban dude is here transformed into a foul-tongued diabolic vermin with not a shred of shame or remorse.

Have we seen a more vivid depiction of humanised evil? I can’t recall a more loathsome creature of self-interest than Saif’s Langda Tyagi.

Ajay Devgan’s Omkara is suitably subdued and malleable. He offsets Saif’s evil with a kind of gullible machismo that goes well in his romantic overtures with Dolly (Kareena), or even his lovely moments of sibling bonding with Langda’s wife Indu (Konkona).

Devgan’s Omkara is supple and obstinate at the same time. By the time Langda takes over his mind completely, his undying passion for his beloved is turned into a poisonous mass of self-destructive jealousy and tragedy.

Bharadwaj controls the inter-relations with enormous skill. Every character exists through his or her bonding with his immediate surroundings. Every relationship is full-blooded and passionate. Every friendship and enmity crackles and hisses with serpentine intensity. Every roar of the gun is a battle-call.

“Omkara” is no ordinary work of art. It’s a full-blown treatise on the politics of the human heart. Male and female bonding is paramount to Bharadwaj’s plot. In his amazing understanding of both Shakespeare’s tragic resonance and Uttar Pradesh’s ruinous politics, the director is next to none.

The cast and crew pitch in their might with pliable strength. The cinematography (Tassaduq Hussain) capturing the fading rusty browns of the state’s alleys, the editing (Meghna Manchanda) cutting the shots with an arresting alacrity, and the sound (songs and background score by Vishal) mixing the pain and passion of hearts in fright… all add up to a film of remarkable fertility.

Most of all, it’s the stars who are caught in a light never seen before. From the newcomer Deepak Dobriyal who plays Kareena’s jilted bridegroom to Naseeruddin Shah as Devgan’s mentor… the actors are almost unrecognisable in their verbal and visual transformation. The plot simmers with the dynamic discontent generated by actors who know what they’re doing.

Devgan and Oberoi are first rate. But Khan in an author-backed role not just steals but also seals the show.

Among the ladies Kareena’s Desdemonia/Dolly is a bang-on epitome of inviolable innocence. Konkona’s waif-life exuberance reminds you of the early Jaya Bhaduri. Bipasha Basu’s two saucy item songs crackle and hiss with a hypnotic blend of the earthy and the unattainable.

Nothing in this film is a prop. Except of course life, which stands mute testimony to the dance of death that these characters perform on a no-man’s-land… or, shall we say, a know-man’s land, since the director seems to know Shakespeare and Uttar Pradesh politics equally well.

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