Omkara: The Review
There's this wise saying in Arabic, "Never ever let your dog go hungry"..... "dogs" might be loyal but the strands of loyalty (at the basic level) are mostly built on implict understandings of give and take. Strands which might strain and even break if the equation is kept unbalanced. Only in the rarest of spheres will sentient links like love and loyalty be absolute and total, but these are exceptions rather than the rule. The tragedy of Omkara is in the cardinal mistake of taking his loyal lieutenant, Ishwar 'Langda' Tyagi for granted. This master-lieutenant equation is one instance where Vishal Bharadwaj's Omkara departs from Shakespeare's Othello and it's adaptations by talented artists like Oliver Parker, Orson Welles, Tim Blake Nelson and our own Jayaraj. Though Omkara is an adaptation of Othello, a product of one of the greatest minds of Humanity viz. Shakespeare, it does exhibit distinctive features and provides even more depth to the original characters. This is no mean feat in itself.... not everyone can improve on the Bard of Avon, but Vishal Bharadwaj does it with aplomb.
Shakespear's Era of Tragedy is a reflection of the post Elizabethean England.... a darker period which could showcase his true genius, viz. his understanding of human nature. The original Iago was a jealous malcontent who hates his master Othello, the Moorish general of Venice. The reaons for this demonic hatred is not explicitly explained, but the reader can gather that it is a mix of racism, jealousy of Othello's talent and his fairy tale love story, hatred of Othello's second in command Cassio and his confidence in his own resourcefullness and intellect which is obviously higher than his superiors. He is no different from Cassius of the Bard's Julius Caesar play who is "lean and hungry" by Caesar's own astute observation. However, Caesar trusted his compatriot who once saved him from death by drowning in Hispania and refused to take heed of warnings from those close to him. The original Othello trusted Iago, even let him poison his ears against his trusted 2nd in command and his wife.... trusted him to the point of the audience's disbelief! Maybe there's a backstory to back up this trust but Shakespeare doesn't tell us.
While Shakespeare chose to put up Iago as the bigoted, crafty and slimy malcontent who has no "just cause" other adaptations of Othello have given more depth to Iago. Tim Blake Nelson, a very very talented actor/director had made this movie title 'O' which is a high school sports drama take on Othello. 'O' is Odin, a black basketball star of his high school while Iago character played competently by Josh Hartnett is his team-mate. This Iago resents O 'coz his own father, the coach, shows affection towards the vastly talented O. Iago goes on a steroid course to increase his prowess and earn the respect of his dad, only to descend further into rage fuelled insanity. Jayaraj's Iago, Paniyan, played by Lal is closer to the original as he harbors hatred for Perumalayan from the very beginning..... though he claims it is compounded by Perumalayan choosing Kaanthan over the much senior Paniyan for the coveted Theyyam title. However, the Othello character Perumalayan Kannan is more insecure owing to his smallpox stricken face and low caste origins.... he himself acknowledges his temerity in whisking off the beautiful high-caste daughter of the feudal lord and rues his deformity on more than one occassion. The original Othello only expresses a doubt that Desdemona desires Cassio for Othello is a swarthy moor and much older than she is. However, he is not wracked by insecurity and childish possessiveness like Perumalayan Kannan.
Coming to Omkara the movie, our Iago, Ishwar 'Langda' Tyagi is perhaps the most capable and dangerous person in the whole gang. Omkara himself needs to empty whole magazines to kill his enemies while Tyagi, a DEAD shot needs just one bullet per person. His sniping skills are extraordinary.... as depicted in a scene where he picks off an entire enemy gang one by one *while they are fighting a hand to hand battle with his comrades*. He is intelligent, strong, determined and is a team player but he is slightly lame (hence the nickname 'Langda' ) and a boorish rustic. Omkara, aiming higher (state level politics in this movie) probably sees the future in Kesu, a capable student leader and a recent entry to his band. He chooses the kid over Langda Tyagi in a dramatic fashion...... in a somewhat cruel manner to Tyagi. At least a word beforehand might have ameliorated Tyagi's pain and sense of betrayal, but Omkara rather chose to surprise everyone in public. Maybe the Chief has to use his own discretion and make independent, hard choices without confiding with anyone else.... but hello, he is your *trusted advisor* and friend, right?! Perhaps it's because the suave, smooth talking but tough kid who holds the key to the foreseeable future rather than an illiterate, battle-scarred Langda who is only streetwise and good for wetworks. The "Duke of Venice" character played by Naseeruddin Shah, who knows human nature better than anyone else asks Omkara "What about Tyagi?". For a Bhai of the UP badlands, Omkara makes the surprising and apparently naive assertion that "He is my *brother* and would understand!".
Now this Omkara is not so trusting of anyone like Shakespeare's or Nelson's or Jayaraj's versions.... he demands concrete Proof of Infidelity before his wedding (the "proof" which was brilliantly staged by Tyagi at very short notice) against Tyagi's life. Other Othellos didn't make this "do or die" demand if I remember correctly. However, Omkara does respect Tyagi's opinions and analysis, his neutrality as an observer and his experience in the "dhanda". Tyagi's machinations are not much craftier than the run-of-the-mill Narads in TV soap operas, but he senses correctly that when it comes to Dolly (our Desdemona), Omkara's passion and love clouds his judgement. Couple it with Dolly's father's cold Parthian Barb that "she who has betrayed his father can betray ANYBODY" which resonates in his mind, the fact that Kesu is a natural charmer when it comes to the lay-dees and Dolly is the most gorgeous woman in that corner of the globe..... one can't blame anyone for taking leave of his senses.
As wise people have observed, "Men who are otherwise brilliant and rational beings can be utter dorks when it comes to women" and of course the other famous (sometimes derogatory) uvaacha, "God has given man a brain and a penis, but unfortunately enough blood to operate only one of these at a time". When it boils down to basics on suspicion of infidelity, the echoing self-judgement in his mind is "He (the third man) is a better *man* than I am..... He is a better *man* than I am...." Now when your wife's father and your closest pal imply that she is insulting you (after all, infidelity is the worst insult one can give his spouse) it probably becomes very difficult to let go of that sliver of doubt. Compounding circumstancial "proof", self-goals by Dolly and Tyagi's coup-de-grace weighed against sage advice from truly well-meaning friends and the repeated implorations of the bewildered Dolly finally snapped Omkara..... which leads to the Greek tragedy.
Konkona Sen Sharma is an amazing actress. Period! It's a pleasure watching a great actress who ain't a plastic!
She plays Indu/Emilia, the well meaning and capable wife of Iago/Langda Tyagi. She simply becomes the simple, rustic, large-hearted and yet strong character she's supposed to play. Her character is the third character who has been given more depth in this movie, and boy how does she do it! She's the big sister and mother to all the bad boys in that Daaku world (including her Husband's boss) , wise to the ways of the world, possessing the unfailing rustic common-sense and always ready to lend a shoulder to cry upon. Her sole character flaw is perhaps in not understanding her husband's rage at being superceded and not sensing the scheming monster within. She thinks her hubby is just another sleazy, gross and gruff person who should be treated like a little unruly rascal but doesn't sense the bad vibesand everyone pays for it at the bitter end. Tyagi is an Anthony Hopkins quality actor and even fools someone like Omkara who's been seeing him for 15 years..... yet wives, espeically the tough-n-nice ones like Indu, are supposed to be more intutive, right? :)
This brings us to another theory on Tyagi-Iago..... he was INDEED a good man, loyal friend and good husband till that moment when his mind snapped and was forever set against his former friends. There is also a warped sense of loyalty to Omkara despite all this as proven in a chaotic fight scene where Tyagi saves Omkara with his skills as a shooter (or maybe is it just my flawed reading..... or maybe he was fattening the pig for the slaughter?). Makes me wonder, will ordinary folks you or I break and go into the dark side when our greatest dreams are shattered directly or indirectly by those whom you love?
Another character worth mention is Roderigo/Rajju character played by newcomer Deepak Dobriyal. He stands out as the jilted bridegroom of Dolly who still can't let it go. He is consumed with jealousy and rage but is meekly subservient to Omkara (while planning his destruction at the same time) for the time being. His dad is a financier to Omkara's operations, you see..... and he has the misfortune to occasionally watch HIS Dolly being intimate with the usurper. He reminds me of a salivating, scheming but outwardly earnest Gollum who helps Frodo.... only because Frodo holds the One Ring, Gollum's "Preciousssss". But in this case, Samwise Gamgee(Tyagi) who is supposed to protect Frodo (Omkara) is actually in collusion with the slimy, treacherous Gollum. And as we know, Frodo wouldn't have gone far without Sam.
Unlike the spineless puppet portrayal of Roderigo in other versions of Othello, this one is a force to reckon with. It is his haunting chant of "Tyagi.... Bahubali, Tyagi.... Bahubali" (Bahubali is the title Tyagi was jockeying for) which first sparks the glitter of ambition in Tyagi's eyes. The way the "innocuous" comical relief/sleazeball crashes into the idyllic world of the soon-to-be-fallen-hero is portrayed in an eerie (and hilarious at the same time) scene. It is this Roderigo who wickedly rubs salt into Tyagi's wounded heart and sets him into the vortex of evil...... not the other way round as in other adaptations. One can't help but notice how this weasel "comes of age" in his own way from a chicken-hearted, spindly legged groom riding a ridiculous moped and a perpetually sobbing buffoon to a gun-wielding avenger bent on reaching his manzil.
Other characters aren't much to write about.... except for Shah's interesting portrayal of the "Duke". Here he is a bald Bhaisaab (**who does looks a bit like Mahatma Gandhi gone evil, as Raja Sen observed in his review**), an MP who's one of those smooth players in Brahmin-Rajput politics of UP. He has some good one-liners and his drawling matter-of-fact voice is a pleasure to hear.
Brabantio, here known as Vakeelsaab, is Dolly's dad. Unlike the heartbroken curse of original Brabantio and Narendra Prasad's portrayal in Kaliyattam, the way this daddy tells Omkara that his own daughter will one day betray him is quite chilling. It sounded rather like a pissed ex-boyfriend "warning" his replacement (to plant seeds of doubt and strife); "Just between us grown-up men..... do watch out, boss! She's a whore!"
Dolly/Desdemona is kept rather unaltered, the archetype self-sacrificing doomed lady (that's what her name means BTW) and a symbol of purity, love and innocence. Only one thing stands out in the movie, the way she subtly let's Omkara know her liking for Omkara is no mere infatuation/ puppy-love. One thing that does stand out is Dolly does the cardinal sin of bringing another man to their marital bed. (Not in the literal sense..... what were you pervs thinking? :P ) This was following a chweet romantic moment in bed and she tries to curry favor for Kesu who was her classmate in college and who's presently in the doghouse. Now I ain't married, but even a Vogon like me knows some things should not have a price-tag .... some things must not be implied or demanded in moments like these. Of course, it was just a chaste request for helping out her friend now that Omkara was in a good mood, but bringing up that topic in such a situation sours the mood. I guess most men might think "Oh, was this all services rendered against a collateral payement? Is that it?!" ( Omkara had already sown the dragon seeds of suspicion unbeknownst to her. He becomes royally pissed and more suspicious when she brings Kesu's matter)
Lesser can be said on for Cassio (Kesu) and Bianca (Billo Chamanbahar), the latter played by Bipasha Basu. They are pretty much the same as the original characters and only have weakly supporting roles in the scheme of things. I must say the only eyesore in the movie is Bipasha's *second* item number.....she's HOT, but it's heresy pasting a skin show a needless second item-number in a serious movie like this! However the wedge created between Kesu and Billo as a collateral damage to Tyagi's machinations is not as grating as the eyecandy-teen romance angle.
Now coming to the performances, music etc and the movie as a whole:
Othello was set in the tense surroundings of Venice and Cyprus which were under the threat of Ottoman invasion. Most of the action is set on the wind swept isle of Cyprus with it's fortification and grim atmosphere. The adaptations have always kept a somewhat similar background, "Kaliyattam" had the rural dust-bowls and forests with the gaudy colors, the strange local deities and structures of Theyyam.... an art form which depicts paths of heroes and gory wars. One major Theyyam theme was "The legend of Kathivanoor Veeran" a folk hero and his lover Chemparuthi. They also met their doom due to treachery of another kind. "O" on the other hand had the battle-front of the American high school basketball court. Given the life-n-death image issues of teenagers in issues like this, this battle-front is as grim and dangerous as the forts of Cyprus. "Omkara" is set in THE dust-bowls..... the "cow-belt" of UP. Crushing poverty, caste politics, fallow lands, ope spaces, shanties, rival gangs, violence, politician-pandu-criminal nexus are staple features of these badlands. The settig is IMO more dangerous and foreboding than that of Omkara's counterparts.Now our Vishal has a good eye for backdrops. The way he transformed Macbeth from the fogs, Birnam forest and the rolling hills of Scotland to the modern Mumbai underworld is sheer genius. Kurosawa had it much easier with Throne of Blood 'coz he could easily supplant it to the feudal strife period of Japan. A period mirroring medieval Scotland.... down to the fog, the witches, the castles and the dense forest (Cobweb Forest). Vishal has again shown his genius by adapting it to the UP backdrop. There's almost a sepia filter as in "Kaante" plus the natural gaudy colors of the North, he doesn't overdo the color thing as Palekar did in Paheli. The cinematography, photography and choreography do justice to the story. All these have the stamp of the no-nonsense, thinking director Vishal.... no question about it. There are no perfectly sync extras dancing to the item-songs as in movies like Dum, Shool.... it is pure, raw fun, frolic, freesytle gyrations, nasha and lust. The scene of senior cops and ordinary pandus dancing to Bipasha jhatkas (Bipasha snatches the cap of an IPS officer and dances wearing that Topi) in the second item number is very.... believable.
Dialogues are not shuddh Kanyakabujh/Hindi Sabha Hindi for a change..... they are in purely local lingo which is a bit difficult to follow at times. The opening Tarantinoesque dialogue by Tyagi starts with "Chutiy*" for one thing...... it sets the tone for the whole bare-naked rural criminal India movie. Of course, outlaws don't speak in classical Urdu and Hindi, do they? Now, words are to be very carefully used when you are in Bhai world, where a simple nod can be a death-warrant for some poor bugger. And if you are going to make your boss, comrade-at-arms and family to be the puppets in your demonic grand plan you better use your words wisely. The wors of Tyagi are precise but loaded, reeking with flase concern, making infra-digs and designed in such a way so that Omkara is blinded to the possibly flawed/dubious premise and thrust into Tyagi's foregone conclusion. Kudos for Vishal who has written the screenplay and dialogues himself.
Ajay Devgan as Omkara delivers a good performance. But I feel something's missing...... I felt more for Abhishek Bachan's Lallan (in Yuva) when he went downhill, for Suresh Gopi's epic descent into rabid insanity and jealousy in Kaliyattam and even Lawrence Fishburn's festering pain in Oliver Parker's Othello. Maybe it's the dark surroundings favored by Omkara and his ever present shades..... but you don't see the kind of anger and pain that drives one to destroy the love of your life.
Saif Ali Khan as Langda Tyagi is a relevation! He showed he has the "darkness" in him in Ek Haseena Thi and now he has indeed oudone himself. Come to the Dark Side, Saif..... you belong here! :)
Unlike his pink-undies metrosexual image, the Langda Tyagi we see is every bit the raw, untamed and earthy crook. Unlike a Hritik Roshan who insisted on wearing designer dhotis and Pahadi bunyans to display his rippling muscles to maximum effect, or a Salman Khan sporting a tanned-bronzed body and a cool Marine cut in Tere Naam (as against a Vikram who starved and sunburnt himself in preparation for Sethu), Saif Ali Khan does a commendable job in booting the "image factor" and insistence on "looking cool" even if beaten to an inch of his life ( a la SRK). He fits in..... easily. His performance is excellent...... matches other portrayals by heavyweights like Ian McKellen, Josh Hartnett and Kenneth Branaugh. The way his expression changes as he is cheered by Rajju the weasel, when he sees Omkara choosing Kesu over him when he is taunted by Rajju and finally when his house of cards collapse around him are indicative of some serious talent. I always believed he didn't deserve his award for Hum Tum, but in Omkara hindsight I agree that the *recognition* is well deserved. You have come a long way from "Ole Ole" Saif Mian, congratulations!
I've already spoken about Konkona Sen Sharma's performance. Where's the hem of your skirt, Oh Most Magnificent Muse? Let this wannabe artist kiss it and attain Kaivalyajnana! :)
And Deepak Dobrival? Guys, we have a new gun in town! Move over Raghubir Yadav, you are beginning to tire us. Here's someone who can do what you can..... and more.
I somehow missed Kareena Kapoor while speaking of the performances. Sorry Ji :)
Kareena for all her spoilt brat image is a quite capable actress. Her method acting in Chameli was quite a revelation.... IMO the only reason it failed to click was it's difficult to imagine someone "peaches-n-cream" pretty like Lolo as a streetwalker. Her Dolly has few lines but she stands her ground with a wide range of expressions, the betrayed/bewildered look alone when Omkara accuses her of infidelity on their wedding night vindicates her presence amongst the stalwarts in this cast. She's no Konkona but she sure has delivered her bit.
Vivek Oberoi and Bipasha delivers what's asked of them. Nothing earthshaking..... understandable given the standing of their characters. Naseeruddin Shah's again done well.... his role is nothing like that smooth-talking and dangerous cop (an adaptation of The Three Witches) in Maqbool which was Vishal's adaptation of Macbeth. Still, he has enoromous screen presence. Dolly's dad (dunno the artist'sname) has also done a good job as i mentioned before.
The music composed by Vishal Bharadwaj is ek dum first class. "Beedi" is of course the raging favorite, but I prefer the soothing tunes of "O Saathi Re" and "Jag Ja". "O Sathi Re" is a great piece.... lifting tunes set to Omkara's and Dolly's romance. Ajay Devgan's recitation of "Jag Ja" in bed sort of tugs at your heart-strings..... but when he comes to the part where he promises a "Dashrath Boon" and tells her to ask anything she desires, Dolly butts in and demands Kesu's reinstation. (Some sense of timing, eh?) The sweetness of these songs plus the foreknowledge that everyone is doomed just adds to the appreciation. Yes, I think bittersweet would be a correct term for these two songs.
Rahat Fateh Ali Khan is one of my favorite artists. I fell temporarily in love with Paap's Udita Goswami via his unbelievably mellifluous tunes of "Mann Ki Lagan". His rendering of "Jiya Dhadak hadak" in Kalyug is something I listen to almost every day before going to sleep. Khan's "Naina" OST from this movie sets the backdrop of Dolly's and Omkara's first meeting and budding love....... great lyrics and Khan's unique voice makes a great listening. "Lakkad" is yet another beautiful song and it's in true bittersweet yearning-pathos mode. This song not featured in the movie, but obviously designed for Indu as she watches a ruthless Bhai like Omkara treating Dolly tenderly and lovingly (as against her own husband who's "quite an animal"). Hated the "Namak" item-number.... it doesn't belong here. Another song of note is "Omkara" by Sukhwindra Singh; I loved it when I listened to it standalone but in the movie it's played in a fight scene with Omkara walking away triumphantly after the dust settles. Obviously this is to highlight the heroism of Omkara, but I felt it wasn't necessary for a director like Vishal. Shaji Kailas showing Mohanlal lifting a road-roller is understandable.... but does Vishal need this? Could have done it more subtly. Bad Vishal. :p
In short this movie gets a full 80% from yours truly. Highly recommended. Not quite Kurosawa standard (anybody seen his Shakespeare adaptations, "Ran" and "Throne of Blood"? The spirit's voice in "Throne of Blood", the eternal fog, the violent deaths and the whole Noh-theatre movie adaptation of Macbeth still gives me the jitters. The climax alone is worth the money). ***The ending could have been improved I guess, a bit too abrupt and comes crashind down on your heads. I loved the ending in Kaliyattam where Perumalayan immolates himself.... he turns into fire, he becomes fire and finally fades to nothingness.
(Spoilers follow:) However I must say the scene where a pained Omkara dismisses off Tyagi even after knowing the enormity of his crime and Tyagi's treachery was quite novel. I am reminded of that scene in Saving Private Ryan where the German paratrooper who walks down the stairs after knifing Private Mellish (Adam Goldberg) looks at the cringing Corporal Upham (who couldn't muster courage to help his comrade who was calling out to him) like he's an insignifant worm. That was the ultimate insult - "You don't matter to me". Omkara, in dismissing Tyagi shows no trace of malice or anger..... just resignation to his fate, accepting his own crime and stupidity, a warped mask of pain and peace, and that "you don't matter to me anymore" look.
Vishal also falls prey to audience's prediliction towards karmic retribution for all evil and shows Tyagi getting his throat cut by his shatterd wife who is then shown contemplating suicide by jumping into a well. The latter scene is something like Tarantino's trademark Trunk Shots. The dishevelled and EXTREMELY pissed Konkona Sen Sharma in her red sari and sickle in hand is made to look like a Durga Devi who cleanses the world and eases the burden of Mother Earth by dispatching off Asuras and Rakshasas. I guess this scene could have been handled a bit differently.... was this pandering to the lay audiences who luvv the heroine destroying the evil ones? (Spoilers end here)***
Overall, a very commendable effort by Vishal Bharadwaj. Keep up the good work Vishal, I sincerely hope you will adapt Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus next time. It would be interesting to see what's your take on this supremely gory tragedy.