When filmmaker Vishal Bharadwaj decided to make a film based on Othello, he originally thought of the jealous Moor as captain of the Indian cricket team with the credulous Cassio and the scheming Iago jostling for the slot of vice-captain. "Somehow, it didn't work, I just couldn't get it right," says Bharadwaj. Perhaps the tragedy could be set in a submarine during one of the Indo-Pak wars. "That seemed too gimmicky," he recalls. Just as well, he abandoned both these plans and set his film in an environment he grew up in: the badlands of western UP. In Omkara Bharadwaj delivers a film that pushes the limits of Bollywood's creative energy, not just by ingeniously reinterpreting Shakespeare but also by authentically bringing alive a whole new landscape and culture. Omkara also showcases Saif Ali Khan in a bold and brilliant new avatar.
Hindi cinema has largely been living in the neverlands of the NRIs, worlds more fantasised than real. But in the last couple of years, the hinterland has also been finding a definite space. We have been going to Bihar in Prakash Jha's movies, to Lucknow and Kanpur in Bunty Aur Babli. "The song from Bunty Aur Babli, Chhote chhote shahron se...has actually become an idea, a theme for our cinema," observes media commentator Sudheesh Pachauri. In Omkara Bharadwaj goes deeper into the small towns. "We need to create new worlds in our cinema," he says. In his last film, Maqbool, based on Macbeth, Bharadwaj ventured into the Mumbai underworld. He relocates Othello in the rustic, violence-prone districts of UP, hitherto not seen in Hindi cinema. It's those places we read about in newspapers where lawlessness reigns, where parents have no qualms about killing their own daughter when she elopes with her lover, where a tyrannical patriarchy ensures women are oppressed and abused.
Omkara (Ajay Devgan) heads a gang of young outlaws who help the local politician (Naseeruddin Shah). The two most trusted gang members are the callow Kesu Phirangi (Vivek Oberoi) and the wily Langda Tyagi (Saif). Things take a dramatic turn when Omkara appoints Kesu as his bahubali or lieutenant, instead of Tyagi, who then decides to avenge the shame by falsely implicating Omkara's fiancee Dolly Mishra (Kareena Kapoor) in a love affair with Kesu. Langda Tyagi's wife Indu (Konkana Sen Sharma) unknowingly abets his plan and then tries to foil it. But by then it's too late.
The violence, intrinsic to western UP's politics and culture, comes alive on screen, not just through the rugged and harsh landscape or the blood and gore of the killings, but also through the rough dialect. It's truly the Indian wild west. The poetry of Shakespeare gives way to a steady flow of cusswords; scenes of violence are not choreographed but unfold quick and sharp. "It's unsculpted violence erupting from within. You can actually feel this dormant ferocity and alienation when you move around in the UP streets," says Pachauri. In a way, the film exteriorises Shakespeare's play to turn one man's tragedy into that of an entire region and community. "I have never seen the play so perfectly tuned to a time (present) or a place (UP)," says James Christopher, in The Times.
It's also a world in the throes of change, a world caught in the mores of the past yet invaded by mobiles, Sumos and TV sets. Bharadwaj inventively uses the device of the mobile and the heirloom—kamarband as the means of deception—as against the handkerchief and the overheard conversations in the bard's Othello.
Shakespeare's plays, with their dramatic strength and superb portrayal of the universal truths of human nature, have always lent themselves well to adaptation to different times and places. "It would have been easy to place it in the period setting of Rajasthan but I wanted an unseen, exciting, striking place," says Bharadwaj. He shows ingenuity not just in dealing with the minutiae of contemporary small-town society and politics but also in weaving in elements of Indian mythology into Shakespeare. So, Desdemona becomes a docile, vulnerable and waif-like Dolly (the fair Kareena as the perfect presence against the dark and brooding Ajay) who could well be the Bharati Yadav of the infamous Nitish Katara murder case, and also the misunderstood Sita of the Ramayana. Fine detailing goes into turning Othello into 'the addha-baaman', a half-Brahmin, born of a low-caste mother and a high-caste father. It's the reason why he is not acceptable to the girl's family. "Every Othello has been made black. I felt I could parallel the Moor as a half-caste. The racism of that time gets easily reflected in the conflict-ridden caste politics of today's India," says Bharadwaj.
Most will, however, remember Omkara as a film that dared to cast Saif in a role totally at odds with his city- slicker image. It is yet another step in his steady growth as an actor. From the Ole Ole guy, Saif has come a long way with remarkable performances in Ek Haseena Thi, Parineeta and Being Cyrus. But his Langda Tyagi (Iago) is truly a breakthrough act, right down to that limp, the khaini-chewing and the red nailpolish on his pinky. The one crucial moment, when Keshu is anointed the bahubali, Saif's look says it all: hurt, anger, frustration alongside a sinister half-smile. He makes evil incredibly attractive.
No wonder Othello himself becomes secondary. "Othello's moral dilemmas don't come out. He becomes just a duped hero," says Shohini Ghosh of the Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia. Perhaps also because, despite the competent acting, Ajay dons a role that is similar to many others that he has played in his earlier films.
After a relatively star-less Maqbool, Bharadwaj has used a string of Bollywood actors in Omkara. All to add more value to the box-office. But despite their presence, it remains a rather unflinching film. It is not exactly entertaining, the lingo can put people off and might even not be understood. The humour gets lost on many, though there is news now of adding subtitles for the South Indian market. Also, unlike Maqbool it's not cosmopolitan enough to become a buzzword with the multiplex crowd, and Omkara's craftsmanship may seem too sophisticated for small-town audiences who are assumed to prefer straight and simple narratives.
The house, then, is divided on Omkara's box-office viability. "It's a well-made film and our society is bold enough to take such efforts," says Rajender Singh of Delhi's Chanakya cinema. A multiplex like Spice PVR claims to be showing it houseful in 13 shows a day. But what works against the film is the high cost with which it has been made (approximately Rs 20 crore) and sold (Rs 3 crore for Delhi-UP). Despite a steady run at the box-office, it might find it difficult to make big money. Also, Karan Johar's next film, Kabhie Alvida Na Kehna, is just lurking round the corner to storm the box-office.
There are a few artistic problems as well. The song sequences could seem jarring, the end might seem too designer-perfect. "It's too plot-oriented, there's too much of a linear story-telling that relies on cause and effect," says Ghosh. "Our commercial cinema needs to take a leap in terms of form and style," she adds. Maybe Bharadwaj will do it next, if he rejigs A Midsummer's Night Dream and sets it in the frothy world of Delhi's fashion fraternity.