Gautaman Bhaskaran
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INDIAN CINEMA

Other Movies

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Omkara - Othello comes to U.P. badlands: Review

Indian cinema has not often played stage to William Shakespeare. Kishore Sahu’s “Hamlet”, Gulzar’s “Angoor/The Comedy of Errors” and Bimal Roy-produced “Do Dooni Char/The Comedy of Errors” have just about been the forays into the Avon territory. Kerala’s Jayaraj adapted “Othello” in 1997 to Kaliyattam to tell us the story of the Moor of Venice.

Vishal Bharadwaj’s “Maqbool” (based on "Macbeth") in 2003 helped us not only notice a director with an eminently mediocre filmography, but also realise that Bollywood could borrow the Bard’s situations and sensibilities with courage and conviction, and translate them into gripping cinema. Bharadwaj transcended the line between stage and screen with élan, and conveyed a remarkable sense of Indianness. Though he used the original plot, he filled it with characters and conditions far removed from Shakespeare’s Elizabethan times.

Saif Ali Khan as Ishwar
Bharadwaj’s latest “Omkara” – “Othello” in other words – (released in July 2006) happens not in and around Venice but in the thug terrain of Western Uttar Pradesh. Obviously, the film becomes immediately attractive to a circle wider than one Shakespeare can hope for in India. Given the tendency of the modern generation movie buffs, who can be easily bored by the costumes, conventions and conversations of an England long gone by, Bharadwaj cleverly avoids these and devises a ploy that works: his Shakespeare abuses in an Uttar Pradeshi dialect, engages in duels not with swords but with revolvers and rifles, and gifts silver waistlets, not silk handkerchiefs.

Othello’s famous gift of an handkerchief to wife Desdemona changes into a stone-studded silver waistband that Omkara Shukla presents his lover/fiancée Dolly Mishra. Bharadwaj gives his characters names that either begin with the same letter as in the original version or, at least, sound similar. Ishwar ‘Langda’ Tyagi is Iago, and Keshav Upadhyay or Kesu is Cassio.

“Omkara” adapts much of what we have read in “Othello”, and one of Shakespeare’s four great tragedies (“King Lear”, “Hamlet” and “Macbeth” being the other three) comes alive in Bharadwaj’s screenplay and dialogues. An important reason for this is the movie’s ability to inject Indian nuances into a Shakespeare drama.

A complete transformation of characterisation takes place in “Omkara”. Othello, Iago, Cassio, Desdemona and the others are translocated in the betel-nut chewing, abusive milieu of Central India.

Othello/Omkara is a respected chieftain of a gang of outlaws. His two trusted men are Cassio/Keshav and Iago/Ishwar, and Desdemona/Dolly is the lover Omkara elopes with, and eventually marries.

But when Omkara anoints Keshav his “Baahubali” (chief aide, should we say), Ishwar is offended and plots to destroy his mentor, in the same way Iago feels slighted at Cassio being appointed to the key position of Lieutenant, a place that Iago feels is rightfully his. As Iago sets his wicked plan in motion, planting the seeds of doubt about Desdemona’s fidelity in Othello, Ishwar traps Omkara in a web of hatred and jealousy. He begins to suspect Dolly’s loyalty for him, and psyches himself into believing that she is sleeping with Keshav, once a mate in her college.

Bharadwaj has made a few changes in the primary story. A silver waistlet replaces the handkerchief in the Venetian tragedy. And unlike Shakespeare who lets his villains live, Bharadwaj chooses a different climax. Yet, the classic qualities of a great play remain, and Bharadwaj’s script includes most elements that have endeared Shakespeare for 400 years.

A couple of points, though, are not very clear in “Omkara”. We do not quite understand how the waistband gets into the hands of Ishwar, though at the end we get an answer to this. There is also some confusion about how Omkara actually gets around to pinning Dolly guilty of a crime she has never committed in the first place.

Bharadwaj’s “Omkara” also suffers because of his choice of some actors. Ajay Devgan as Omkara does little justice to the pivotal role he has. He continues to be too wooden, and fails to portray the dilemma of the Moor. Where is the anger at being cheated? Where is the envy, and where is the painful dilemma? Devgan is absolutely disappointing. And so is Viviek Oberoi as Keshav, whose exaggerated mannerisms reflect a cinema that has often been termed theatrical and over dramatic.

However, Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor salvage “Omkara’s” acting honours. Khan as Ishwar is almost brilliant. In a remarkable switch, Khan, the syrupy, romantic hero, so used to wooing women with chocolates and roses, plays the villain, one of the most negative figures that Shakespeare ever penned. His limp, sarcasm and volley of abuses underline not just the anguish of the unfair treatment meted out to him by Omkara, but also a mind that is capable of sheer treachery. Kapoor can actually act, and sans elaborate make-up, she is disarming as Dolly. She performs with the passion of a woman who completely trusts her man, and is devastated when she finds him unresponsive, even cold. Naseeruddin Shah is, as usual, a delight to watch as a political leader, and his wit interjects with the tragic to provide a cinema of substance.

This Bharadwaj work is not to be missed.

(This story/review was posted on this website on August 4 2006)