“Omkara,” “Othello,” and the Dirty Business of Politics (a film review)

We went over to the multiplex in Doylestown, PA yesterday to watch Vishal Bhardwaj’s Omkara on the big screen. It was nicely done — relatively crisp at two and a half hours (not bad for a faithful rendition of a Shakespeare tragedy), and unpretentiously shot in rural Uttar Pradesh. It was also well-acted by a group of talented actors — Ajay Devgan, Konkona Sen Sharma, Kareena Kapoor, Bipasha Basu, Viveik Oberoi (formerly known as “Vivek”), Saif Ali Khan, and Naseeruddin Shah. The standout performance is probably Saif Ali Khan’s Langda Tyagi (Iago), though I also thought Konkona Sen Sharma was quite good as Indu (Emilia). omkara_1.jpg

Omkara bears some similarities to R.G. Varma’s Sarkar in that it takes the gruff realism of modern Indian gangster pictures and applies it to politics rather than the criminal world — the point being, of course, that there isn’t that much difference between the two. While Varma’s Sarkar was an allegory for the Shiv Sena’s Bal Thackeray, the “Bhaisahib” in Omkara is a rural political chief, perhaps a Chief Minister like Bihar’s Lalu Prasad Yadav (formerly known as “Laloo”). In his home environment, he commands near absolute authority and devotion from his followers, though the legal system at the Center (commanded by “Auntyji,” possibly a figure for Sonia Gandhi) is constantly nibbling away at his fiefdom. In Omkara, Bhaisahib is in and out of court, and he relies on his faithful “General,” Omkara, to handle his equally corrupt political rivals — sometimes by exposing them (via MMS video sex scandals, no less), and sometimes by simply shooting them down.Omkara, like Othello, is not a comforting, uplifting story. Though this is easily one of the best Hindi films of the year in filmic terms, it’s unthinkable that it will be a popular favorite because it is thematically so dark. It may do well briefly in the urban centers, but I doubt it will succeed out in the smaller towns and countryside, even though the film is set there.

And the language of Omkara is something else — there are some extraordinary, even brilliant arrangements of Hindi expletives in the film (leave the kids at home!). Most of it comes out of the mouth of Saif Ali Khan’s “Langda Tyagi” (Iago), though some of the other characters are equally coarse. Of course, Shakepeare’s own Othello itself has some inspired moments of coarseness, mostly from Iago’s mouth. There’s the famous “beast with two backs” line, as well as passages like the following, where Iago is trying to alert Brabantio to the fact that his daughter has eloped with Othello:

‘Zounds, sir, you’re robb’d; for shame, put on your gown;
Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul;
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is topping your white ewe.
Arise, arise;
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell,
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you:

The way this is rendered in a rural, Uttar Pradesh dialect of Hindi in Omkara is pretty much unprintable in a family-friendly weblog.

Ajay Devgan is well cast as Omkara. He has the kind of glowering, brooding presence one expects of an Othello, though he isn’t visually marked as different. Instead of a racial other (the “Moor” of Venice), Bhardwaj marks Omkara as a “half-caste,” which is emphasized a great deal at the beginning of the film, only to drop out. Bhardwaj also makes “Iago” Omkara’s brother (I think) rather than his lieutenant, and gives Omkara a full, established household — whereas in Othello, the Moor stands absolutely alone.

In an Indian film that revolves centrally around the question of a woman’s fidelity, it’s hard to escape reference to Sita’s trials in the Ramayana. Thankfully, Bhardwaj is relatively restrained in his allusions to Agni-Pariksha. Still, it’s hard to escape the fact that Omkara, like Othello, is not a story where women get many good lines.

Political pseudo-pundit that I am, I would have liked more politics and more discussion of caste in Omkara, especially since we’re coming off an intense period of debate over caste-based reservations in the Indian education system. But Omkara is pretty well-balanced between these types of questions and the more intimate dynamics and word-play that also make Othello so riveting (“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;/ It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock/ The meat it feeds on”).

See also: the Yahoo! India review of Omkara.

And: reviews at Desipundit; Neha’s review

34 thoughts on ““Omkara,” “Othello,” and the Dirty Business of Politics (a film review)

  1. If Omkara is anywhere as gripping as Maqbool, it should be worth a watch. If you’re interested, malalayam film director Jayaraj adaptated Othello beautifully (albeit very dramatically) about 10 years ago with ‘Kaliyattam’. Othello in the movie was a theyyam dancer in a typical malayali hamlet.

  2. Excellent recap. I’ll repeat what I said on the other thread…

    “First class film making: excellent acting performances (yes, even from the much maligned Kareena), killer script (much thanks to William S.), and good music (and well integrated into the story, with “O Saathi Re” in particular a standout).”

    Seems our minds were visiting the same circuits, Deep. I, too, thought of Yadav, and of the Bihari political badlands. And the absence of “good guys” also made me think of Sarkar.

    By the way, the film is set in UP but shot largely in Maharashtra.

  3. Thanks so much for the great review. Must. See. Omkara.

    And I’ve never been able to get over those lines from Othello. I read it when I was a wee girl that hardly understood what that kind of stuff implied, and somehow I understood exactly what those lines meant.

    Question though- Iago and Othello are very different, but if Langda Tyagi is Omkara’s brother, then what is his case against him?

  4. I don’t think langda is Omkaras’s brother…Omkara implies that he is as good as a brother and would thus understand his choice.

  5. “(leave the kids at home!)”

    Would you say its PG-13 or R rated? I was thinking of taking my 13 year old neice to see it. She’s a big fan of Sharma.

  6. I don’t think Langda is Omkara’s real brother. When Indu confronts Omkara before his wedding, she says ‘behen maante ho na mujhe’, while asking him to tell her whats troubling him. So their relationship is more likely mooh boli than a khoon ka rishta.

  7. I know what I am about to say has nothing to do with the discussion going on….but it has to be said….SAIF ALI KHAN IS SO HOT!!!!

  8. Just to add in to the crowd, thank you for a thoughtful review. My Indian movie experience has been rather bummed out recently, with absolute duds in Corporate and some other movie I slept through. So I suppose Omkara could be a welcome break from cinematic monotony.

  9. Saif was his brother-in-law. Unless you meant the samething by brother. Either way, he gave one of the best performances ever. Especially when he pretended to hesistate about answering “yes or no”.

  10. The Mallu version of Othello was much much much better than this Bollywood tripe. Saif Ali Khan and Ajay Devgun are effeminate dandies who wax their chests and spend time shopping for designer underwear whilst wearing fruity cologne; Mammotty and Mohanlal have manly moustaches, strong hairy legs, and have won national awards. When will you guys ever learn to appreciate real cinema?

  11. Agree with the review – Omkara is easily the best Hindi film this year. I have two complaints, though:

    1. Vivek Oberoi is a casting mistake. His body language and diction are distinctly urban (and I don’t mean Lucknow urban – I mean live-in-Bombay-party-in-London urban), and the feeble attempt to pass him off as “firangee” doesn’t work at all.

    2. While the script of course is dramatic (courtesy William S.), the cinematography need not have been. Especially in the last 20 minutes of the movie, the “visual drama” goes overboard. The last shot, with the bride in red swinging across the groom in white, was visually jarring – especially when the rest of the movie was so..um..sepia-toned.

    But these were minor irritants. My favourite scenes from the movie:

    1. The fight that is filmed to the title song was brilliant. It takes courage to set such a dramatic, gruesome scene to music, and I have never seen a Bollywood director carry it off so well (with the possible exception of Manirathnam’s Bombay). That scene immediately ups the tempo of the movie.

    2. The scene where Saif and the other guy (Raju?) sit at the dam. Saif managed to somehow convey an entire range of emotions – jealousy, loyalty, ego and vulnerability – in that brief exchange. And the setting was magnificient.

  12. Omkara is a must watch film. No doubt about that. No doubt either that the director has extracted a stellar performance from Chotte Nawab Saif Ali. From the suave, Brylcreemed styled, guitar playing rich son to a rustic, violent, North Indian hinterland thug with yellow teeth, Saif is impressive. Omkara is also an insightful window to how hinterland India has changed, the best proof is the easy familiarity and copious use of mobile phones in the film. Mobile phones have now become the norm in India, everywhere yet there are still places where they are looked on as an object of luxury, of modernism and (this is true) …Last January I was in the hinterland and people referred to the ‘signal low’ icon as ‘tower nahin aa raha hain’…when the signal came up, they said ‘tower aa gaya hain’. In Omkara, the director has made use of the ‘hidden camera’ angle in cellphones, and there is a comic moment when Saif says CONFIDENTLY…’Mujhe SM kar dena’…(not SMS) …Sepia Mutiny, :-)

  13. I thought it was – overall – pretty great too.

    If Bollywood’s going to steal be inspired by other people’s stories, this is how they should do it.

  14. Nice review. I was really dissapointed with the overall movie but Saif is worth the price, his whole getup and body language were flawless. Vishal wants patience from the viewer with this slowwww film. The pale Kareena and dark Ajay were nicely portrayed. I guess I shouldnt have went with high expectations, after watching Vishal’s Blue Umbrella (Chhatri Chor with Pankaj Kapur) I expected the sky from him.

  15. Maurice, yes. As John Donne wrote:

    If her eyes have not blinded thine,
    Looke, and tomorrow late, tell mee,
    Whether both the Indias of spice and Myne
    Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with mee.
  16. You haven’t read Shakespeare until you’ve read it in the native Hindi…

    You mean Sheikh Zubair? Come one, everyone knows he was Arab.

  17. No spoilers please, dammit !

    I hope you were kidding! I tried to be ambiguous so it won’t spoil the fun for people who don’t know the story already. My apologies if I gave away too much.

  18. great acting from all the folks (minus vivek n bipasha), good direction, slick editing .. the “item” songs were jarry .. the accent put on by saif was terrific .. quite realistic .. when it comes to expletives, nothing too major i shud say .. why is it a biggie when you hear it in a movie, and its ok if you use it/hear it/use expletives in other languages … its how people talk in reality .. atleast in this domain of criminals .. overall, a good movie to watch .. a bit slow but good stuff … if you want good cinema, one should be prepared to sit on a bit longer .. afterall, you don’t go expecting it as a popcorn movie!

  19. btw at any point of the movie, it isn’t really said that saif is ajay’s relative .. just that saif’s wife, konkona treats ajay devgan as a munh-bola bhai .. to my understanding, a custom quite popular in up and bihar !

  20. Omkara is impressive, but the sad part is that it is never going to be appreciated. Two weeks ago, I watched Krissh in the same hall and found it packed. People seemed to be laughing and not just during the comedy track. But now I hear Krissh is taking a bundle at the box office. In contrast, Omkara’s screening was half full only. But personally, Omkara was much more satisfying!

  21. It doesn’t make sense to me that why do producers and directors keep on casting vivek in historical saga’s. I mean look at Kisna and now Omkara, He doesn’t have that face to do such flicks at all.

  22. Kisna was such a disappointment, though I kinda liked the music and Sushmita’s mujra. But the movie as a whole was just so bloated and too long.

  23. Desi Friends,

    Kisna was a historical but not Omkara. It is based in today’s time and in UP.

    Viveik did a brilliant job in Company so he actually suited the character in Omkara. Too bad he couldnt deliver in this role

  24. Incidentally, it was filmed in Wai, Maharashtra and not UP, where it is set. A whole lot of films seem to be shot there, recently.

  25. a Brilliant film indeed. VB has delivered a well made film. Dialouges are crude and suits the film quite well. Bipasha dancing Beedi is just mesmerising. one of the best songs of 2006. saif like u never seen him before. best peformance in negative role of 2006!

    and yes Kisna was crap. a disaster by SG

    anantha -

    you are so rite about this. but plz understand the taste of NRI’s they luv karan johar films like kank and reject masterpieces like omkara. NRI’s in majority love glossy cinema and reality cinema they run away from i guess they dont want to cry in front of their girlfriends lolz

  26. I think Maqbool was a better film than omkara. The characters were better developed. However, it is absolutely fabulous that Bharadwaj has successfully adapted the universalism of shakespeare and made it work in the context of the Bombay undergound and in and through Haryanvi grassroot politics. He is by far India’s most cerebral filmaker and quite the musician to boot…maachis had phenomenal music. Enough on my ode to the Vman. Has anyone seen anurag kashyap’s black friday?

  27. Yes Black Friday is simply MINDBLOWING. you see a film like this once a decade if you are lucky. if u think vishal directed omkara brilliantly well plz watch black friday which is NOT a documentary. A well made film and as Taran Adarsh says “hindi cinema at its best!”

  28. Omkara rocked. Watched it for the first time yesterday. Much respect to Vishal Bharadwaj. I only knew him as the talented music director of Maachis. According to Wiki, he even worked on a Coppola production.

    Anybody got a Maqbool connect in Houston? Hillcroft drew a blank. Netflix shows, I kid you not, Ally Mcbeal.

  29. The dialouge of Nashruddin Shah in this movie “TRAIN PALTA LO” in the train is very very FUNNY i laughed loudly when I hear this dialouge.