Let me start with a confession. I have not read Shakespeare’s Othello, so maybe I am starting with a handicap while reviewing Omkara. But then, good cinema is good cinema irrespective of the literary source. The closest that I have come to know regarding “Othello” has been through the enigmatic Malayalam film maker Jayaraj’s (1997) highly acclaimed Kaliyattam (Play of God). Jayaraj used the backdrop of Theyyam, a traditional North Kerala art form, to narrate the story while Vishal Bharadwaj juxtaposes these characters into the rugged plains of UP, in the midst of lawlessness.
The plot revolves around peer jealousy and suspected marital infidelity. Omkara is an outlaw chieftain who is nominated by his mentor Bhai Saheb (Naseeruddin Shah in a brief role) to stand for elections and so, he nominates Keshu to succeed him as ‘Bahubali” (chieftain). This angers Langda Tyagi who has been vying for that position and he plots to sow the seeds of Dolly’s(Omkara's wife) infidelity in Omkara’s mind. Through a series of manoueveres, Omkara is convinced of his wife’s treachery and it culminates in him killing her. However, he comes to know of his wife’s innocence through Langda’s wife and commits suicide. Langda’s wife also kills her husband and ends her life.
Vishal faithfully sticks to the play for most of the movie which makes comparisons easier. He also has his characters with names similar to the play. So, Othello becomes Omkara Shukla (Ajay Devgan), Desdemona becomes Dolly Mishra (Kareena Kapoor), Iago becomes Ishwar ‘Langda’ Tyagi (Saif Ali Khan) and Cassio becomes Keshu Firangi (Vivek Oberoi).The most striking aspect of “Omkara” is the language spoken. It is rustic, crude and laced with expletives but is realistic and is an unexplored terrain in Hindi cinema. The dialogues have an uncontrived sense of below the belt humour (eg. Konkana Sen’s comment “Meri Daadi to kehti thi ki Aadmi ke dil ka raste uske pet ke neeche se hai). But this also comes with its set of issues. The usage of a heavy UP dialect alienates many viewers not familiar with the nuances of the language. The liberal usage of expletives also ensures that it dissuades family audiences from watching the movie. Personally, I think the language could have been toned done a bit. The cinematographer Tassaduq Hussain’s lens roams the wide expanses slowly and beautifully. He captures the movements, the shadows and uses lighting haltingly to bring to life the high Shakespearen drama.
Ajay Devgan plays his usual, brooding self something that he’s been doing for quite a long time now.Vishal could have tried a different actor so that a different interpretation of Othello could be looked at. Ajay carries the “Been there, Done it” look without bringing any novelty to the character. Kareena is adequate but has nothing much to do except looking beautiful. She radiates a certain innocence and charm (Her singing of the Stevie Wonder hit “I just called to say I loved you” when Ajay comes home is cute) but she’s no Manju Warrier who tugs at our heart in the Malayalam version. Vivek Oberoi is ok but looks a bit lost in the midst of all the action taking place. Saif is truly “Langda Tyagi” and it is his most mature performance till date. He sports a mean look, carries a limp and pours invectives at will. It’s a remarkably controlled performance and he never goes overboard which is the biggest danger in such movies. It is even more credible considering his background and the kind of movies he has done so far. It is high time directors stop casting him only in the “Lover Boy” kind of roles. Konkana Sen as Saif’s wife pulls of an excellent cameo; she appears for only a few scenes but makes a definite impact.
The script has its share of anomalies. The Bard’s Othello was a Moor who suffers from insecurity due to his race and wife’s beauty which makes him easily susceptible to Iago’s comments. But what about Omkara! A hint is dropped occasionally of him being a ‘Half Brahmin” and not a proper match for the beautiful Dolly (Konkana remarks “Jaise Kaale Lote Mein Doodh”) but these are not explored further and so his insecurities do not come to the surface. Unlike Jayaraj’s protagonist Kannan Perumalayan, he’s not ugly but on the contrary comes across as a macho figure. Maybe Vishal could have exploited the Vivek-Kareena angle a bit more giving it a flirtatious connotation but he does not do so thus not providing compelling reasons for him to be swayed by Langda’s remarks. There is an element of sympathy towards Othello which is clearly absent in our feelings towards Omkara.
Iago, considered to be one of Shakespeare’s finest characters, maintains that numero uno position even here. But while we strongly despise Iago and Jayaraj’s Paniyan, we tend to partially empathise with Langda. He comes across as a better leader when compared to Keshu, thus softening our stance towards him. His handicap and lack of recognition despite many years of loyalty also serve in undermining his negative profile. Unlike Iago, he’s also not a professional schemer as there’s a strong element of luck in all his moves whether it pertains to Bipasha’s entry at the end, his conversation with Vivek on his mobile or spotting Vivek’s bike when he and Omkara return early from an election campaign. Maybe Vishal did not want to paint him totally in black.
The ending is a slightly prolonged sequence and does not culminate in the kind of flourish witnessed earlier. I am also not convinced as to why Konkana kills her husband Saif in the end. Vishal could have stick to the original text here where Othello kills Desdemona and commits suicide after Iago’s wife reveals the truth. There are also a couple of item numbers which do not serve much of a purpose and could have been done away with. Music was one of the strong points of "Kaliyattam" but not so in the case of "Omkara".
As per media reports, the movie is not doing too well and the producers would incur losses. It presents a strong case for bringing in sub-titles, especially for the audience in the south.Vishal should also take a leaf out of Jayaraj’s book; he succeeded in making “Kaliyattam” at a shoe string budget and also made money. That’s the price you pay when you make a movie with a lot of stars. Nevertheless, he succeeds in bringing to life Shakespeare in rustic India. I have always been a great fan of Gulzar and it’s nice to see his protege making such giant strides in the world of cinema.
Highly recommended but not for family audience.