Friday, July 28, 2006


First a disclaimer: This reviewer does not like films glorifying gangsters and crime, abhors excessive and gratuitous violence, and does not think it’s ‘cool’ to use swearwords that deride women.

Vishal Bhardwaj’s Omkara has all of the above, which is a pity, the talented director should have outgrown this macho blather after Maqbool/Macbeth set in the Mumbai underworld.

His Omkara/Othello is set amidst the Uttar Pradesh mafia, where men with guns control politics, business and everything else. Omkara (Ajay Devgan—bankably intense) is one such half-caste scum, who is meant to be a larger than life as the soundtrack breaks into religious-sounding chants when he guns down foes—one lot for sniggering at his obsession for fair, Brahmin girl Dolly Mishra (Kareena Kapoor— sweet and likeable).

Langda Tyagi (Saif Ali Khan—great physical transformation), Omkara’s hard drinking, wisecracking cohort, is upset when instead of him, Keshu Firangi (Viveik Oberoi) is appointed as a deputy. He, like Iago in Othello, starts playing on Omkara’s insecurity and Keshu’s vulnerability to insinuate that Dolly is having an affair with Keshu.

Instead of a handkerchief, there’s a family heirloom gifted by Omkara to Dolly, (a rather tinny looking waistband) which goes missing and helps Langda to ‘prove’ his allegations. Langda’s wife Indu (Konkana Sen Sharma, superb in a small part) and Keshu’s nautanki dancer girlfriend Billo (Bipasha Basu) become unsuspecting allies in Langda’s scheming, and he also enlists the help of Dolly’s rejected fiancé Rajan (Deepak Dobriyal—good debut).

The stage is set for great tragedy, only it leaves the viewer almost unmoved, since Bhardwaj doesn’t make Omkara a noble character deserving of sympathy. His adaptation of Othello has some fascinating elements—like caste playing a subtle but important part in UP society, or the state of lawlessness accepted by people and overlooked by lawmakers; the arid landscape and small town architecture meticulously detailed (though a chunk of the film was shot in Maharashtra), the language is authentic, but littered with avoidable profanity.

Perhaps, Bhardwaj wanted to replicate the starkness of Bandit Queen, and the realistic cinema of Prakash Jha—but despite the hard work gone into the adaptation, the near perfect casting and technical finesse, Omkara cannot escape the laddishness of Ramgopal Varma’s films with a tendency to hero worship criminals. And in such a background, can the ‘item’ number be avoided?

The positive side is that even those who don’t know what Othello is all about will be able to appreciate the story of Omkara, and those who know their Shakespeare will obviously follow it better. Omkara is slow-paced but watchable, if you have the stomach for random violence and ear-burning dialogue the censors would have bleeped out in any other film. Those who care for good cinema should check out Jayaraj's exquisite Othello adaptation in Malayalam, titled Kaliyattam.


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