To many Western film buffs, Bollywood may seem like an exotic niche drawing a small cult following like that of Hong Kong martial arts films before Ang Lee popularised the genre. But Hindi films are a serious global business. Omkara‘s distributor, Eros Entertainment, operates offices in India, the UK, the US, Australia, Dubai and Fiji. The company recently went public on the London stock exchange.
Starting with Omkara‘s soundtrack, Eros is also venturing into music distribution. Music is an integral part of Hindi films and soundtracks are often released weeks before the film to drum up media exposure and whip up anticipation. Some of them go on to thrive independently, leaving some weak films for dead at the box office while the songs can become the year’s biggest hits and compilation faves.
There’s no such risk with Omkara. The film’s director Vishal Bhardwaj started out as a music director and composed the impressive and instantly catchy soundtrack himself, based on traditional legends and lullabies. He set the story of Othello in the dusty hot badlands of his native Uttar Pradesh, while his cameraman, the US-trained first-timer Tassaduq Hussain, gave the film a washed-out Sergio Leone look that keeps viewers captivated by every shot. The largely lawless northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh is the home to the Taj Mahal, the holy cities Varanasi and Ayodhya, as well as the site of Buddha’s first sermon. It was there some of the country’s bloodiest riots broke out in 1992 after hardcore Hindus destroyed a disputed mosque.
Piety and violence go hand in hand in Omkara, which is not only the name of the Othello character but also the word that describes the famous religious Hindi symbol that tends to end up tattooed on many a Westerners’ white skins. The scene that ignites the all-consuming fire of jealousy takes place on top of a tower. A Hindu priest blesses the political figurehead Bhaisaab, who blesses the gangster Omkara in charge of weeding out political enemies. Omkara dips into the red powder. Langda, his loyal sidekick of fifteen years can barely contain his anticipation – only to be passed over for Kesu (played by the lightweight Vivek Oberoi). A crowd of thousands locals has gathered down below to await the blessing of the new lieutenant. It’s Langda’s job to announce Kesu’s appointment and he does so with no hesitation. Bhaisaab asks Omkara whether this was a wise move. ‘Kesu can get us the student voters. Langda’s like a brother. He understands."
This is where the fun starts for actor Saif Ali Khan, whose career until last year was built on the image of the suave urban lover boy. The son of former Bengali superstar actress Sharmila Tagore, he caught audiences’ attention with his classily restrained role in last year’s literary adaptation Parineeta. This was good news in an industry where the acting batons are handed down to sons and daughters, as if talent somehow is hereditary. Khan threatened to harbour more talent than the average Bollywood pretty boy who take great pains to be believable dancers but who take the acting for granted. Earlier this year, he confirmed that suspicion with the lead role in Being Cyrus, a thriller about a dysfunctional Parsi family sprinkled generously with black humour.
Saif Ali Khan’s Langda limps (Langda means ‘the lame one’), chews paan, spews out colourful curses in the local dialect and carefully plots his come-uppance while maintaining the image of a loyal foot soldier. That is, however, also the weak point of the film. None of the cast’s acting talent can help the schematic screenplay that lays out the machinations after the above-mentioned scene. Viewers can spot the thunderclouds early on, and have to wait through the film’s stagnant second half to watch it build up into a hurricane of apocalyptic proportions.
Omkara is played by Bollywood resident baddie Ajay Devgan, whose brooding low-key demeanour reveals a latent handsomeness, thankfully played up by the filmmaker. With his relatively dark skin, Devgan usually gets the psycho gangster roles, but to less skin colour obsessed viewers, he is allowed to thrive as a charismatic actor. Omkara’s confident, tough but fair image belies both the depth of his power and his insecurity. After all, why would a fair-skinned Brahmin like Dolly (Kareena Kapoor) consent to be kidnapped by a half-caste like him? Once this dramatic path is set in motion, there is relatively little the actors can do to reveal the various layers of their characters or what their daily life entails. Langda plays with the people around him like puppets on a string and – lo and behold – they all fall for it. There is very little suspense as to whether his plot will succeed.
Some of India’s famously hairsplitting film critics have lashed out at Bengali actress Konkona Sen Sharma, who supposedly wasn’t able to suppress her bong accent. But it’s Konkona, playing Langda’s wife and Omkara’s brother, who steals the show, as Saif Ali Khan admitted in one interview in which he praised her for walking into a crowded scene and commanding an instant presence with her jovial bossiness. One of the actress’s previous roles was that of a glamour hack turned investigative reporter in Page 3, an exposé of Bollywood’s dark underbelly posing as a mainstream film.
After a particularly vigourous lovemaking session – one of which that cost the film a family-friendly rating in India – Indu tells her husband he reminds her of an animal. The vain Langda starts to rattle off a parade of fierce predators, lewdly joking in the local drawl. Maybe he’ssss a ssssnake, he hopefully suggests, presenting the tip of his tongue. Indu laughs and pierces his vanity with a fatal blow: "No, you’re my bunny rabbit!" Even though the local angle and Shakespearean plot never really come together, Omkara is worthwhile for moments like that.
The filmmaker provides what feels like an authentic portrait of a region and people he knows well. The cinematography, music and some of the acting can keep a curious, open-minded viewer entertained. For those used to Bollywood fare this is an interesting departure from the norm, although it must be noted that the uninitiated should prepare mentally for Omkara‘s two-and-half hour duration.
Omkara is currently playing across the UK.