Friday, September 15, 2006

Omkara

I recently watched Omkara on DVD. This hyped film is the second in a series of adaptations of Shakespeare plays by director Vishal Bharadwaj, who continues to be a very competent music composer for Hindi films. Omkara is based on Othello, and is a fairly successful transplant to an Indian context. The plot stays true to the original story line. The casting is quite good and the characters are well-etched. Saif Ali Khan is absolutely brilliant as Langda Tyagi, the movie's version of Iago. There are only two other comparably outstanding portrayals of villainy in the last 30 odd years of Hindi films that I can recall: Amjad Khan's Gabbar from Sholay and Sadashiv Amrapurkar's Rama Shetty from Ardha Satya.

One of the highlights of the film is its dialogue. It is carefully crafted, idiomatic, harsh and funny. It freely uses the Western U.P. dialect, which is close to Haryanvi. It is not easy to follow unless you know Hindi quite well. Cuss words, which have been taboo for so long in Hindi films, abound in Omkara. Gaalis referring to maa, behen and beti are aplenty. (If you are unfamiliar with Hindi, a gaali is a swear word and maa, behen and beti mean mother, sister and daughter respectively).

Strangely though, the script writers for this film (and others as well) suddenly turn coy for certain words. The ass is referred to, somewhat weakly, as the pichchwada. At one point, Langda Tyagi, in conversation with his sidekick, bemoans his fate by saying : "Teri aur meri kismat gadhe ke ling se likhi gayi hai" (Our fate has been written with a donkey's dick). Hundreds of millions of men who live in India and speak Hindi will readily be able to supply the correct words. I am not sure why this misplaced concession to good taste was made.

An interesting sidelight that caught my eye is that the main characters are all Brahmans, as is obvious from their last names - Shukla, Tyagi, Tiwari, Upadhyaya etc. My knowledge of Western UP is limited to recognizing it as the preserve of Jats and so the Brahman gangsters struck me as being unusual. A quick Google search reveals that gangsterism in western Uttar Pradesh is an equal opportunity employment scheme. I was worried there for a moment that the Brahmans were grabbing yet another coveted profession.

Gangster or Mafia backdrops are becoming quite common in Hindi films now. The first few of these were interesting for being realistic. Nowadays, the main point of the Mafia setting is to allow the director to show some gratuitous violence and to create a sense of menace. I generally found the earlier Mafia films (for example, Company) interesting for their reputed realism. Despite the highly competent performances and all round good film-making, somehow the Mafia goons in Omkara didn't feel as menacing and murderous as the ones in reality are.

Watch the movie if you get a chance. Saif Ali Khan's performance makes it worthwhile.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Shunya said...

I finally saw Omkara. I share many of your observations on it. Part of its appeal is the strong storyline itself (thanks, in part, to Shakespeare), with its fairly universal themes of jealously, rage, intrigue, envy, guilt, etc. The concept of the adaptation was creative indeed. I also thought that Saif Ali Khan was very good, with competent performances by a few others. In the backdrop lay the nexus between crime and politics, realistic enough for UP. Doesn’t UP have over a quarter of its MLAs with serious criminal histories or allegations of crimes like murders and rapes?

While I would say that this is definitely an improvement for Bollywood, it still suffers from too many of the flaws that plague Bollywood, such as major gaps in storytelling and characterization. To take three examples:

a) The basis of the attraction between Omkara and his fiancée was not clear at all.
b) It was never made clear why Omkara’s “sister” stole the waistband jewelery and how it came into the hands of Langda Tyagi.
c) For a woman in a happy relationship with Langda Tyagi, she sure didn’t waste any time in trying to understand her husband’s viewpoint / motivation before chopping him down in cold blood. As the story gets revealed to her, how did she put two and two together so efficiently?

I thought that Kareena and Bipasha were miscast in their roles. They looked out of place in this UP village setting with their glamorous cover girl looks, gym toned bodies, and years of expensive cosmetic treatments. This was also true of Ajay Devgan’s buff physique, though his character was able to make up for it in other ways. And the usual, unreal song and dance! What female performer in UP can get by with a performance like that of Bipasha’s character, donning the robes (or the lack of them) that she did? This is the Bollywood kitsch gene, this desire to strip away realism for a bit of absurd fantasy and gaudy glitter. On a scale of 5, I would give it no more than 3 stars.

2/16/2007 1:08 AM  
Blogger VP said...

Some of the flaws you point out are carried over from the original Shakespearean plot line, including the melodramatic murders at the end.

Being critical of the song numbers is usually justified, but I would like to point out that songs are part of the story telling convention in India and not just in films. By the way, a kind of raucous "naach nautanki" is not unusual in UP. In fact, bigshot organizers build social capital out of it.

2/16/2007 8:33 PM  

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