Omkara - Obit to Othello

Last Updated: Wed, Sep 13, 2006 06:26 hrs

Despite the hype, Omkara is just a run-of-the-mill film about cowbelt goons and shady politicos. Vishal Bhardwaj's Omkara is an apt example for our times of ambition outstripping achievement by far. It is a film supposedly based on William Shakespeare's Elizabethan play Othello and is allegedly set in the bad lands of western Uttar Pradesh where benighted lumpens do violence to others and themselves because they know no other way of life. They are puppets in the hands of Bhai Sahab, the local crime boss and politician and a Brahmin to boot. Omkara, a half-Brahmin - his absent mother is said to have been an 'outsider' - is Bhai Sahab's hatchet man.

Despite Bhardwaj's claims and those made by ubiquitous promos on television, the film's links with Othello are at best tenuous. Omkara is quite simply a film about ruffians in rural India in general and what is known as northern cowbelt India in particular, where the rule of law does not exist and ordinary people live in terror of the old scoundrel and his goons.

If all this sounds familiar, it is, to be sure. Such stories have been filmed many times by Hindi filmmakers in recent years and better, that is, with more vigour and awareness of basic film craft. There is really no difference between those cynical craftsmen and Bhardwaj except that they do not spout Shakespeare for the sake of an extra buck. As far as true political awareness is concerned, both are either ignorant or busy upholding moribund social values.

If Omkara has any redeeming features, they are not apparent to the ordinary cinema-goers. Dolly, the local shyster lawyer's daughter, is supposed to be fair Desdemona to his Moor of Venice. Omkara kidnaps her with the tacit approval of his boss Bhai Sahab with marriage in mind and then the tale of jealousy runs its course and ends in disaster for the lead pair with Langda Tyagi (Iago) plotting his immediate superior Omkara's downfall. His motives are poorly delineated because of inept scriptwriting.

The mounting of the story is clumsy from beginning to end. To begin with let us look at the art direction. The choice of a scenic Maharashtrian locale is unfortunate, though the director claims that it was imposed on him for strictly professional reasons. He said it would have been impossible for him to shoot in Western UP, to manage large unruly crowds who no doubt would have slowed down the filming.

As a solution he and art director Samir Chanda decided on a picturesque location in western India. They seemed to have forgotten a cardinal principle of cinema that the location must match the requirements of the story. A film about murder and mayhem in rural and small town northern India must perforce have a grim setting unless the director has a keen sense of irony.

Messrs Chanda and Bhardwaj make some amends by shooting some bits in Allahabad including its old quarters to create some satisfying moments. There are other sets on location a la Sholay but which are hastily got up and could well belong in any commercial Hindi film with a similar theme. The camera work most of the time is below par, that is by the current standards of Bollywood films that do not aspire to sophistication despite the changing trends in American and Japanese mainstream films, more easily seen in India, thanks to the DVDs available in the grey market.

Cameramen, they are called cinematographers now, in Mumbai, Chennai and Hyderabad, care only to copy the lighting of foreign advertising films and fashion stills. Once out of doors they are at a complete loss. They invariably try to reproduce the look of a glamorous tourism calendar. When they try their hand at gritty realism, they usually fail.

Omkara's photography is a case in point. The usual Mumbai director-cinematographer duo goes out of the studio to picturise songs, usually in exotic locations abroad. Should there be a need to show a foreign city then the first aim is to glamorise it as much as possible. There is no reason to believe Tassaduq Hussain the cinematographer of Omkara is any different from his colleagues. His treatment of landscape is indifferent; interiors at day or night do not leave an impression. And his low-key lighting in the night sequences isn't anything to write home about.

As far as the lensing is concerned - it is determined by the cameraman is consultation with the director to serve the requirement of a particular shot or scene - there is a strange lack of confidence. Nothing was tentative in the filming of Bhardwaj's previous film Maqbool, purportedly an adaptation of Macbeth, set in the contemporary gangland of Mumbai. Of course it was visually less 'ambitious' though far more effective than Omkara.

The mise-en-scene in Omkara is cluttered, either the camera is too near or too far. The director's motto seems to be when in doubt use a close-up like in almost any commercial film. Tickets are bought to see the faces of the stars not the landscape or buildings as such. A long shot better justify its existence as over pretty scenery in a song-and-dance sequence or indoors to reveal a huge garish set showing a Don's house or, in a Karan Johar romance, the boy/girl's mansion to determine family wealth.

Bhardwaj's mounting of action scenes is amateurish. An attempt on Bhai Sahab 's life is filmed without a single re-action shot in the mid-close or medium-shot range. The assassins' get-away is also ineptly done. The murder of a political rival and instigator of the attempt on Bhai Sahab's life at the tail end of an overcrowded song-and-dance sequence in the last quarter of the film by Langda Tyagi and gang disguised as policemen would be laughed at by the likes of Guddu Dhanoa.

Although veteran fight composer Veeru Devgan is thanked in the credits there is nothing of his fluency in the three main fight scenes. To cut a long story short there is a lack of flow all along. Slowing down the pace of a thriller does not necessarily render it more philosophical.

The script construction is at times down right foolish. The jewelled Kamarbandh, apparently a family heirloom of Omkara's, does duty for Desdemona's handkerchief, a key element in the development of the plot, and is stolen by Langda Tyagi's wife against the grain of her character and without a clear motive. It is in turn passed on by her husband to Keshu (Cassio in Othello), till things come a full circle. Not once is the stealing of the Kamarbandh shown on screen and only after Dolly is murdered by Omkara does Langda's wife confess that she had stolen it. As an inviolable rule, action counts for more than words in films!

A murder of a rival on a train is filmed in a most cluttered manner. Maqbool was smaller in scope and ambition and therefore was far more successful than Omkara. The idea of Othello as a small-town hood just does not gel, although Saif Ali Khan as Langda Tyagi, despite a couple of fumbles with his limp, does leave an impression on the minds of the viewers. Filthy dialogue neither gives Omkara authenticity nor energy, instead it mires it in slush.

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