As my eyes adjusted to the darkness last night in the packed theater, and that familiar, twinkly background of the Eros banner loomed onscreen, I realized how lovely that moment is, like at the start of an evening with someone you’ve been longing to see, and suddenly there he is, just walked in and sat down across the table from you. There’s a small jolt inside, as you revel in the thought that you’ve got at least a good three hours ahead of you.
Roll credits. [Now Vivek Oberoi has changed the spelling of his name to Viveik. How clunky does that look in print? Gawd, exactly how superstitious are actors anyway? And in numerology terms, do they change the Devanagri spelling of their names too, or does this only work in Roman letters?]
The movie opens with Saif Ali Khan (Langda), in an even badder bad-guy role than in Being Cyrus, informing Rajju (played by India’s answer to Steve Buscemi), a would-be bridegroom, that his fiancée Dolly (Kareena Kapoor) has been carried away by the local goonda, Omkara, or Omi, for short. The camera is so close up on Saif, that it distorts the proportion of his facial features, making his overly feminine eyes – with their feline shape and fluttery lashes – shrink, and the nose, normally long and sharp, appear swollen. Given that his hair is barely a centimeter’s height of fuzz, as he looms overs us in that first scene, he is ugly and menacing. Uuuf, and the language out of that mouth! No wonder his teeth are yellow. And wait ’til you see how sinister he is able to make the word “Achcha?” sound.
This is definitely not a movie to brings kids to, at least those that are big enough to exit the theater repeating their discovery of words like “ch*tiya” to all you encounter.
As the opening credit’s themselves herald, this is Vishal Bhardwaj’s Hindi version of Othello, set in his native Uttar Pradesh. If you know the story, here’s the breakdown of who’s playing which role:
- Omkara = Othello = Ajay Devgan
- Langda = Iago = Saif Ali Khan
- Kesu = Cassio = Viveik Oberoi
- Dolly = Desdemona = Kareena Kapoor
- Indu = Emilia = Konkona Sen Sharma
- Billo = Bianca = Bipasha Basu
- Bhaisaab = Duke of Venice = Naseeruddin Shah
The story, in short, centers around Omkara (repeatedly referred to as a half-caste) who has just helped Dolly elope from her previously scheduled wedding so she can (willingly) be with him. At the same time, as Bhaisaab moves up politically, he elevates Omi to a higher position, meaning Omi has to name a deputy. Saif, who has been loyal to Omkara for a long time, assumes he’s it, but is passed over for the boyish Kesu, who’s a valuable choice because he can guarantee a large number of college-age kids’ votes for Bhaisaab in the next election.
The coronation takes place high on a hilltop with crowds gathered below just as people were at Saint Peter’s in Rome last year, waiting to learn the verdict. Ajay, Naseeruddin, Viveik and Saif sit shirtless with a pandit, performing a ritual. [I would be remiss if I did not comment here that all four guys look quite good sans chemise, aside from the gross discovery that on an otherwise spartan back, Viveik has a inverted pyramid-shaped patch of hair just below his nape and almost equidistant between his shoulder blades. Ugh. Dude, the metrosexual may be dead, and the retrosexual may be in now, but a little manscaping is not a bad thing.]
Seething with anger – in a brilliant, short scene – Saif is at home, staring at himself in the mirror, which he slams with a fist and breaks, smearing his own blood in horizontal swath across his forehead, mimicking Omi’s actions earlier when he chose Kesu. He then sets in motion a string of events designed to make Omi believe he’s being cuckholded by hamari Bebo.
And a word or two about the girl formerly known as Poo. She’s not half bad here. As in Chup Chup Ke, part of the saving grace is that she doesn’t speak much, but rather she emotes through those limpid eyes and turns in a rather demure role. Though I find her (and her smug arrogance) terribly grating, even when she’s frozen in photos, I will admit that the unusual face is a beautiful amalgam of disparate elements.
Though Cyprus is now UP, the background story is still about men playing (often fatal) politics with each other. Naseeruddin Shah (with a totally shaved pate) is the mellow, fatherly Bhaisaab, angling for the past five years for a seat in the Lok Sabha. He is his usual good self in this film, though in this role he’s more part of the scenery than a primary focus.
Ajay Devgan plays a part, as in Company, that suits him far better than that of Michael Mukherjee in Yuva. He makes a fantastic entrance in the film, awoken from his sleep, he appears wrapped in a large black blanket with a red trim, that he will often carry with him, Linus-like, throughout the fillum.
And when he’s out in daytime, he sports the most wonderful pair of large black shades that would make Karunanidhi jealous. Like in Company, he does his minimalist thing well, tight and controlled. On a purely superficial level, aside from that cheesy Village People biker guy moustache, he looks trim and in great shape for a fella who’s, what, in his late 30s or 40? Then again, given his Dad’s career, maybe there was an emphasis on fitness in the Devgan home all along.
The love scenes are sensual and erotically charged. Just as Iranian directors slip and slide around censors, because we don’t get to see even one mouth-to-mouth kiss, never mind any actor’s naughty bits, the director has to figure out how make it hot onscreen nonetheless, and that constraint works in our favor. I mean, really, are we that curious to see Saif’s wee-wee? Well, ok, maybe some of us are, just once, but after that, the thrill would wear off, I’m sure. So Bhardwaj telegraphs it all by slow, flowing gestures and touches; Kareena’s belly being softly kissed, Konkona’s bare back dotted with post-coital persperation, and so on. As in Fanaa, there is also pre-marital hanky panky going on here, and no one bats an eye.
One lovely surprise in this movie is Konkona Sen Sharma. I wasn’t wowed by Page 3, never really understood all the raves. Though I thought she was o.k. in it, it wasn’t a performance to go wild over, but in Omkara, as Indu, sister to Omkara and wife to Langda, we first see her when Omi brings his fiancée back to live at the family compound. Her brother may be a tough-guy, but to Indu, he’s still her brother and so, fair game. She jokes with him as soon as she sees how beautiful (and “fair”) Dolly is, making comments that together the couple are like a lump of coal in a glass of milk, or the gold flute being played by the dark Lord, and so on. Her character is warm, earthy and practical, and Konkona inhabits her comfortably. In one scene, where she remarks over how well Dolly cooks, Dolly explains that her grandmother told her the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, and Konkona drolly retorts “My grandmother told me to set my sights a little lower.”
Viveik, as Omi’s young deputy, looks as puppy dog cute as always, with the soft shiny hair, molten eyes and worried eyebrows, and here he basically does a reprise of his role in Company, though playing a college-educated rogue this time. (Has anyone else noticed that he, like Akshay Khanna, does that teepee thing with his eyebrows?) On a separate note, I had to laugh in one scene where he told someone he was talking to on his mobile “SM kardo” (“Text me later.”)
And here’s a fun little game to play when you see this movie: try to keep count of how many different plaid shirts Kesu wears. (I didn’t start ’til part of the way through, but I’d guesstimate about 10. If it were not for the Steve McQueen aviator sunglasses and the bike, he’d run the risk of being quite dorky.) For a guy who is a thug, he portrays a certain degree of innocence and vulnerability at the same time. In the scene just before Bipasha’s fantastic Beedi number, he openly admits (soon to his regret) to Langda and other guys that he can’t hold his liquor. This is where Langda expels his first evil “Achcha?” and sets up a scenario that gets Kesu into a bloody fight and Omi’s bad books.
Bipasha Basu as Billo has a smaller role than the others, but she is delightful when she’s onscreen. Playing a singer, she does two dance numbers in all her almond-eyed Bong beauty. As Kesu’s love interest she is equally as flirty and in-demand as he, though she does give her heart to him eventually, only to be tricked – by Langda, of course - into believing that he’s cheating on her.
In the scene where she gets that information, she’s outside hanging laundry on a line, her wet hair wrapped in a towel, with no make-up on and she is so compelling to look at, but in a different way than when she’s performing, all flashing eyes and teeth. In some of her earlier roles, she seemed rather skeevy to me, and I mentally wrote her off, but now, I am curious to see what she’s capable of when not playing the vamp. I brought Apaharan back from Bombay a little while ago, and am looking forward to see what she does in it.
The sets and costumes are both beautifully executed. The small details like old political posters in various degrees of peeling off walls around town rang true, and Omi’s home compound looked and felt like an actual home, not a Bollywood set. Given the dry beige countryside and the I’m-a-lumberjack-and-I’m-o.k. outfits on Saif and others, the film does have the feel of an old Hollywood Western, which is also echoed in the design of the movie’s posters and even in the choice of font. In a recent Rediff interview, Bhardwaj himself admits that UP could be a “…crazy, Wild West kind of place.”
In the same interview, Bhardwaj reveals that he wanted the actors to get the UP dialect and accent so right that he recorded himself on CD doing all their lines and had it sent to each of them. To my amateur ear, I did hear shaadi become saadi, zabardast turn into jabardast, and zaroor pronounced jaroor.
One slight misstep that could have been written better is the scene just before the Interval where Langda first plants the seed in Omi’s mind that Dolly might be cheating on him with Kesu. I couldn’t help but think that Langda’s hints are too blatant for a man talking to his (sometime violent) boss about such a delicate subject, and also that Omi’s immediate suspicion doesn’t ring true. Later, as Omi’s tension and suspicion mounts, he confronts Langda with a homoerotic gesture, forcing his rather thick revolver into his brother-in-law’s mouth, threatening to shoot, which was interesting to me as I recalled that it has been suggested in the past that Iago’s obsession with Othello could have had gay overtones.
After the Interval, as Omkara’s suspicion mounts and Kesu’s been banished for the earlier fight (sent on the un-deputy-like mission of delivering Omi and Dolly’s wedding invitations) – side note: even in the remaking of Othello, a Hindi movie must have at least one wedding! – there is a scene that is wonderfully filmed. Kesu, fuming, riding through the narrow lanes of the town on his motorbike, with a big stack of invites mounted on his handlebars, is suddenly blocked by a guy in a car, who has stopped to talk on his mobile. As Kesu dismounts from the bike and goes to confront the driver, the shot shifts from ground level to a rooftop point-of-view, and we find ourselves looking down, through phone and electrical wires, at Kesu as he beats up the guy who’s in his way, and the filmmakers have seen to it to add the realistic touch of a blue and white paper kite, lost since who-knows-when, tangled up in those same wires through which we’re observing the action.
There is also a well scripted scene towards the end, where Omi is forced by Indu to tell her what’s been causing his change in attitude toward Dolly, and when she learns of his fears, she berates him in a monologue about how much women will sacrifice to be with the men they love (sing it, sister!), yet it is never enough and they are always subject to suspicion and criticism at the drop of a hat. As Indu, Konkona plays the loving sister-in-law that we’d all love to gain if and when the day comes for us to marry. She makes a refreshing change from most Hindi movies, where the s-i-l blindly worships the ground her bhaiyya walks on and is all too quick to find fault with the family’s new bahu.
As the tangled lives and story lines come together at the wedding and its inevitable, awful outcome, there were two more plot points that struck me as slightly off: first, why didn’t Billo come to the wedding preparations, given that she was now Kesu’s fiancée? This would have changed the course of the whole denouement completely. And how likely is it really that the dialogue scripted for Kesu would have unfurled the way it did, without him mentioning Billo’s name even once, and when Langda put him on speakerphone, wouldn’t Kesu have noticed and said something like “Hey man, why did you do that? Who’s there with you?”
But it is Othello, and what happens had to happen, and after an amazing confrontation scene with Konkona and Saif, we return to the bridal chamber and are left with a tragically beautiful image of red and white and that swing that was so central to Omi and Dolly’s physical love.
I can’t wait to see it a second time, and buy the DVD when it comes out.
See it or skip it?
See it! Omkara is a lively retelling of a centuries old story that also contains enough of the popular elements of Hindi cinema to keep it from being too dry or arty-farty.