Reviewed By Abhishek Bandekar
Posted 07/28/06 22:52:44

"More like Chinese Checkers!"
3 stars (Average)

"So will I turn her virtue into pitch And out of her own goodness make the net That shall enmesh them all". This immortal quote by Iago, the catalyst of ‘chaos come again’ in William Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello, sadly and ironically describes the exact problem with this second Shakespeare adaptation by Vishal Bhardwaj following Maqbool- his astutely adapted version of Macbeth. While Omkara is much truer to its original source of inspiration than Maqbool was, it messes up so badly in its conclusion that it gives a revolting jolt that threatens to take away all the goodwill that the director manages to earn until then. Only a momentary lapse of reason or focus can explain the sudden and unnecessary need to veer away, by such a long distance, from the actual and more poetic finish of the Bard’s Othello.

There’s so much to like in this film that it pains to list its minuses. Bhardwaj has an intuitive sense of adapting the Bard’s period-plays to contemporary spheres. In Maqbool, he chose the Mumbai underworld as his domain to dissect power, lust and betrayal. Here, he very cleverly uses the north Indian belt and its peculiar marriage of crime and politics to study the evils of jealousy and vengeance. The proceedings kick off on a wonderful note as we are introduced to Tyagi/Iago(Saif Ali Khan) informing Raju/Roderigo(Deepak Dobriyal) that his bride-to-be Dolly/Desdemona(Kareena Kapoor) has absconded with Omkara/Othello(Ajay Devgan). The framing of a limping Saif Ali Khan, hence the moniker Langda(one-legged), against a rustic landscape, his boots adorning the foreground to a muddy canvas and the silhouetted figure of him holding a rifle in his hand is at once reminiscent of old Westerns. Omkara is the prime henchman of local political bigwig Bhaisaab/Duke of Venice(Naseeruddin Shah). Bhaisaab summons Omkara when he learns of Dolly’s running away from her father/Brabantio. Omkara stresses that Dolly came to him of her own will, much to the disagreement of her father. Dolly is called for and she refutes her father’s claim of her kidnapping by Omkara and cites it as her own choice. Her father leaves dejectedly but not before warning Omkara of the capricious nature of womankind in general and his daughter in particular, “Jo ladki apne baap ko thag sakti hai, who kisi aur ki sagi kya hogi”(‘She has deciev’d her father, and may thee’).

In the meanwhile, Omkara is faced with the task of choosing his deputy. Langda feels that after fifteen years of service, he will be the chosen one- Bahubali, the right-hand man. Raju, the dunce that he is, fuels Langda’s fantasy by proclaiming him Bahubali Langda Tyagi. But the premature nature of this declaration is very subtly hinted by the under-constructed building terrace where Raju makes this claim. In fact, every time Saif’s Langda appears on screen, he is preceded by shots of various imposing structures- landscapes, chimneys, terraces, etc. Langda’s dreams are dashed when Omkara chooses the educated Keshu/Cassio(Viveik Oberoi) as Bahubali. Saif’s expression of shock, resignation, acceptance, anger and finally resolve is itself worth the price of the ticket. As Saif stands over a hilltop and announces the name of the newly appointed Keshu to a mass crowd beneath him, we can sense that he is mouthing Keshu’s name but hearing his own resonate.

As Langda opens his arms to take in the crowd, it seems that he is taking in the destinies of all the characters. Enraged by what he believes is an unjust decision thrust upon him, he plots the downfall of Keshu and while at it, those of all related. He first gets Keshu suspended from his duties and into the bad books of Omkara, follows it by persuading Keshu to befriend Dolly and lastly plants the seeds of doubt in Omkara’s mind over Dolly and Keshu’s relationship. The manner in which he achieves these is exactly as it is in the actual play and for those who haven’t read it, one that should be seen. The final move in his game-plan is unwittingly provided to him by his wife Indu/Emilia(Konkona Sen-Sharma). In the original play Emilia hands over to Iago an intricately designed handkerchief that Othello had gifted to Desdemona; Bhardwaj gives a master-stroke by making the handkerchief a chastity belt type ornament that is worn on the waist(kamarband). After all, sexual politics was one of the core issues of Othello. This deliberate choice adds an even better effect when Langda uses the kamarband to convince Omkara of Dolly’s infidelity. What follows is tragic, and not the way that the Bard wrote it!

Othello is a tragedy alright, but more importantly it is a morality play. Just as Macbeth. Vishal Bhardwaj understood this when he adapted Macbeth to make his Maqbool. Although Bhardwaj took some liberties in changing a few pivotal aspects of that play, he finally managed to drive home the sentiment that the original evoked. In Maqbool’s ultimate realization at the ultimate price, we felt his pain. In Omkara however, Bhardwaj and his team of writers(Robin Bhatt and Abhishek Chaubhey) remain true to the play for most of its running time but shockingly change the climax; thereby removing any existential, philosophical or moral arguments that it could’ve provided. Also, Shakespeare’s Desdemona was one of his stronger, more assertive heroines. She bluntly chooses her lover in front of her father. Dolly does not possess the same strong-will. She sounds apologetic for her decisions, and part of the problem is Kareena Kapoor. Kareena Kapoor, curiously sounding like her elder sister Karisma, plays the multi-dimensional Desdemona as a one-note Dolly. The script falters furthermore when it empowers Emilia at the nth hour, an otherwise simpleton wife in the play, negating her actions with the kamarband. One is forced to wonder if this decision was made as a conscious one or one provoked by the casting of Konkona Sen-Sharma, an actress known for her fiery on-screen personas. Oddly both Kareena and Konkona are very lackluster, this being the first role in a short but illustrious filmography where Konkona seems to be going through the motions.

Another problem is the all-important conclusion to Langda’s role. The original play had an abrupt but succinct closing line for Iago, followed by a monologue by Othello. Langda has his last line alright, but his character is meted out an unjust(ironic?) exit that becomes all the more glaring when taken into fact that Omkara does not have a soliloquy with quite the same impact. The pace of the film also expects a lot of patience from its multiplex crowd though the simple cuts(Meghana Manchanda) and languorous narrative is quite a refreshing approach in the times of unnecessary jump-cuts and showy editing. And when will Bhardwaj learn where to put the intermission?

Ajay Devgan has a good knack of selecting the right roles. There is an argument in film-circles whether he gets good films because he is a good actor or vice-versa. Omkara doesn’t demand a lot of him but he delivers what he is asked of. Viveik Oberoi doesn’t! Viveik is disastrously out of form and his insignificant presence makes his weak character even weaker. Saif’s presence on the other hand is such that even when he is not on screen, you can sense him forcing himself in from the edges and corners of the frame. Saif’s Langda is the most complete character realized by the script writers. It is interesting to note the mythical touches that his character has. He shoots with pin-point precision like Arjun, his sleep is like Kumbhakaran- one that can’t be broken, and his dance, though very raw, is full of anger like the tandav of Shankar. These choices, whether conscious or not, make it all the more heartbreaking to see his hasty way out. Saif Ali Khan is hands-down the best actor on display. Apart from being the only one to have grasped the north Indian accent perfectly, he plays his part with unctuous crudity and at the same time mixes it with the calm composure of Tom Ripley. It makes sense, for isn’t Tom Ripley an extension of Iago- one who wants to be that which he isn’t. Those who’ve studied Othello will know that Iago is not a villain, he is evil but he merely manipulates others into doing what he wants them to do. Saif succeeds in portraying evil and does not let Langda become a villain. Bipasha Basu as Billo/Bianca only has to look good and she does not have to do anything to do that!

The Bard would never have thought that his tragedies would have musical numbers in them. But Bhardwaj includes them, much more than he did in Maqbool. The ‘Naina Thag Lenge’(Eyes Shall Deceive) is a lyrical(Gulzar) gem while the title track is played out to an apt scene that ends with the title and is later followed by the directing credit, a gimmick evocative of the 70s. Bhardwaj earns that gimmick though for not only directing the movie and composing its music but also for his writing. The dialogues are seeped in the north Indian lingo, which might take a few viewings to comprehend completely. The most satisfying aspect of the film is its cinematography. Tassaduq Hussain uses minimum light, always introduces his characters in silhouettes and captures Langda facing away from us, as if to make us privy to the evil that enters his mind from behind. The village that Sameer Chanda has set up in Wai is a sight to behold for its sheer scale.

By the time Omkara ends, it sadly ends up being something other than what it promises at the start. Still if you’re willing to forgive the final reel and bear the pace, this one has some bright parts to cherish. It doesn’t let down altogether but disappoints and most of all as it lacks the punch of Maqbool!

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