3.5 Stars (out of 4)
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There’s something compelling about director Vishal Bhardwaj’s movies: the dark atmosphere, the impending sense of doom, the heroes who are just barely heroic. I just wish I understood Hindi well enough to fully appreciate them.
More accurately, I’d need to understand Hindi and a handful of colloquialisms from Uttar Pradesh, where Bhardwaj grew up. A knowledge of U.P. politics and the associated gangster culture would also be useful. My cultural and linguistic deficiencies hampered my enjoyment of the first Bhardwaj film I watched, 2009’s Kaminey.
Cultural differences troubled me less in Bhardwaj’s 2006 movie Omkara, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello. Prior familiarity with the story certainly helped, as did an English-language book that was written about the movie’s development.
The book — Stephen Alter’s Fantasies of a Bollywood Love Thief — is essential for appreciating the film’s dialogue. English subtitles are often translated in a way that compromises the subtleties of the original words. Alter, who speaks Hindi, explains the true meaning of the words and gives context for the dialogue, making sense of the movie’s otherwise confusing opening scene.
According to the scene’s subtitles, Langda (Iago in Shakespeare’s play) discusses with Rajju (Roderigo) the difference between a “fool” and a “moron.” The two words are used somewhat interchangeably in American English, so the conversation seems odd and not very insightful.
Alter explains that the Hindi words translate more accurately to “fool” and “fucking idiot.” The scene — and the message Langda is conveying to Rajju — makes more sense with the uncensored translation; it ends with Landga explaining that, while they were talking, Rajju’s fiancee, Dolly (Desdemona), ran off with Omkara (Othello). Rajju realizes too late that he’s not a mere fool, but a fucking idiot.
The rest of the story follows the original, even though the setting has changed. Instead of a soldier in the Venetian army, Omkara is a gangster working in the service of a U.P. politician. The action takes place in the modern-day, as evidenced by the fact that the gangsters carry cell phones. Yet the town at the center of events is small and rural, evoking the story’s timeless quality.
Omkara (Ajay Devgan) and Dolly (Kareena Kapoor) are happy together, even though she’s defied her father to be with the illegitimate son of a village leader and his servant. During the course of their wedding planning, Omkara is promoted to a political position. When picking his successor as gang leader, he defies expectations and chooses Kesu (Vivek Oberoi) — a college-educated city kid — over his childhood friend, Langda (Saif Ali Khan).
Langda commences an attack on Kesu’s character, subtly trying to convince Omkara that Kesu is having an affair with Dolly. He’s aided by Dolly’s spurned suitor, Rajju (Deepak Dobriyal). Langda’s wife, Indu (Konkona Sen Sharma), inadvertently gives him the piece of physical evidence to validate his lie, and the tragedy unfolds.
The acting in Omkara is as nuanced as Langda’s machinations. Dolly and Kesu are youthful, charming, and utterly bewildered by Omkara’s suspicion. Rajju is twitchy and eager to reclaim his stolen bride. Omkara’s authoritative facade only breaks in front of Dolly, who coaxes smiles out of him with a glance.
Saif Ali Khan’s Langda walks a thin line. He’s vengeful, but not without cause; devious, but not totally malicious. His only interest is ousting Kesu from the position he wants. However, he fails to consider the toll this will take on Dolly and, by extension, Omkara, his benefactor.
Konkona Sen Sharma’s Indu is the film’s most relatable character. She’s caring, funny and smart enough to figure out that something is wrong. She probably could’ve solved the problems between Dolly, Kesu and Omkara, if only her husband weren’t secretly working against her.
Another highlight of Omkara is the music, especially the sexy dance tune “Beedi.” Bhardwaj got his start in Bollywood as a composer, and the music he’s written for Omkara sets the mood perfectly.
It’s hard to recommend a movie that requires further reading to really understand, but Omkara is worth it. The acting, atmosphere and music are of such high quality that American film fans should just enjoy the ride, knowing that Stephen Alter’s book will clear up some of the confusion. Vishal Bhardwaj is a director of such talent that it would be a shame to overlook his work because of a few cultural differences.