Tag Archives: Othello

Marketing Hindi Movies as Art Films

Superstar actor — and up-and-coming director — Aamir Khan is reaching out to American companies in the hopes of forming new marketing relationships. Specifically, Khan wants to start marketing his movies in the U.S. as “art” films, similar to the way other foreign-language films are marketed.

Currently, Hindi movies are dropped into theaters with little promotion or fanfare. Indian production houses rarely screen their movies in advance for critics, so few get reviewed for newspapers. Fans in the U.S. must seek out information on upcoming releases themselves.

Without any promotion, mainstream American filmgoers likely scan past the names of Hindi movies on the theater marquee. At times, theaters may unintentionally steer people — especially those not obviously of Indian descent — away from Hindi movies. On several occasions, I’ve attempted to buy a ticket to a Hindi movie only to have the cashier say, “That’s a Bollywood movie,” or “You know that has subtitles, right?”

The shift to marketing at least some Hindi films like other foreign films is long overdue. U.S. theaters lump all Hindi movies together under the “Bollywood” label, evoking images of 3-hour epics full of romance, drama and action punctuated by flashy dance numbers.

Of course, those types of movies don’t make up the whole of Hindi cinema, even if they remain some of the most profitable. Just as the Indian film industry is shifting to producing more genre-specific films and away from all-encompassing epics, the industry is also producing films that American distributors would consider art movies if they were produced in other countries.

Some Indian directors, like Mira Nair, already have their films marketed in this way. But many of these Indian art movies, such as Deepa Mehta’s Oscar-nominated Water, are primarily Canadian productions.

Khan is a natural choice to forge this new marketing path in America. His recent efforts behind the camera have focused on smaller stories about specific issues, rather than mainstream blockbusters. Taare Zameen Par, which Khan directed in 2007, is about a boy with dyslexia. Peepli Live, which opens on August and is produced by Khan, is a black comedy about destitute farmers driven to suicide.

If Khan is successful, it could pave the way for other Indian directors to reach a much larger American audience. There are a few directors in particular whose films deserve this kind of treatment.

Vishal Bhardwaj’s movies are tailor-made for American fans of arthouse cinema. Westerners could consider Bhardwaj an Indian Kenneth Branagh. He’s already adapted two of Shakespeare’s plays into modern Indian stories — Maqbool and Omkara (MacBeth and Othello, respectively) — and he’s currently adapting a novel by Ruskin Bond for the big screen.

The criminal underworld of Uttar Pradesh provides the perfect setting for Bhardwaj’s updated classics. And since he broke into the industry as a composer, his have excellent soundtracks.

Bhardwaj’s frequent collaborator, Abhishek Chaubey, recently directed his first film, the atmospheric and charming Ishqiya. I can only assume that Chaubey’s future efforts will also deserve the arthouse promotional treatment.

Another obvious choice is director Mani Ratnam. His films are known for heartbreaking stories and stunning visuals. In keeping with tradition, he includes elaborate dance numbers in many of his movies, which add a surreal element.

Though it may take extra effort on the part of American distributors to determine which Indian movies are art versus simple popcorn flicks, it’s past time to stop grouping all Hindi movies under the Bollywood umbrella.

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Retro Review: Omkara (2006)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

Buy the DVD at Amazon
Buy the soundtrack at Amazon

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.