Sunday, July 30, 2006

Omkara - Shakespeare will approve

Shakespeare's Othello is an outsider - culturally and racially, that is - and that adds the flaw of 'insecurity' to his already complex character. Vishal Bhardwaj's Omkara too suffers the agony of being reminded of his blood being 'impure'. And, like Shakespeare, Vishal merely alludes to this fact rather than bringing it centrestage and making it a significant plot device.

Othello's fate is driven not by his obsessive love for Desdemona, but by his own insecurities and the eternal conflict between the toughness demanded by his vocation, and the softness expected in love. He is exploited by Iago because of weakness in his character: despite his tragedy, that elicits sympathy from the audience. In Roger Eberts's words "(Othello is) a hero brought down by his own flaws." Omkara's predicament is the same.
It's not Iago, but Barbantio (Desdemona's father) who sort of warns Othello of Desdemona's potential infidelity; and possibly strengthens the insecurities in Othello's mind, though it isn't until Iago starts playing his game that the seed of mistrust sown into Othello's mind by his wife's father starts blooming. Vakil Saheb does the same to Omkara.

Barbantio to Othello:

Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see:
She has deceived her father, and may thee.
(Act 1, Scene III)
Vakil sahab to Omkara:
जो लड़की अपने बाप को ठगे, वो किसी और की क्या सगी होगी?
Vishal's Omkara ranks among the best adaptations of Shakespeare's work in India. With this he proves that "Maqbool" was no flash in the pan. And mind you, if he calls his films 'adaptations', they're precisely that. With both his films based on Shakespeare's tragedies, he has painstakingly - and successfully - captured the plot and essence of the Bard's work and put it into a context that's Indian to the core: he has adapted the plays, not simply translated them to the medium of film. Adaptations invariably calls for realigning the original plots in the new cultural milieu; and Vishal seems fairly adept at that. It is easy to give all the credit to Shakepeare for the universality of his theme, but you have to the see other 'adaptations' or 'inspirations' of his work to realize that writers and directors can go horribly wrong even with such universal themes. Vishal deserves the credit for getting it! And, getting it right for the second time.

Vishal is the real hero of the film - he's the director, screenplay co-writer, dialogue writer, music composer, and even singer. And he excels in every single of these departments. He is in complete command here, never letting the performances or any other aspect overshadow the film. If Saif as Langda Tyagi and Konkana as Indu do a fabulous job, it's as much a tribute to Vishal's pen than their own performances.

While adapting Othello, Vishal has taken a few liberties, but given the final result, there's no reason to complain. Shakepeare's Iago is a heinous villain, who is ambivalent about his true motivations. Vishal, on the other hand, paints his Langda Tyagi with a slight sympathetic tinge, without compromising one bit on his vile and evil core. Saif does a marvelous job at portraying this, especially in the scene where Omkara anoints Keshu as his successor. In trying to make Langda Tyagi a shade more human, Vishal has avoided one aspect of Shakepeare's Iago. Iago wants to destroy Othello, not only because he's not made his lieutenant, but he also suspects Othello of an affair with his wife, Emilia. This makes Iago a person sure of his ultimate aim, but unsure of his motivation...and that, in a way, makes him more black than grey. He kills his own wife when she comes in his way. Langda Tyagi wants revenge only because he's been treated unfairly (and he doesn't kill Indu)...Vishal makes you empathize with him. This is probably the only place where Vishal has deviated from the original. Otherwise, he's remained completely true to the spirit of Othello, despite shuffling and altering a few events here and there.

Truth be told, Ajay Devgan and Kareena, who have pivotal characters in the film, fail Vishal. They aren't bad, but somehow their portrayal of their characters needed more sincerety. Ajay Devgan's character graph is fairly flat, although there are flashes of brilliance in a few fleeting moments, but you can't help but get a feeling of deja vu. He's done all this before; there is no innovation. Kareena is normally BAD, but here she is bearable. It's to Vishal's credit that he understood her limitations and didn't make her do anything she couldn't, even if that meant making the character a little sketchy. However, one character that sticks out like a sore thumb is Billo Chamanbahar, played by Bipasha Basu. Forget her acting skills, she looks just too refined for the role she's playing. Her character demands gaudy make-up, garish clothes and a coarse tongue. But what we get is perfect make-up, designer clothes (despite an unsuccessful attempt at making them look garish) and someone you can expect to start talking in English anytime.

A word of acknowledgement for newcomer Deepak Dobriyal - his portrayal of the bumbling Rajju, is so real that it hardly seems like an act. Quite an achievement for a newcomer who could easily have got lost amidst the galaxy of stars.

Technically, the film is top-notch. Tassaduq Hussain's brilliantly non-intrusive cinematography captures the mood of the film with some breathtaking visuals. Some of the shot compositions are truly remarkable. So is the editing and the background score that heightens the tension.

I must talk about the film's soundtrack. Vishal is essentially a musician who became a filmmaker by default. He impressed me a great deal with his divine score in Maachis. He is one of those music composers who would never compromise with their convictions. He didn't get much success as a music composer, because he refuses to work like other composers. He demands more involvement in the process of film making, so that his music blends with the film rather than stick out. That's just not the way our industry works, is it? That's why, Vishal only composes for himself these days. His scores always go with the theme of the film. His songs do not have an instant appeal, rather they always fit seamlessly within the context of his films. The beauty of his compositions is that they blend so well with the film that they have limited appeal outside the context of the film. That's the irony - a composer needs to compliment the mood of a film, but he's not considered 'good' till he's had a chartbuster to his credit. Omkara can be seen as a compromise by Vishal in that he's produced two 'item' numbers for this film. Yet, the structure of these compositions is very much rooted in authenticity and thematic veracity. The entire soundtrack of Omkara ranks highly amid Vishal's magnificent, though non-prolific, oeuvre.

Talking of songs, how can I avoid mentioning my favourite lyricist and poet - Gulzar. Vishal and Gulzar are a package deal - if Vishal makes a film, Gulzar writes the lyrics and if Gulzar makes a film, Vishal has to compose the music. Gulzar's brilliance lies in his use of simple words, but profound imagery and meaning. I call him a visual poet - his words form an instant image in your mind. Even when he has to write a pedestrian 'item' number, he manages to leave his indelible mark. Listen to the lyrics of "Beedi" and "Namak". They are naughty and saucy as intended, yet uniquely Gulzar. Can you imagine any one else writing these lines (notice the imperfect spellings and pronunciations)?

न गिलाफ़ न लिहाफ़, ठन्डी हवा भी ख़िलाफ़
जबाँ पर लागा लागा रे नमक इस्क का

My favorites, however, are these line

1) आँखें तेज तत्तैया दोनों, जीभ साँप का फुँकारा ;
बिजुरी सा कौंधे सर पे जिसकी तलवार का झँकारा- ॐकारा

2) नैनों की जुबान पर भरोसा नहीं आता;
लिखत पढत न रसीद न खाता … नैना ठग लेंगे

One of the complaints that I expect from people is that Omkara moves forward at a leisurely pace. I think that's precisely what gives the film its dark and brooding character, which was so essential to this theme. The other would be the strong language. The language used in the film , liberally interspersed with expletives in hard core Hindi, is authentic: that's exactly what you would expect these characters to speak. The film sets the tone and expectation right upfront in the very first dialogue, which made many people in the theatre very uncomfortable, even some sniggers and nervous laughs.

As a final note - I thought that Maqbool was a cool Indian name for Macbeth. Vishal takes that a step forward in Omkara. All the main characters in Omkara share the same starting alphabet or sound as their counterparts in Othello. So Othello becomes Omkara, Desdemona is Dolly, Cassio is Keshu, Emilia is Indu, Bianca is Billo, Roderigo appears as Rajju....but why is Iago Lagda Tyagi?

Well, Langda Tyagi's real name is Ishwar, though he's always called Langda all through the movie....and, don't you think Tyagi has a phonetic affinity with Iago?