Apsara is an old Bombay cinema that has recently been converted into a multiplex. Garage-sized lifts bring us up to the fourth floor for Vishal Bhardwaj’s new film Omkara, even as parts of the building are being stripped down and reinvented to make the glossy metallic surfaces of the new Indian bazaar. Outside the rain-drenched windows are the surrounding buildings, some of them close to a hundred years old, filled with the families of migrants who have built this city. Down below, on the narrow street, are lines of waiting taxis, their black-and-yellow roofs glistening in the monsoon showers. Many of the drivers have come to Bombay from rural Uttar Pradesh, seeking a better life.
Omkara transports the audience back to the heartland of western UP, where other young men wait restlessly for life to give them a chance. Some, tired of waiting, have been drawn into a life of crime. After all, in this unforgiving landscape, a gunshot fired from a barren hillside can prevent a wedding from taking place; the man who fired the shot can return calmly to a small-town hostel to play a game of marbles; and when a posse arrives to seek him out, just one call on the cellphone can end the matter.
Intertwining a Shakespearean plot with the stuff of spaghetti westerns, Omkara tells a powerfully Indian story. The rough, edgy dialogue rips through everyday niceties; the slow, sensuous poetry of the camera takes us through ancient landscapes; the narrative fades, dissolves and surges forward again, like a grand musical composition; the riveting performances make us forget that we are watching the stars of Bombay’s commercial cinema.
The most memorable moment takes place in a hilltop temple where the local leader, Bhaisaab (Naseeruddin Shah), sits with his Baahubali (chief aide) Omkara and two lieutenants, Langda and Kesu. They are all moving up in life. At the end of the puja comes the ritual of Omkara (Ajay Devgan) anointing the next Baahubali. Will it be the local man Langda (Saif Ali Khan), or the college-educated Kesu ‘Firangi’ (Viveik Oberoi)? Apart from its importance as a crucial plot turn, the medieval atmosphere of the scene suggests a kind of religious sanctity to lawlessness, and celebrates the rite of succession with drums, gunshots and frenzied dancing. Even while one man’s forehead is anointed with vermilion paste, we are immediately shown the other, alone in his room, smashing the mirror and anointing his own forehead with blood. More blood, we know, will be spilled in the course of this story.
Love and violence
Bhardwaj adapts Shakespeare’s Othello – from little details like character names, to unforgettable lines such as the parting taunt about a woman’s loyalty, with which the father of Omkara’s lover, Dolly, leaves Omkara. The Moor becomes the half-caste; the Duke’s officers, a gang of outlaws; the handkerchief, an ornate kamar-bandh. Bhardwaj’s film begins with a non-wedding, continues with plans being made for another wedding, and ends with another non-wedding. Between the two events unfolds a tale of violent passion in the Uttar Pradesh badlands.
Nothing is black-and-white in Omkara. Langda, like Othello’s Iago, fills Omkara’s mind with doubt, but it is Dolly’s father’s taunt that echoes in Omkara’s mind, and it is Omkara who eventually commits the murder. Othello’s Desdemona becomes Omkara’s Dolly – an English name for an Indian rose. Dolly (Kareena Kapoor) is also literally treated as a doll – the gudiya in the song that Omkara sings to wake her up; the mishri ki pudiya (packet of sugar), a Sita-figure accused of infidelity; but also a doll-woman alone in a doll’s house, wilfully blind to the life her husband leads. In one song, a sweet, aching, elegiac lyric to the first flush of love, the camera follows Omkara and Dolly around the house – up and down the stairs, and out of the house in one continuous, sensuous sequence. In the final moments of the song, Dolly picks up the rifle and runs out to point it playfully at Omkara before they collapse, laughing, into the hay. We recall that the happiness of this home is built on a foundation of violence.
Finally, a word about the music. Bhardwaj, who began in cinema as a composer, weaves the score seamlessly into the narrative. The music ebbs and flows endlessly around the characters like the river in the background. A slow instrumental theme takes us through the opening credits. The first song courses along with Dolly’s narration of her love for Omkara. Now the song, now Dolly’s spoken narration, takes the audience through the progression of their love. The title song, “Omkara”, is almost the opposite of the first – a rough chant, almost menacing – but no less powerful as background for this explosion of violence in the Indian heartland.