Omkara

“I have no spur / to prick the sides of my intent, but only / vaulting ambition, which overleaps itself.”

-William Shakespeare, Macbeth I.7

[Warning: possible spoilers]

Given the rave reviews that Vishal Bharadwaj’s Omkara has been getting everywhere I look (see here and here and here) I can’t help adding my dissenting voice. Not that I disagree that Bharadwaj is an extremely promising director. But watching Omkara, I came away with the same impression I had watching Maqbool – I wish he’d leave Shakespeare alone. One admires his ambition, but one can’t help feeling that he’s overleaping himself a little.

First the good bits. Omkara features some seriously good acting. Konkona Sen Sharma’s justly acclaimed performance as a down to earth village wife has to be seen to be believed, and Saif Ali Khan is astonishingly good – projecting an uncouthness and a sense of barely suppressed violence that one didn’t think he was capable of. The other performances don’t come close, frankly, but they succeed because the actors are well cast. Ajay Devgan broods and looks intense (which, let’s face it, is all that he can do) but it works because he’s Othello [1]. Kareena Kapoor giggles and simpers and gets all silly and tearful, but this makes for a surprisingly convincing Desdemona. And Vivek Oberoi already has enough practise playing the loyal second in command expelled from his master’s good graces from his Company days to play the honourable Cassio with aplomb.

But more than that, Bharadwaj is a genuinely interesting director. Many of the scenes in Omkara are exquisitely executed – the violence is explosive, the framing innovative, the dialogue crisp. Most importantly, Bharadwaj understands the power of suggestion, and is willing to trust the imagination of his audience the way few directors working in Bollywood are. Take the scene where Emilia reveals Iago’s plot to Othello. The entire dialogue consists of a single line where Emilia tells Othello that it was she who stole the family cummerbund from Desdemona, not Desdemona who gave it to Cassio. All the other revelations that must doubtless follow are simply implied, and the next scene shows Othello confronting Iago with the truth.

Where the movie fails, I think, is in pandering too much to popular taste. It’s not just the excruciatingly dull, stock-in-trade item numbers (and yes, that’s item numbers, plural) or the insufferably soppy scenes showing you Othello and Desdemona’s trite home life, or the entirely unnecessary sex scenes whose only purpose, so far as I can see, is to draw whistles of approval from the front rows. It’s also the fact that Bharadwaj, either unable to replicate the intensity of Shakespeare’s dialogue, or unwilling to trust the focus of the play, chooses to include a rambling sub-plot about political violence, presumably so that he can add a whole host of violent action scenes that will keep his audience happy. So instead of getting a pure study of one man’s descent into mistrust and jealousy, you get an Othello who runs off in the middle of his domestic crisis to assassinate his mentor’s political rivals or help figure out how the next election is to be won.

To his credit, Bharadwaj weaves the two stories together very well, but the sub-plot is distracting in two ways – first, it dilutes the drive of Shakespeare’s story by involving the audience in an unnecessary side tale, which has no real bearing on the central plot; and second, it destroys much of the impact of the denouement. In the play, Othello’s fall is a terrible one precisely because he is a noble and virtuous man, reputed for his judgement and fairness – for such a man to be duped into killing his wife is shocking indeed. For some half-savage bandit, steeped in machismo and immured to violence to kill his wife is much less of a surprise. Desdemona may be shocked when her beloved Othello hits her, but given that this is a two-bit political goon we’re talking about, is anyone else really surprised that he turns out to be a wife-beater [2]?

Overall then, if Bharadwaj really wants to make intelligent cinema, I think he’d do better to have the courage of his convictions and dispense with all these hackneyed cliches. It’s hard to take a film maker seriously when he doesn’t have the guts to let twenty minutes pass in his film without throwing in either some sleaze or some violence, even though neither is really required.

The real problem with Omkara, though, is with the script. Bharadwaj may have followed the details of Shakespeare’s play quite faithfully, but he completely misses, in my opinion, its underlying logic. As a result, his Iago has all the villainy and slyness of Shakespeare’s original, with little or nothing of his magnificence.

There’s the issue of control, for instance. Shakespeare’s Iago is a puppet-master, a manipulative mastermind whose traps are foolproof and inescapable. Bhardwaj’s Iago takes opportunity when he sees it, but his is a low cunning and he owes his eventual success as much to luck as to intelligence. Shakespeare’s Iago ensures that Cassio’s drunken state will get him fired by telling Montano that Cassio is a drunkard, thus deliberately ensuring that Montano will try to stop Cassio and the two will fight and that, in what follows, Montano will denounce Cassio as being unworthy of his post. Bharadwaj’s Iago just gets Cassio drunk and drives him into a brawl, presumably hoping he’ll hit the wrong person. Shakespeare’s Iago deliberately brings Othello back to Desdemona at a time when he knows that Cassio will be with her. Bharadwaj’s Iago doesn’t determine when Othello and he will return, it just happens that when they do Cassio is with Desdemona, and Iago is clever enough to use this to his advantage. Shakespeare’s Iago cleverly stage manages the scene where Cassio scoffs at Bianca, so that Othello sees how Cassio laughs and sneers but doesn’t actually hear what Cassio is talking about. Bharadwaj’s Iago simply holds a cell phone up to Othello’s ear and (presumably) hopes that what Cassio says will lend itself to the interpretation that he is talking about Desdemona. Shakespeare’s Iago is a professional, Bharadwaj’s Iago is an amateur.

Next, there’s the issue of motivation. When Shakespeare’s play opens, Iago has already been passed over for the post of Othello’s Lieutenant, which is the immediate justification given for his betrayal of the secret of Desdemona’s flight to her father. Bharadwaj’s Iago also starts the film by warning Rodrigo and letting him escape to warn Desdemona’s father, but at this point he has no reason to be anything but loyal to Othello. Why does he do it then? In the play, Iago’s hatred of Othello is omnipresent and elemental – a number of reasons are given or implied for it: Othello’s choice of Cassio as second in command, Iago’s suspicions about Othello and his wife, racial hatred, envy – but mostly it simply exists, and is the chief basis on which Iago defines himself as a character. Shakespeare’s Iago is convincing precisely because his hatred of Othello is a fact of nature, a sort of personified bigotry, a racial loathing, not something induced by any particular event or situation. Not so with Bharadwaj’s Iago, who seems fairly devoted to Othello to begin with, even assisting him in an initial fight (if he hated Othello so much, and wanted his job, why not just shoot Othello in the confusion?), and whose entire urge to destroy Othello seems to stem only from being passed over as second in command. That anyone would conceive so malignant an antipathy simply because he didn’t get picked to be the next in line strains credulity a bit, and, more importantly, completely changes the meaning of Iago’s character in the story.

Bharadwaj’s Iago is also a far more sympathetic character than his Shakespearan counterpart. Shakespeare’s Iago is an out and out villain, who kills Rodrigo because he has been taking jewels from him under the guise of passing them on to Desdemona and cannot let Rodrigo live for fear of discovery (this also suggest, of course, that Othello’s choice of Cassio may well have been justified). When his plans are finally revealed, Shakespeare’s Iago murders his own wife and tries to escape. By contrast, Bharadwaj’s Iago has a kind of honour – one could argue that he is entirely justified in feeling wronged, and that, when the time comes, he has no fear of death, being content to see his evil purpose bear fruit.

Finally, there’s the question of Othello’s motivation. In the play, it’s easy to see why Othello so easily falls prey to suspicion. His jealousy is physical and aesthetic – he is a Moor after all, and for someone like Desdemona to fall in love with him is unheard of. Cassio, by contrast, is a good-looking nobleman, precisely the kind of man that girls like Desdemona are brought up to admire. Othello’s status as an outsider, as the Moor, is what makes Desdemona’s father oppose the match in the first place, and is the reason he remains insecure about his wife’s affections, falling easy prey to Iago’s slander.

In Bharadwaj’s movie, the cause for Othello’s insecurity is a little less clear. Desdemona’s father opposes Othello because he is the son of a mixed-caste marriage of some sort, and therefore not an entirely kosher member of the community. But it’s hard to believe that this is the reason Othello thinks Desdemona chooses Cassio over him, and certainly nothing in the movie suggests so.

There is another reason why Othello might doubt Desdemona’s fidelity, one that Bharadwaj, strangely enough, sets up but then never really develops. Desdemona and Cassio were both together in college – they are educated, ‘city’ people, where Othello is little more than a rural bumpkin. Iago actually alludes to Desdemona and Cassio’s time together in college once, but I can’t help feeling that this is point that Bharadwaj could have pursued much further. A few scenes of Cassio and Desdemona reminiscing about city / college life, or laughing at Othello because of things he didn’t understand / hadn’t read, would, I think, have gone a long way in making this a more interesting adaptation.

As it is, I found myself puzzled by why Othello is so ready to disbelieve Desdemona’s fidelity. Bharadwaj gives us only Desdemona’s father’s statement about how a girl who would betray her father can never be faithful to anyone else, but this hardly seems convincing. Hasn’t our local Othello seen any Hindi movies? Doesn’t he know that going against your family’s wishes to marry the man of your dreams is a time honoured tradition? That a woman who would lie to her father cannot be faithful to her husband seems a particularly illogical argument, and hardly cause enough to justify Othello’s complete lack of faith in his wife.

The fact that the reasons for Othello’s jealousy remain somewhat obscure points to what is, in my opinion, the final flaw in Bharadwaj’s adaptation. Because Bharadwaj is enamoured with his tough-talking, expletive snarling ruffians (and I must confess I find Shakespeare easier to follow than some of the dialect in the film) we lose the rich inwardness of Shakespeare’s characters. Not only is the logic of the situation that makes Othello the play it is obscured in the movie, but the intense interest in the characters themselves, the genius of Shakespeare in laying bare their thought processes, especially the slow degrees by which they arrive at their final roles, is largely lost. What is, in Shakespeare, an exploration of the fine gradations of suspicion, becomes, in the film, a simple statement of fact – because the film is almost anti-verbal, the thoughts of its key players are little explored.

Bottomline: Omkara is one of the best movies to come out of Bollywood that I’ve seen in a long time. It has some excellent acting, some wonderful scenes, and if you manage to stay awake through the item numbers [3] and the scenes of domestic bliss in the first half, you may actually manage to enjoy yourself. But as an adaptation of Othello it’s a lackluster work. For all the things it gets right, it just isn’t Shakespeare.

[1] Throughout this post, I’m going to use the Shakespearan names, and not bother with what the characters were called in the movie. Frankly, I don’t remember.

[2] On a separate note, did anyone figure out what she saw in the guy anyway? I mean, in the play we know why Desdemona loves Othello – a) he’s a noble and courageous lord, and b) he’s lived an exciting life and she’s charmed by the stories of his great adventures. But in the movie Othello is a killer and a thug and I’m wondering why she wanted to be his wife.

[3] I didn’t. When I drifted off to sleep, what’s-her-name was gyrating away in a room full of extras who’d been given police uniforms and told to act lecherous. When I woke up there was a lot of shooting going on and some guy had just died.

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