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Who would think that a 400-year-old British stage play would find a ready home in the Indian hinterland in 2006? And yet, Bharadwaj has done exactly that. In translating Shakespeare’s classic Othello, Bharadwaj returns to the same timeless elements—treachery and jealousy rooted in masculine insecurities that are cloaked by hyper-militarist exteriors—to come up with an amazing movie that has as much contemporary resonance on the big screen as perhaps the Bard’s play had onstage four centuries ago.
A bone-dry northern Indian rustic hamlet is the arena where this brilliant tale unfolds. The titular Omkara (Devgan) is a shrewd gang leader whose personal charisma and strong-arm tactics land him on the top of the local criminal food chain. Omkara’s dilemma is twofold. On the one hand, he must choose a lieutenant from two seemingly well-qualified underlings—Langda Tyagi (Khan) and Keshu Firangi (Oberoi). On the other hand, beneath his steely-eyed exterior, Omkara must hide intense self-doubts at being the ruffian husband of his drop-dead gorgeous and well-pedigreed wife Dolly (Kapoor).
The script, co-written by Bharadwaj and Robin Bhatt, infuses massive realism into the principal roles. Devgan (always calculated and sharply motivated), Khan (limping and lacking a moral compass), and Kapoor (unblemished and naive) so completely disappear into their roles that the line between actor and character becomes a perfect blur. Shah adds flavor as a political pawn maker with long reach while Basu tosses in massive oomph with a couple of sizzling dance numbers. In a pivotal role, Sen Sharma also shines.
Bharadwaj’s musical score here provides great accompaniment to the story. Gulzar’s lyrics for the title tune superbly tap into Vedic mythology to paint Omkara as a mighty warrior whose footsteps resemble approaching thunder. With an ominous beat played out in the background against a violent outburst that is as elegant as it is ritualistically brutal—Omkara and his deputies putting down yet another lesser foe—the song captures the moral ambiguities of a centuries-old divinely ordained masculine equation. He who is most masculine will wield the greatest power and then must pay a terrible price for that invincibility.
Bharadwaj, who landed on the music scene with the 1996 hit “chappa chappa charkha chale,” from Maachis, has diversified into directing very nicely, thank you. Three years ago, he took Shakespeare’s Macbeth and turned it into the very watchable Maqbool. With Omkara, he continues on the same path. The rivets this time are welded even tighter. Bharadwaj’s Omkara is definitely invincible.
Aniruddh Chawda writes from Wisconsin, on America’s north coast.