Movies like "Omkara" remind me of why I first became a film critic: to acknowledge cinema of superior quality. Numerous movies this year were hyped to the hills and fell flat on their faces (regardless of how loved or hated they were at the box office). Similarly, expectations for Vishal Bharadwaj’s "Omkara" shot through the roof; an all-star cast, a talented director whose past two ventures won many awards ("Makdee" and "Maqbool"), and an inspiration in the form of William Shakespeare’s Othello: The Moor of Venice. "Omkara" is a compelling movie with all the appeal of a solid commercial entertainer, but the intelligence and brilliance of an art movie.
Where the Bard used race to initiate the romantic conflict between Othello and Desdemona, Bharadwaj employs caste between Omkara (Ajay Devgan) and Dolly (Kareena Kapoor). Omkara is the leader of a gang consisting of Kesu Phirangi (Vivek Oberoi), Langda Tyagi (Saif Aif Khan) and many others, that works for a politican known as Bhaisaab (Naseeruddin Shah). After Omkara is promoted to a more “legitimate” position within the party, he anoints Kesu as his successor, thus striking a blow to Langda’s ego. Indu (Konkona Sen Sharma) is Langda’s wife and Dolly’s pillar during her transition into Omkara’s village. Billo (Bipasha Basu) is Kesu’s mistress. Rajja (Deepak Dobriyal) is Dolly’s ex-fiancé. Langda conceives an evil conspiracy to exact revenge against Omkara and Kesu, ultimately embroiling all of the film's characters.
Once again, Bharadwaj ensures that knowledge or hearsay about Shakespeare’s "Othello" remain unnecessary to experience the full effect of "Omkara". It is a captivating drama with all the ingredients that make a complete and entertaining film. The adaptation to rural Uttar Pradesh and the technological era works amazingly well. Each scene of the original play is re-enacted with equal or more fluidity and believability. "Othello" leaves minimal scope for manipulation in terms of characters (as was done in "Maqbool") but the manipulation of the events and location more than compensates.
Independent of the various adaptations, the film works like a charm. As a simple rural movie about revenge and relationships, "Omkara" has great performances, direction, screenplay, dances and action.
The performances are of the highest order, as expected. Kareena Kapoor finally impresses, and it took a director of Bharadwaj’s calibre to release the real artiste within her. Fearing her love for him, she is able to simultaneously emote fear and love for Omkara. Her chemistry with Devgan only enhances her performance. However, as is the case in "Othello", her character is overshadowed by the rest of the main players, perhaps even more so in this adaptation.
To reprise the role of Othello, one of English literature’s most tragic victims, Bharadwaj adroitly casts the only man in Bollywood with the physical attributes and talent to carry off the coveted role. Indeed, that is because Devgan has played characters that are intense, strong and silent multiple times in his career. Devgan’s true opportunity to flex his thespian muscles bears fruit in the climax and he doesn’t disappoint. On the flip side, his U.P. dialogue does come across as forced. Nonetheless, Devgan is a fine Omkara.
Konkona Sen Sharma springs a surprise on the audience with a towering performance. She commands her scenes and takes control of her fantastic dialogues, making the rest of the cast look like amateurs. A bravo performance!
Deepak Dobriyal is simply perfect, providing the appropriate and realistic relief from the intense proceedings of the plot. His idiocy and pining for Dolly are laudable. Naseeruddin Shah is in form in his cameo, an ingenious role required for the “Indianisation” of the Elizabethan tragedy.
Siaf Ali Khan is the soul of "Omkara". Langda Tyagi weaves every character into a web of emotional entrapment all in the name of revenge and Khan’s portrayal is impeccable. Every aspect of his characterisation - the look, limp, and language oozes evil. Be it in English or Hindi, Iago (the name of Saif’s character in "Othello") is immensely difficult to underplay, but Khan does so with amazing ease. His comfort with villainy is most impressive. This is a performance that will be hard to beat this year!
Vishal Bharadwaj has now directed three creative and entertaining movies ("Makdee" and "Maqbool" being his previous works) and his Shakespearean trilogy is well on its way to a place in Bollywood history. "Omkara" graces the audience with realism, authenticity, stellar direction, and outstanding performances. If Bharadwaj set himself a standard for quality filmmaking with "Maqbool", with "Omkara" he has not let us down in the least.