Second trip to the Shakespeare well by writer-director Vishal Bhardwaj draws a rich pail of dramatic water in “Omkara.” This free re-working of “Othello,” set amid gangsters in an Uttar Pradesh village, is far more gripping than his moody but confused “Macbeth” adaptation, “Maqbool” (2003), and doesn’t demand any knowledge of the Bard’s original play. Strongly cast, and with a powerhouse perf by Saif Ali Khan in the Iago role, pic puts Bhardwaj in the top ranks of serious Mumbai-based helmers and deserves serious fest exposure alongside its July 28 commercial release.
Khan, transformed from a light romantic lead to a weighty actor, dominates the going as the beefy, limping Langda Tyagi, first seen abducting a bride, Dolly (Kareena Kapoor, in the Desdemona part), on her way to her wedding to Rajju (Deepak Dobroyal).
Langda is the longtime loyal lieutenant of local hood Omkara (Ajay Devgan), a half-caste who works for corrupt politico Bhaisaab (vet Naseeruddin Shah) and who has fallen for Dolly.
When Dolly says she’s happy to be with Omkara, her father, seething with rage, tells Omkara that “any daughter who can dupe her own father will never be anyone’s to claim” — words that come back to haunt Omkara.
This 20-minute pre-title sequence is only the prologue to the main drama, which starts when Omkara anoints one of his younger followers, playboy Kesu (Viveik Oberoi, as Cassio), to be his “general,” or official deputy. Kesu has the local student population under his control and can assure that Bhaisaab will win the upcoming election.
Langda, says Omkara, is a “brother” and will “understand” why he was passed over for the “general” position.
Well, hardly. The seeds are sown for Langda’s slow revenge, which involves him gradually poisoning Omkara’s mind against Kesu, all under the pretence of helping the younger man. After getting Kesu drunk at a concert by Kesu’s songstress g.f., Billo (Bipasha Basu), Langda hints that Kesu’s friendship with Dolly is not entirely platonic.
Transposition of Shakespeare’s schemers from Venice to an Indian gangster milieu works seamlessly, with the half-caste Omkara as much a social outsider as the Moor Othello. In a role exactly tailored to his brooding screen persona (“Company”), Devgan is just right as the laconic Omkara, even though he doesn’t plumb the same depths of self-deception and grief as the Bard’s character.
Pic is best enjoyed on its own terms — and it works fine, apart from a slackening of dramatic tension during the second half when the plot is slow to push on to the climax. However, when the finale arrives, it’s swift and powerful.
Supporting roles stretch the cast in ways rarely found in their mainstream Bollywood careers, even down to Basu (usually in vacant pin-up parts) and Kapoor (usually a pouty vamp). Shah effortlessly slides into the ruthless pol role, Oberoi gives a decent reckoning of the hoodwinked Kesu, and Konkona Sen Sharma is excellent in the small part of Langda’s sassy wife.
But it’s Khan’s movie through and through, in a performance of rugged, contained malevolence which trades on his previous screen persona as a likable best friend as well as his stint as the manipulative outsider in “Being Cyrus.” It’s smart casting, superbly realized.
Tech package is smooth, and songs are largely relegated to the soundtrack, pushing the melancholy drama along. Tassaduq Hussain’s widescreen chiaroscuro lensing and Sami Chanda’s large village set are both standouts.