Two years ago, near the end of Parasite’s historic awards season run, while accepting his Oscar for Best Director, Bong Joon-ho quoted Martin Scorsese in an impassioned speech. “The most personal is the most creative,” his words went. And while it made for one of those instantly iconic Oscar moments, the quote itself seemed to ring with an almost Aesopian truth. The most personal is the most creative. For it was the channeling of their personality into their creative expression which led to Scorsese and his pack of ‘70s New Hollywood brats to bring about a revolution in a torpid industry and become formidable giants of cinema. Bong Joon-ho too followed in those footsteps and has crafted marvelously rich story worlds that each carry an uncanny through line that is so bizarrely Bong.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the sprawling Hindi film industry, very rarely do we see filmmakers practice these tenets and maintain that level of consistency or creativity. Unless of course, you are Vishal Bhardwaj. Adapting William Shakespeare. The musician-turned-filmmaker seems to have cracked the formula for turning the Bard’s immortal tragedies into some of the most enduring Hindi films of our time. And none as effective and assured as his 2006 badland drama Omkara, which just completed 15 years of its release.
Now the reason why Omkara is an ideal implementation of that divine bit of Scorseseism, is because of the deeply personal connect between the film’s subject and the filmmaker.
Born in Bijnor district to a sugarcane inspector and a homemaker, Bhardwaj was schooled and raised in Meerut, near the western border of Uttar Pradesh. While he developed a penchant for literature after disembarking from his hometown and arriving at Delhi University’s Hindu College, his formative years spent in the lawless badlands of UP were sure to leave their own indelible mark on his psyche. The menagerie of dialects, the brutal bursts of violence, and a darkly twisted sense of humor that pervades the infamous ‘cow belt’ would come in handy decades later when he’d be setting his second Shakespearean adaptation in that region.
And while his first tangle with Shakespeare was the unforgettable Maqbool, a riveting update on Macbeth fashioned as a gangster picture placed in the Mumbai underworld – something still fresh back in 2003 – it got increasingly entrenched within the trappings of its genre, eventually becoming altogether untethered from the sublimely supernatural climax of the play. However, with Othello, which is a human drama above all, there was little need for theatrics. The translation of its themes like vengeance and jealousy, and even its racial commentary, happens quite seamlessly as Omkara is set in a rather inconspicuous milieu. The story could have transpired in a post-partition India, or the raging ‘70s, or even today, and it would perhaps play out identically to how it does in 2006. For Omkara’s universality comes from both its themes as well as its setting in the Uttar Pradesh ganglands, which seemingly remain unbothered by civilization and unbound by time.
But going back to using the personal to fuel the creative, Omkara’s most defining feature remains its radiant language.
A strong khariboli dialect, specific to the Meerut region, the language drips with a lip-smacking richness of texture and tonality that somehow remains unmatched in Hindi cinema even today.
Littered with catchy idioms and colorful metaphors, the dialogue is sheer magic woven into verse. From Langda Tyagi’s opening proclamation on the thin line between the fool and the moron, to the inventive expletives constructed for the film, the writing on display here is superlative. And all of it coming from the mind of one man. For while there are three writers credited with the film’s screenplay – the director, his protégé/AD Abhishek Chaubey, and Robin Bhatt – the dialogues carry a solo credit for the Bardwaj himself, the soft-spoken musician from Meerut who would reinvent Shakespeare more than four centuries later.
So, how exactly has Omkara stood the test of time? In a world exposed to Gangs of Wasseypur and riddled with the current rustic infestation of Bollywood, there is something still fresh about the film. Perhaps, it’s the characterization of the main players that defies stereotype. For beyond the dichotomous struggle of good and evil, here are real people with real complexes that span every shade of grey. Rugged but with intelligent eyes, composed yet violent when needed, Omkara Shukla comes as much from Shakespeare as he does from a Clint Eastwood western. And the near-mythic projection of Ajay Devgn’s protagonist as an honorable enforcer, a man of contained rage and measured words, just might deify him enough to earn a thumping ballad that sings his praises, but even he’s not above the charms of a silver-tongued devil playing at his insecurities. And his foil Langda Tyagi, played to perfection by Saif Ali Khan, is indeed the devil himself. Packing the energy of a malevolent sprite and the seething malice of a psychopath, to say that he is the defining movie villain of modern Hindi cinema would be stating the obvious.
Now Bhardwaj doesn’t just simply transform the Moor of Venice into a half-Brahmin of Uttar Pradesh, but lends plenty of his trademark flourish to the text, enriching it with a brilliance seldom seen in many other adaptations.
His quirky translations of names and plot points are as interesting as they are laden with commentary on the new world they inhabit. A throwaway handkerchief becomes a bejeweled cummerbund, bequeathed across generations, and now a bearer of legitimacy, even dearer to its bastard owner. And one that later becomes the visual signifier of Langda’s lustful yearning for Omkara’s destruction, as he coils it around his head in the throes of passionate lovemaking.
But in addition to the stellar writing and the dazzling performances, there is so much more to Omkara. From the soundtrack, by Bhardwaj himself – lent with an electric panache by lyricist Gulzar – which ranges from iconic dance numbers to a simmering love song, to Tassaduq Hussain’s frames which exquisitely capture the arid landscapes and sparse structures (actually shot in Wai, Maharashtra), as the production design by Samir Chanda dresses them with the earthy authenticity of a North Indian hamlet; Omkara is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. With every department bringing their best, the resultant film is elevated beyond the station of engaging fare or even a technical marvel.
And it all comes back to the man behind the camera. The author of the text, the one pulling the strings. And Bhardwaj’s mastery of his craft, like an expert puppeteer or distinguished dramatist, involves directing not just the players of his story but also his audience towards a rewarding experience. In how he chooses to portray Langda’s moment of crisis and eventual turn to the dark side through a mild push-in on the villain wordlessly brooding into a mirror before shattering the glass and anointing himself with blood, is reflected Bhardwaj’s masterful direction. In line with the ‘show, don’t tell’ doctrine of visual storytelling, he reserves his dialogues for succulent wordplay over inane exposition. And so, whether he employs a stacked ensemble of A-listers or assembles an army of talented technicians, what truly sets Omkara apart is Vishal Bhardwaj himself. Therefore, it doesn’t really come as a surprise that a film such as this, rooted in his most personal experiences is also told most creatively.
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