Vishal Bhardwaj’s compelling adaptation of Othello, released theatrically in the US and UK in summer 2006, sticks more closely to Shakespeare than his Maqbool (2003) followed Macbeth, yet still makes several inspired changes, the first in its opening scene. On a parched hillside in Uttar Pradesh, Bhardwaj’s lago, Langda, tells a dim, wimpish bridegroom, Raju (Roderigo), that Langda’s boss Omkara is abducting his bride. His lavish wedding to Dolly (Desdemona) is abandoned, and in his subsequent role as Langda’s accomplice, he is not the play’s hapless suitor, but a justified avenger, pursuing the man who destroyed his future with a beautiful bride.
Next, Raghunath, Dolly’s father, blames Omkara’s ‘seduction’ of his high-born daughter on his being a half-caste, so status largely replaces Othello’s racial strand (although several characters remark on Dolly’s comparatively fair skin). He only spares Omkara’s life on the orders of their boss, Bhaisaab (the formidable Naseeruddin Shah as a shaven- headed Doge), head of the Brahmin youth party, who needs Omkara, his General, and Raghunath, his lawyer, to secure his release from jail so that he can win a parliamentary seat against his rival, Indore Singh
As Bhardwaj shuttles between Omkara’s fort-like family home in a hillside village and various city locations, constant political violence replaces the Turks’ short-lived threat to Cyprus and enables the director to reflect the bloody world of contemporary politics in Uttar Pradesh by engineering a Macbeth-like cycle of attacks.
First, Langda’s marksmanship saves Omkara and his handsome young lieutenant, Kesu (Cassio), from Singh’s agents, one of whom, Kichlu, later tries to assassinate Bhaisaab. This incites reprisals against Kichlu and, finally, a rain-swept night-time assault on a train, in which Omkara and Langda kill Singh and his bodyguards. All this spectacularly overcomes the problem, for genre film-makers rather than stage directors, of Othello’s dearth of incident between the drunken brawl and the climactic murders, which here take place, with terrible irony, on Dolly and Omkara’s wedding night.
The rousing title song has proclaimed Omkara ‘the greatest warrior of all’ and links him to Uttar Pradesh folklore about a legendary band of brothers. Compared to Othello’s heroic exploits, however, the ruthless political killings make Ajay Devgan’s muscular, brooding Omkara a considerably less sympathetic figure than the Moor.
The open-air shootouts and arid widescreen landscapes sometimes give Omkara a Western tang, and Saif Ali Khan’s Langda has the tough, mischievous presence of Eli Wallach in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). His customised conspiracy, involving Dolly’s incriminating, jewel- encrusted cummerbund, and mobile-phone eavesdropping, is unambiguously attributed to the exhilarating early scene in which, following Bhaisaab’s election, the newly promoted Omkara must appoint his successor. In a religious ceremony at the top of a high temple overlooking riverbanks filled with hundreds of expectant followers, Omkara anoints Kesu, dashing Langda’s expectations and initiating his revenge. This simplified motivation works in tandem with Bhardwaj’s most radical change: Emilia becomes Indu, Omkara’s sister, and she and Langda have a young son, Golu, whose ninth birthday party is wrecked by Kesu’s drunken punch-up with Raju.
Langda thus betrays bonds of family as well as professional loyalty and, compared to the isolated Moor, Omkara’s close relationship with Indu and some amusing moments featuring their ancient grandmother, added to the loss of the interracial element, make him a far less isolated (as well as less admirable) hero than Othello. Konkona Sen Sharma’s wisecracking Indu and Kareena Kapoor’s saintly, vulnerable Dolly have a sisterly, rather than mistress—servant relationship, and Indu’s horror at realising that Langda has caused Dolly’s death motivates one final twist. After smothering Dolly, Omkara spares Langda (why take revenge, he asks, when ‘our souls are forever damned’?), only for Indu to kill her husband with a single machete blow. Shakespeare’s tragic love story is thus incorporated into a three-generation family tragedy of a kind very popular with Bollywood audiences (echoing Bhardwaj’s domestication of Macbeth in Maqbooh.
Bollywood convention explains the three love ballads on the soundtrack, including the syrupy duet played under a flashback as Dolly recalls falling in love when she nursed an injured Omkara. Song-and-dance numbers are also obligatory, although Bhardwaj (who doubles impressively as Omkara’s composer) roots them in the story by turning Bianca into Kesu’s stunningly beautiful girlfriend, Billo (Bipasha Basu), a nautch girl who performs two dubbed, raunchy uptempo songs, the first at Golu’s party and the second at a police club, just before Langda and Omkara turn up to kill Kichlu. This forced transition from jollity to chaotic gunplay is one of Bhardwaj’s few missteps. One would also not miss the scene of Kesu teaching Dolly to sing Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Just Called to Say I Love You’ in English (pure kitsch). The family relationships could have been made clearer at an earlier stage, and we do not know whether Langda or Kesu kills Raju.
These are minor flaws in a story of great power and occasional flashes of poetry. Dolly recalls falling in love ‘like a blind bird plunging down an empty well’, and, sitting on a jetty, Langa nods ruefully to Raju: ‘Both of us are damned to lead donkeys’ lives.’
Cast and Production Credits
Year – 2006, Genre – Drama, Country – India, Language – Hindi, Producer – Devgan Entertainment, Director – Vishal Bhardwaj, Music Director – Vishal Bhardwaj, Cast – Ajay Devgan, Saif Ali Khan, Kareena Kapoor, Konkona Sen Sharma, Vivek Oberoi, Naseeruddin Shah, Bipasha Basu, Deepak Dobriyal, Manav Kaushik