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Omerta review: A lean, brutal masterpiece

By Sreehari Nair
May 04, 2018 09:00 IST
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'Omerta is a work of true moral force; it is, at the risk of sounding fancy, a motion picture for our times,' says Sreehari Nair.

A scene from Omerta

On a pleasant evening not that long ago, a few cinephile friends and I discussed the possibility of a book about a rapist.

The story was set so.

A teenage girl is raped.

At this point, the book forks in two directions: The girl's parents and their fight for justice; and the rapist returning home after the incident and immersing himself in the small, morbid details of his life.

The idea was to track the two stories side by side, before they converge in the final act of the book, dealing with the capture and the conviction of the rapist.

A pall of silence. The look of winners.

"This is darn good stuff," we thought, "like taking Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and finding a residence for it in bustling Mumbai."

"Only one problem though," said an apostate, interrupting our enthusiasm, "What is the moral point of the book?"

Another pall of silence. Winners drop their heads.

Though we perhaps, unconsciously, knew the 'answer' to the apostate friend's query, looking back now, I wish we had articulated it with the brilliance of Hansal Mehta's lean, brutal masterpiece, Omerta.


Works that have true moral force are as rare as Twitter Revolutions are frequent. And this is because such works don't follow the social convention of merely lionising the victim and deriding the offender.

By setting the devil within the morbid details of his life, these works extend our understanding of the world.

Devil plus details is Art; Devil minus details is Vigilante Justice.

By this token, Omerta is a work of true moral force; it is, at the risk of sounding fancy, a motion picture for our times.

Tense and tightly wound -- almost like a thriller -- Omerta covers 15 years in the life of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh (Rajkumar Rao), charting his rise from a banner-holding protestor at the Bosnia Week Rally in London to his status as the world's most reptilian terrorist.

I say the word terrorist, but Mehta tells Omar's story from inside out. Consequently, we are forced to see the sad comedy that defines the disease: These young killers are maybe terrorists to us, but to them, they are revolutionaries.

In a scene of his first camp in Pakistan, Omar is greeted by a young man who introduces himself as a Kashimiri freedom fighter! The news channels may use a single terminology to describe all such men, but here, in this world that Mehta has created, these young men pick their own titles.

At a training camp, later, in Afghanistan, a mujahid, with only liberation in his eyes, jumps off a cliff and down to his death -- demonstrating to the new recruits what 'holy sacrifice' actually means.

All through Omerta, Hansal Mehta seems to be asking the sort of difficult questions that writers like Christopher Hitchens, despite their venomous skill and style, never cared to ask.

Like for example: How efficient can a war on terrorism be if it can't comprehend its enemy's belief system; if it does not respect its enemy's courage or does not know its exact lividity?

And yes, while Omerta may stand to the left of Hitchens, it is also firmly to the right of Arundhati Roy.

The film, despite setting up camp in the world of Omar Saeed, isn't looking to expiate his sins or raise him to the level of a martyr. It takes us awfully close to Omar and to those around him so that their every act of terror feels like a way of life.

We watch the terrorists eating their meals and we watch them ragging one another; we watch how they complete the lines of qawwali singers and how they treat their women (as in Old Italian Mafia classics, the women hardly have any presence here, let alone a voice).

And after we watch these men commit horrific acts with religious cool, Hansal Mehta, like a true artist, sidesteps all modern clichés of drama.

He gives in Omerta no scenes of redemption or scenes of the terrorists experiencing any heightened understanding of their washed out lives.

Even toward the end, when Omar Saeed is shown idling in a Pakistani prison, he watches the 26/11 Mumbai attacks on TV and admonishes the boys for 'wasting too much ammunition'.

Funnily enough, in this cold, uninflected landscape, it is those documentary shots of George W Bush, with openers like, 'Laura and I, and the American people, are deeply saddened...' that play out like passages from a bad sentimental novel.

In this world of quick-thinking, dynamic, ready-to-die men, it’s the politicians who actually come off as Johnny One-Notes.

These world leaders with their canned speeches don't seem to recognise what Hansal Mehta and Rajkummar Rao do so well: That both the range of what we consider 'evil' and the terms of our existence have changed considerably in the last 25 years.

It has changed from Heraclitus' theory that A man's character is his fate to Norman Mailer prophesising in The White Negro: We all today live with the suppressed knowledge that our character or the lack of it could mean equally well and that we are doomed to die in a vast operation of mass extermination at the end of which our teeth would be counted but our death itself would be largely unremarked.

In a world defined in such nihilistic terms, Omar Saeed is not a Madman, but a Modern Warrior.

He is sophisticated, well-informed, and ambidextrous (Omar arm-wrestles with both hands and can get both halves of his brain -- the one he uses to make chess moves, and the one he uses to paint blood-art -- working at the same time, and at full capacities).

In Omerta's most disturbing stretches, we hear the same dialogue repeated over and over again, 'Omar, we need more educated, modern men like you to lead the holy war.'

And the reason: 'Nobody listens to an uneducated mujahid, you see.'

Hansal Mehta does not spare us the small, bureaucratic realities of jihad.

The first lesson that a maulana spouts: 'Don't trust anyone.'

Later at a training camp: 'Your biggest weapon is your Mind.'

It is like an induction programme for all those unhappy young men out there!

Omerta also subtly throws light on the paternal shifts of power in a young mujahid's life as he swears allegiance to the holy war.

Omar leaves his biological father for father figures (the maulanas) who strive to help him reach the eternal father.

Later, at the height of his powers, he starts to see himself as a holy father who demands respect and must have it.

Omar's own Abba, however, is too much of an unambiguous man to grasp all this.

"I am afraid of losing my son," the Abba wallows at one point.

"He is Allah's son now," assures a maulana.

But that isn't enough to calm the old man's fraying nerves and he enters into a state of permanent delusion.

At the end, after Omar is arrested for murdering Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, the father tells the press that it is a 'conspiracy', and he means it -- he has been, all the while, seeing the whole thing as one big conspiracy.

Sheer genius is the entire Daniel Pearl arc of Omerta.

Hansal Mehta doesn't rush through the story or try to exploit our familiarity of it (somebody like a Prakash Jha would have turned this section into a slide show); Mehta almost unspools it, taking his time, and employing misdirection whenever possible.

Very few Indian directors would have thought up that wonderful shot of Daniel Pearl walking through a garment market in Pakistan where shawls and multi-coloured clothes compete with Pearl's prim outfit for our attention.

Mehta is here building a world out of recorded facts and he doesn't miss out on the faint brushstrokes.

Like Omar, when arranging an interview for Daniel Pearl, asks Pearl to send him a questionnaire, and the American spurns the request with a, 'Oh no no, that's not how I work.'

While it may seem an aside, this small fact tells us about the kind of journalist Daniel Pearl was.

When talking to Pearl, Rajkummar Rao brings in the Pakistani English, carefully dropping Omar's natural, merchant-class British English.

Rao speaks in more than one accent here; turning his Omar Saeed into a confidence man with the roguish air and the quick wit of a seasoned stage performer.

Mehta and Rao wisely enough, do not make this a show-reel for Rajkummar Rao, the actor.

You never quite know if this is his 'Maximum Performance' and yet you are sure that he is constantly in the matrix of the character.

Rao's Omar stimulates anger through exercise, and later plays the staring game with a handcuffed Daniel Pearl.

When Pearl refuses to blink, we see this self-anointed Holy Father, 'The Saviour', as he calls himself, winding down the stairs of holiness -- he goes from being Holy, to a plain, irritated Father, and then finally to that boy in London who once thought that the best way to help Muslim Bosniaks would be to attend to the wounded.

The acting all round is brilliant in that it never feels like acting, but like actors tag-teaming to carry scenes forward.

Rajesh Tailang is memorable as an ISI agent/brigadier, who visits Omar's hotel at night wearing a burkha and then informs Omar with a grin that Pearl must die.

And while Omar hears the ISI officer, Hansal Mehta slowly sews in that subtext of Omar, the perpetual emigrant, never feeling at home, anywhere.

To a British tourist he has marked down for abduction, Omar talks about Yorkshire, calling the place beautiful, but quickly adds that he has never been there.

On his first trip to India, he takes foreigners to a tour of Delhi's monuments.

And later, as if status-seeking, he talks to his Abba, about Pakistan, 'Look how they respect me here.'

But his voice is shaky and the old man catches him out.

Mehta wants to show us the hallucinations of a mujahid; about being ridden with the feeling that you have already evolved from this world and now exist in a sacred netherworld.

And Mehta then encloses this illusion of the netherworld with the vaporous beauty of the real world; Omerta seems to achieve beauty without artifice.

Probably the most beautifully shot Hindi movie of the last two years, Omerta's lanes and its by-lanes are captured in all their stirrings, and the decorative lights in the Muslim neighbourhood become a part of the movie's texture, almost.

Cinematographer Anuj Dhawan lights the scenes using natural sources, often using the light rippling in through curtains, doors and windows.

It has been some time since we saw a Hindi movie that actually looks like a movie; the look of the film is grainy, overpowering, and sensual.

And then there is the sound design to put you at the exact centre of the action, every single time.

Omar's shutting down of a foreigner he has abducted is followed by the sound of a cooker whistling in a room adjacent to his.

Later, when Omar kidnaps a lady tourist, alternating shots capture the brouhaha inside the car, and the startling quietness of the street outside.

The scenes of physical mutilation are staged with such ugliness that you choke on them -- every slap, every fall, every thud, goes straight to your gut.

I squirmed in my seat at the sound of a knife slitting through Daniel Pearl's neck, and later at the sound of blood trickling out.

Despite keeping a vice-like grip on the viewer for almost its entire length, Omar's life-story doesn't come to a walloping conclusion.

Mehta is too proud an artist to 'reinvent reality' and he seems to be saying, 'So his story ends rather tepidly; won't you take it?'

An apology is perhaps the last thing that Hansal Mehta will tender, but this movie is a change of approach for him.

In Omerta's best scene, a cop stops Omar when he is recce-ing in Delhi, under the fake name of Rohit Verma.

'Forgive me, but you look like a Muslim,' says the cop.

Omar is forced into a tight spot, and has to now do double-duty: on one hand, he has to prove his Rohit-ness, and on the other hand, ask the cop what is so wrong about being a Muslim.

The cop suddenly softens his stand, and asks with compassion: 'Did I insult you? I am sorry if I did.'

He then asks Omar to leave, and as his tail-lights slip out of the frame, the cop orders his subordinate to note down the car's number.

A scene, such as the one above, usually occurs in a Hansal Mehta movie as a marker of the ceaseless injustice being meted out to his lead character.

A sense of injustice has been flaring in Mehta too since the time his face was blackened by Hindu fundamentalists. The face behind the black paint has since then, been his main subject.

In Omerta, he tries to close in on those who smear the paint, and with that change in focus, he achieves something he hadn't achieved yet.

Something indescribable; something that terrorists and artists both die trying for: Salvation.

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Sreehari Nair