Shakespeare’s Venetian noblemen move to the Hindi-heartland underworld in a lewd, lusty, enormously satisfying adaptation.
JULY 30, 2006 – EACH TIME VISHAL BHARDWAJ COMES OUT with a Shakespeare adaptation, it’s tomtomed to the heavens as this Great Enterprise No One’s Ever Thought Of (Let Alone Attempted) Before. This is mainly because, I think, most people are intimidated by the Bard. His plays today have become like the opera — if you know something about them, you’re probably the kind of person who’d also be able to identify the year of a pinot noir the second its cork is waved under your nose; mere mortals, in other words, don’t have a hope in hell of appreciating them. But the irony is that Shakespeare’s plays — like the opera — were created for mere mortals. They are full of love and lust and hate and jealousy and low comedy and high drama and fairies and ghosts and cross-dressing and mistaken identities — hardly the exclusive domain of High Art. So why this fuss? Why should it be surprising that these plays fit right into an Indian movie context, especially when our melodramas are also bastard children of the opera? And why do we keep forgetting that Shakespearean themes have been a mainstay of our cinema at least since Dilip Kumar tamed Nadira’s shrew in Aan?
Maybe it’s because no one else attempts such direct adaptations. Omkara is Bhardwaj’s take on Othello, and by that I mean it’s based on the text of Othello and not merely the themes in Othello. That’s an important distinction, because if we take Othello to be just the story of a man who slowly loses his marbles by suspecting his wife of being unfaithful, we could label Sangam or Aap Ki Kasam as Othello adaptations too. But in Omkara, Bhardwaj is after a deliberate one-to-one mapping of Othello, much as his Maqbool was of Macbeth. So you have characters with phonetically similar names. (Cassio, for instance, becomes Kesu.) You have visual equivalents of the poetry of the original lines. (Langda Tyagi, the Iago character, wears mostly green and is shot predominantly in greenish light because he’s the instigator of jealousy, “the green ey’d monster.”And when we first meet Omkara and Dolly — this version’s Othello and Desdemona — he’s draped in a black shawl while she’s in a white dupatta, which goes back to what Iago tells Desdemona’s father: “An old black ram is tupping your white ewe.”) And the handkerchief that’s the root of all confusion becomes a jewelled cummerbund.
But these are superficial changes. The real transformation is on the inside, in the way Shakespeare’s Venice becomes our Hindi heartland. It’s in the way the elegant ladies become earthy laundiyas who cheerfully declare that the key to a man’s heart isn’t his stomach but a part more southwards. It’s in the lived-in feel of the film, where a character we’ve been introduced to is hanging out clothes to dry, when two houses behind hers, there’s an unidentified mother combing her daughter’s hair. It’s in the way their talk is embroidered with our traditions. (Omkara promises Dolly anything she wants, but instead of using the Bard’s words — “I will deny thee nothing”– he gives her a “Dashrath ka vaada“the kind of bound-by-honour pledge that Kaikeyi so cannily took advantage of.) And it’s in the language, the glorious language. The dialect may put off some viewers, but how liberating it is to hear Hindi that sounds like it came off the soil and not some screenwriter’s pen. When Langda’s wife sees Omkara beside Dolly, she can’t help making fun of the disparity in their complexions, but the real humour comes from the way she makes this comparison: “Jaise koyle ke lote mein doodh.”You can’t be a filmmaker holed up in a South Mumbai pad and dream up this stuff; it has to come from within.
Even the smallest of small characters are beautifully realised — like the dancer Billo Chamanbahar. (What a jaw-droppingly magnificent name!) Bipasha Basu is essentially playing Waheeda Rehman’s part in Teesri Kasam, a nautanki performer who teases the libidos of frustrated small-towners, but where Rehman was a genteel artist from a now-gone era, Billo is a foul-mouthed, lusty creature who lives in today’s world of multiplexes and mobile phones. (Bipasha looks so sensational, I wondered for an instant why she bothered to de-glam herself for that boring role in Corporate. It’s a depressing thought that our sexy heroines feel they have to prove their worth by acting, when they have something no mere actor can ever hope to achieve: the capacity to reduce celluloid to cinder.) Her numbers are sensationally shot, but not in that choreographed one-step, two-step way. In Bidi , our own bard, Gulzar, writes for her this song that says her heart is so afire, you can light your bidi off of it — the camera is like a lurching drunk weaving in and out of the revellers. (I think we first saw this in the Say na, say na number in Bluffmaster, where it’s not about dance steps so much as the mood of the moment.)
Perhaps because he was a music director before making the transition to director, Bhardwaj does these things with his songs that are utterly unexpected. He breaks the choreography of the numbers for snatches of dialogue between stanzas, the interlude music suddenly seeming not the link between the mukhda and the antara so much as background score to the words being spoken. And he gambles on the audience’s patience by letting a languorous lori , Jag jaa (another lovely number in an altogether superb soundtrack composed by the director) — play out in its entirety twice, but each time with a different significance: at first, it’s an attempt to wake someone up from sleep, then later from death. Even the sequence of the songs is unusual. I expected the first one to be the title number that heroically establishes Omkara as the man who walks like this and talks like that, but it’s actually the philosophical Naina thag lenge. More bafflingly, it is scored to images of Omkara and Dolly meeting, falling in love. And just as you’re wondering what any of this has to do with lyrics that point out how the eyes can deceive, Dolly’s father warns Omkara not to trust his daughter (who’s chosen Omkara over him): “Jo apne baap ko thag sakti hai, woh kisi aur ki sagi kya hogi?”Ah, so the motivation for the song comes after the number plays itself out; it’s like the musical equivalent of a New Wave Cinema jump cut that cheerfully mixes chronologies and messes up linearity.
I guess Bhardwaj felt he could tinker around with these things because the story isn’t the point here — because it’s not about what’s happening but how. Even if you don’t know your Othello, the plot is fairly straightforward. Omkara (Ajay Devgan, in yet another addition to his gallery of great, brooding performances) is a political hood who appoints Kesu his right-hand man. (As the latter, Viveik Oberoi is the most heartfelt he’s been in ages, thankfully having lost that swaggering cockiness that’s made him unwatchable of late.) This upsets Langda Tyagi (Saif Ali Khan), who plots his revenge by making Omkara suspect that Dolly (Kareena Kapoor) is having an affair with Kesu — and to achieve this, he manipulates his innocent wife Indu (Konkana Sen Sharma, who first appears desperately miscast, struggling with vulgarisms like chhammak chhallo and sasuri, but slowly grows on you as her character takes shape; she has a couple of superb scenes towards the end).
The result, of course, is grand tragedy — and it’s roused, of course, by grander passions. Bhardwaj idealises the relationship between Omkara and Dolly, as if theirs is the purest love amidst the baser variations of the emotion in the people surrounding them. It’s not just that he’s cast Kareena, who really does have skin as “smooth as monumental alabaster”and who visually stands for all that’s pure merely by the fact that every actor around her is at least ten shades darker. It’s in the way he shows us Omkara and Dolly in post-coital embrace — she looks as untouched, as radiant, as a Raphaelite Madonna — and then cuts to Indu lying on top of Langda after they’ve made love, her naked back glistening with sweat. The only time this great romance of Dolly and Omkara becomes less than ideal is during the tragedy at the end, when her nails carve bloody furrows on his cheek, as if to tell us that the true passion — as opposed to true love — that eluded them in life was finally theirs in death. And throughout, the director presages this end by hinting at shadowy third players in the background. When Dolly and Omkara embrace, Bhardwaj cuts away to her ex-fiancé (played by a terrific newcomer, Deepak Dobriyal), and during their exquisite love duet — O saathi re, where one uninterrupted camera movement follows them through their house; it’s as gorgeous a piece of technical showboating as I’ve seen — Bhardwaj hovers briefly on Indu looking on at the happy couple, wondering if she’s doing the right thing by following her husband’s orders to steal the cummerbund.
This is a throwaway shot of what could have been a major melodramatic moment. That’s how a lot of Omkara is. The story is pure melodrama, but the staging stops just shy of some of our cherished — and maybe not so cherished — conventions. There’s a scene where Omkara is consumed by doubt and jealousy, thinking that the cummerbund he gifted Dolly has found its way to Kesu. So he shrugs off Dolly when she embraces him — but this being a melodrama, he doesn’t merely shrug her off; he does so with such brute force that she spins away from him and hits her head on the bedpost. But here’s where Bhardwaj makes it an anti-melodrama: by virtue of years of Hindi-movie conditioning, you think the next shot will have her getting up, revealing her face to us, and more importantly, revealing that trickle of blood from the upper left corner of her forehead. (You can almost imagine her raising her hand to her forehead, then examining her fingers that are now stained red.) But Bhardwaj abruptly cuts to the room in disarray, as she searches for the missing cummerbund. This tendency to under-emphasise is evident even in the product placements. Omkara is shown reading Dainik Jagaran , but then he’s in a train and people do read newspapers in trains, and where he’s from, they probably do read this particular paper. If you have to have product placements, this is surely the way to do so.
At some point, I couldn’t help wondering where Bhardwaj learnt to make films like this. He doesn’t seem to have been an assistant director or an apprentice filmmaker. How does a music director manage to conceive the casually erotic image of Omkara caressing Dolly’s ear as he lies beside her, his forearm nestled between her breasts? How did he think of making the swing an important piece of furniture, seemingly to mirror the vacillations of Omkara’s mind? Why he did name a building Tyagi Hostel and then not tell us if it has anything to do with Langda? Was that shot of a fly buzzing around the face of an idling man an homage to the similar shot in the opening sequence of Once Upon a Time In the West, considering how Omkara’s opening sequence — as well as the fonts of the opening credits — would fit right into a Western? How did Bhardwaj manage to imbue his movie with such a sense of inevitability, such a sense of real life, that what we’re seeing doesn’t seem scripted but appears to be actually unfolding before our eyes?
There are so many marvellous images you’ll take away — Langda overjoyed at laying his hands on the cummerbund, wearing it like a crown and cackling like a mad monarch; Kesu venting his impotence (at being relegated to menial jobs in the organisation) by beating up the poor driver of the car that’s blocking his way on a tiny street; Omkara snuffing out Dolly’s life to the sounds of the squeaks of the very swing on which they once lay together in love; the light of the earlier sequences giving way to the near-total darkness of the final scenes, thus reflecting the emotional graph of the story — that you feel ungrateful for nitpicking. So I’ll let go the minor irritants like the use of swelling, Orffian chants to underscore a dramatic moment, something that sounds particularly odd given the milieu of this movie. But the major missteps have to do with the conception of Omkara’s character, and that was exactly my problem with Maqbool too. When I wrote about the latter, I said: Macbeth is a tragedy not just because its hero dies, but because that loyal, brave man is led astray. It’s the corruption of this pure soul that makes you invest in him, the fact that this good guy went so bad. Maqbool is merely a bad guy gone worse, so why would you care if this Mob murderer killed a few more men?
Othello, similarly, is a great warrior whose actions are driven mainly by the insecurity of being a misfit in his society, a black man in the midst of whites. But Omkara has no reason to be insecure. The director makes him half-Brahmin, and gives us a scene where someone insults him about being a half-breed. But nothing much comes of this except one of the movie’s few lapses into triteness; when Omkara talks about this to Dolly, she consoles him that a half-moon is still the moon. But everywhere else, he’s a confident man at the top of his profession. Naseeruddin Shah plays Omkara’s boss, and he has the film’s funniest moment when he asks a railway attendant to reverse the direction of the train they’re on, because they need to get back to where they started from. These guys have that kind of power. So what is it exactly that makes Omkara susceptible to Langda’s brainwashing? Just the fact that Dolly and Kesu were once college mates? And in Othello’s case, Cassio was younger, more handsome, but here Omkara looks so toned and buff, he appears to have spent every waking minute in the gym — or at least the local akhara. So why the insecurity, especially when Dolly has defied her father to come stay with him? Besides, having made the protagonist a kind of antagonist — he is, after all, just a gangster — why doesn’t Bhardwaj tell us about Dolly’s feelings for the kind of work her man does? Is she content being the moll? Is the danger inherent in his down-and-dirty, rustic lifestyle the real attraction for this upper-class girl with an affinity for Stevie Wonder songs?
But some of the deviations from Shakespeare do work fabulously — like the decision to not have Omkara and Dolly married at the beginning. It’s a superb narrative stunt to have them waiting to tie the knot, and you wonder why Shakespeare didn’t think of this, because the event and the rituals around it form a terrific backdrop for the unfolding climax. There’s the tension whether the marriage will take place at all, what with all of Omkara’s suspicions. Besides, having Dolly as Omkara’s live-in lover does wonders to the character of Desdemona, who is otherwise — quite frankly — a boring paragon of wifely virtue. If Kareena exhibits flashes of spunk and charm, it’s due to this conceit. (And there seems to be an unwritten rule that whenever the actress is made to sing in her own voice, her performance in that movie brings out facets of her you never knew existed. That was the case in Dev, where she crooned Jab nahin aaye; that’s the case here, where she barely manages to keep tune to I just called to say I love you.)
But the surprise of Kareena’s performance is nothing compared to what Saif manages to achieve. Bhardwaj has mentioned in interviews that he wanted his villain to look like Gabbar Singh. But initially, Saif merely appeared to me a dude in bad-boy makeup. Nothing about him — the buzz cut, the fuzz on his face, the yellow teeth, the chapped lips, the one painted pinkie nail — made me believe he was anything but the guy from Hum Tum who accidentally strayed onto the Omkara sets, with a limp that Iago never had. (Could this be a riff off another Shakespearean villain, Richard III, whose physical deformity — a hunchback — is often interpreted as mirroring a mental depravity?) But then the strangest thing happened during the scene where Langda is passed over for promotion; after seeing the expressions that flit across Saif’s face — from surprise to bewilderment to shock to disappointment to resentment to rage to cold acceptance — the character came together completely. At that point, even that curved beak of his seemed to be acting, making him look like a predatory bird amidst unsuspecting pigeons. I know it sounds silly to say this because the way films are shot and put together, you can’t expect a performance to be built or a character to be found over a stretch of time — the way it is in the theatre — but that’s the case with Saif here. He finds his footing with that scene, and disappears so completely into Langda Tyagi that I think I’m going to having a problem accepting him if he ever does those metrosexual roles again. He’s so easily the most dominating, most magnetic character on screen, he makes you wonder why you’re not watching a movie named Langda Tyagi, based on a play by Shakespeare named Iago. I can’t remember the last time evil appeared so lip-smackingly good.
This week’s comedy isn’t bad, but its meandering makes you wish for a remote control .
JULY 16, 2006 – WHEN A MOVIE CARRIES THE TAGLINE “Fun Unlimited”and when it opens with Ajay Devgan in a reprise of that masala shot from Phool aur Kaante that made him famous — you know, the one where he stands astride two moving motorbikes — it’s clear he’s doing a rare, light role. Now, he isn’t very good with comedy. He does the offhand comic moment well, like when he tried to pull off an off-key Chingari koi bhadke in front of a family of classical singers in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, but banana-peel stuff as in Hum Kisise Kum Nahin, he’s not at all suited for — yet, I felt like cutting him some slack. After all, he’s going to show up as the grim, brooding, desi Othello in a couple of weeks, and that’s after his series of grim, brooding portrayals in Yuva, Raincoat, Tango Charlie, Main Aisa Hi Hoon, Shikhar and Apaharan, so you can’t grudge the man the chance to pick up an easy pay cheque, which is surely what motivated him to do Golmaal.
And this pay cheque is made easier by the fact that this is an ensemble comedy, so Devgan isn’t required to carry the film single-handedly. He plays one of four small-time conmen — the others are Arshad Warsi, Tusshar Kapoor and Sharman Joshi — who haven’t done an honest day’s work in their lives. While escaping a Sanjay Dutt-worshipping moneylender (Mukesh Tiwari), they stumble into the bungalow of an elderly man and his wife (Paresh Rawal, Sushmita Mukherjee), both of whom are blind. The latter mistake one of our boys for their NRI grandson, and soon Devgan and Co. are hiding out there, eyeing neighbour Rimmi Sen, and doing… nothing for really long stretches of screen time.
One of the things today’s comedy writers haven’t quite figured out is how to keep the plot moving while simultaneously keeping the gags coming. The earlier Golmaal did that marvellously. Forget the scene-stealing antics of Utpal Dutt and Dina Pathak, even the songs were funny. (Only Gulzar, a terrific comic writer himself, could have written Ek din sapne mein dekha…) Yet, throughout, things kept happening to the protagonist played by Amol Palekar; he wasn’t just showing up to deliver punch lines. This Golmaal has a subplot involving smugglers, but that’s almost an afterthought. It’s as if the writers woke up every ten minutes and realised their story was headed nowhere, so they shoehorned these bits in. And Vishal-Shekhar’s score isn’t bad at all — the spoofy, forties’ style Kyon aage peechhe is great fun — but these numbers are just filler, like many other scenes that land on screen and refuse to budge even after they’ve exhausted their quota of humour. When Vrajesh Hirjee shows up as some sort of snake-man, you laugh, but not for long, as every joke involving him is underlined three times, then made bold, then highlighted before the next one comes along.
Then again, you’re not supposed to think much during these films. As audiences, we’re advised to “take off our thinking caps”or “leave our brains at the door.”I do both, I swear, but is it such a crime to expect a comedy to be funny in its dialogues and in its structure and in its visual gags, to expect more than just (admittedly solid) laughs every five minutes or so? That’s apparently the case, for when I panned 36 China Town — a comedy-thriller that I found neither comic nor thrilling — a reader wrote back, saying, “Spit out that lemon you’ve been sucking on and stop being oh so TS Eliot. 36 China Town was fun fun fun!”So there, legions of ticket-payers will probably find Golmaal fun fun fun too.
But I’ll tell you what made Golmaal worthwhile for me: watching Sharman Joshi in action. The actor is barely a few films old, and he’s already my favourite comedian. Just seeing him makes me want to laugh, for he’s got the goofy, self-satisfied grin of a 10-year-old who accidentally inhaled a little too much pot. Watch him in a miniskirt here, spoofing Tanisha in Neal ân’ Nikki, or carrying on a conversation with his back to the other person. He really made up for the gags like the one where Ajay Devgan ends up with a knife through his right buttock. Sharman Joshi, for my money, is fun fun fun.
Copyright Â©2006 The New Sunday Express