Tuesday, August 01, 2006

I will a round unvarnished tale deliver ... what conjuration and what mighty magic

[being notes on Omkara, the best hindi film of 2006]

A slightly modified version of this appears on Naachgaana.com

The same modified version appears on Desicritics.org

the short version: Do yourself a favour and go watch it.

After the wonderful Maqbool, Vishal scores with Omkara, his adaptatation of William Shakespeare's Othello (as the first opening credit proclaims). Vishal digs deep into Leone territory and the trappings of a Bollywood film to craft an expansive saga of love, betrayal, jealousy, strife and violence. A second viewing is called for in order to appreciate the intricate weave of the tapestry, but some scattered notes and hosannas should suffice for now.

the cast: I have had doubts about the cast, and I still nurse a gnawing "what if" scenario with actors instead of box office magnets (for what they're worth). Devgan fits the vision of Om Shukla/Othello, but he brings nothing much physically to it that hasn't already been seen before (most importantly in Company). This déjà vu threatens to hamper the viewing, but not so critically.

Kareena Kapoor does not grate. This alone is an achievement. The much touted "erotic" scene becomes a truly aesthetic element of a mural of dissolves and fades. She even manages the the naïveté of Dolly/Desdemona and is definitely sincere in her efforts for the role; yet the "what if someone else had played this part" feeling didn't quite go away. Yet, as with Devgan, Vishal seems to have used her presence and iconography well.

Viveik Oberoi fits Kesu Firangi/Cassio well enough not to get on your nerves; and kudos to him for taking the effort to get the chords right for I just called to say I love you (and to Saif who helped him).

Konkona Sen reportedly couldn't relate to her role, but her wonderful performance as Indu/Emilia is a testimony to her calibre as an actress.

Saif gets the best part in the play and he does a great job as Langda Tyagi/Iago. After being reluctant to get his hair cut, he's gone to the look of delicious evil and does well on the dialogues too. If there's any doubt about this man's ability to turn in a good performance given the right material and director, watch the shots of his face as Om Shukla appoints Kesu as the new baahubalii. Vishal wanted Langda Tyagi to look like Gabbar Singh and Langda becomes a favourite just like people loved Amjad's classic villain despite his evil deeds. Saif goes the long way with tarnishing his physicality and even though the limp seems to change through the film, this is a wonderful turn. In Maqbool, Pankaj Kapur walked away with the extended part that Vishal created while adding more detail to the backstory of the film; Saif does the same here, but this time both Bard and Bhardwaj are on his side.

With everyone going ugly or without make-up, Bipasha Basu gets the best deal: she looks beautiful, is photographed well (didn't notice the squint) and even gets the best name of the year -- Billo Chaman Bahar.

Deepak Dobriyal seems to have missed out on media attention despite an earnest wonderful turn as Rajju/Roderigo.

As with Maqbool, Naseeruddin Shah's brief turn as Tiwari Bhaisaahab/The Duke is bound to worry a few; yet, once again, Vishal chooses the actor wisely to infuse a small part with the most life for what it's worth.

A special note for the old lady who gets the most authentic lines in the film and delivers them with crowd-pleasing aplomb.

The technical crew

* Tassaduq Hussain's a great D/P. The wonderful long shots (e.g. Tyagi walking away after tossing Rajju into the river), the close-ups of the boots, the textures and tones of the earth, the green lighting for Saif (especially in the final confrontation) underscoring the theme of jealousy; and that wonderful sequence in the rain outside the train.

* Dolly Ahluwalia's costumes (not to mention the banner bearing the remnants of her cameo as Auntyji); more about the colour coding will be clear after a second viewing

* Meghana Manchanda's editing which aids Vishal's desire to stop short at the right time before moments in the film can devolve into the morass of standard assembly-line Bollywood. There's a nice cut where Rajju's look as he arrives in a vehicle matches a look in the next scene. Coincidence or accident?

Mappings Vishal handles the mappings well. The handkerchief becomes a family heirloom (a cummerbund); whispers and overheard conversations translate to cell phones; and in a brilliantly ingenious move, he leaves Om and Dolly unmarried, waiting for a suitable muhuurat. The twist in the tail that he adds to the narrative gets Konkona her big moment of expression; the change fits in reasonably well, and extends the crescendo of the tragic events of the climax. All this, however, didn't resonate with the ingenuity of the mappings in Maqbool (the 3 witches and "when Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane"). The comparison is unfair since there's little one can do about the source material; yet the novelty and the cast of Maqbool score higher than this painstaking labour of love. Vishal also tends to skim over a set of sequences as the narrative proceeds and people might feel cheated with how little time and space are devoted the Omi/Dolly dynamic, the political angle in the goings-on and such, Omkara's power as a leader; yet there seems to be some merit in the effectiveness of the unsaid. Yet, both films achieve different goals for Vishal and Omkara marks a strong step forward for him creatively (when was the last time you had a film this big where one person shared screenwriting credit, wrote the dialogue, composed the songs for the film, even sang one of them and directed the damn thing to top it all?). One eagerly awaits the release of The Blue Umbrella and wishes Vishal the very best for his next venture.


* The presence of authentic instruments during the item songs adding to their diegetic flavour

* Dialogue transcending scene boundaries across cuts

* Vishal tinkers with the songs to overlay dialogue over the interludes (o saathii re, bii.Dii), to cut straight to the scene (the opening of namak), to fit the visuals (the modified extended interlude on o saathii re); he even adjusts the lengths so that the songs never end up being the conventional Bollywood toilet break indicators; Suresh Wadkar's jag jaa appears twice: once in a not-on-the-soundtrack-release a cappella version and the second time in the place it was meant to be (if you've read Othello you know what I mean)

* That audacious single shot in the opening of o saathii re

* The crackling dialogue, the fresh wit, the bawdy jokes

* The fate of the railway train carrying Bhaisaahab, Omi and Langda

* Langda painting his nails as Indu consoles Kesu: just another indicator of Vishal's attention to detail

* Was the sequence when Ajay Devgan gets a rinse from the water pump at the end of the duel underscored by the title track a tip to the end of the godown fight in Deewar?

Trivia: Diegetic music included Preeti Sagar singing my heart is beating. Also noted the copy of Godaan in Naseeruddin's prison "residence." Great product placement for Dainik Jagran too. Did anyone notice the phone number for the Billo Chaman Bahar Orchestra? And Tyagi Hospital Hostel (thanks Arun) has to be one of the best subtle references in the film.

Excisions: What happened to the college sequences at the University? The flashback fragment features in the film but I don't remember Ajay riding a bike (clearly, as Manish notes, they mixed up Viveik and Ajay) or even the campaigning.

The grand scheme of things: Vishal seems to have served himself a Catch-22 situation. The choice of stars seems to have been motivated by the desire to reach a wider audience and also to be able to snag the funds to make a film on a larger canvas. While having succeeded on the budgetary front, Vishal's creatively admirable and satisfying desire to remain faithful to the dialect might alienate the very audiences that he has tried to attract. Not to mention the language that the censor board has been prudent enough to leave intact.

Anticlimax: The film, reportedly, isn't doing too well. Disappointing.

Vishal just wanted "the film to make enough money to let me make another film the way I want to." Here's hoping we see many more films from him.

Elsewhere: Baradwaj Rangan's nicely written take on the film | JR's notes | Masalafied's take on the film (added: august 08, 2006)

addendum: [august 02, 2006]: Despite reports about a discouraging opening ("The film opens to a very poor response all over. The trade has labelled the film a big flop already because of the high prices. The turnout in some theatres in Delhi and Punjab was as low as 10% and that is a shocker for a big star cast film."), there's hope for Vishal's labour of love yet. It's doing well in the UK and has grossed Rs. 14.2 million in various PVR complexes in Delhi in the last four days. Prakash Jha, who's handling the distribution of the film in Bihar, also notes a favourable response. Wonder what Salim Khan, who's distributing the film in Central India, has to say. I hope the film truly is here to stay. Vishal's got another weekend and some days before KANK hits the fan. Things are tight.

addendum: [august 05, 2006]: The box office report now reflects the favourable responses noted earlier: Managed to pick up Mumbai, Delhi and Pune but struggling at most places. Looks set to lose in many circuits apart from Mumbai where it may recover costs. Heavy loser in East Punjab, CPCI, Rajasthan, Bihar and Nizam. First week business is around 12.50 crore.. We're still among the sharks, but hope ain't dyin' yet.

addendum: [august 13, 2006]: Updated reports don't offer a very promising picture. KANK's had a "historic opening" and has even taken over some screening zones[1]; this means that there's not much hope of a miracle in the short term: Managed to sustain very well in Delhi/NCR but fell heavily elsewhere. After two weeks business, the only circuit which will make money is Delhi/UP due to good business in Delhi/NCR. Surprisingly the UP/Bihar belt is weak.

[1] The primary hall in Atlanta, Galaxy Cinema, has decided to devote all its halls and shows to the film; no more Omkara until the DVD hits the market

addendum: [august 16, 2006]: While describing the great business KANK is doing abroad, Arthur J Pais also notes how well Omkara did abroad:

While KANK is hogging all the limelight, let us not forget the resilient Omkara, which stole $170,000 in North America, almost reaching $1 million while across the Atlantic, it has grossed an impressive $500,000 in three weeks. The riveting performance by Saif Ali Khan, who has built a solid fan base overseas in the past three years, is one reason why Omkara is having a profitable run abroad. Its steady overseas box-office performance has surprised the box-office pundits in India.

addendum: [august 17, 2006] The film's been granted a 3-month entertainment tax exemption in UP because the state government believes that the film "spreads the message of checking rising crime among youth." Here's to some better business at the box office there.

addendum: [august 22, 2006]: The updated (august 19, 2006 : 1500 IST) reports have a verdict. The film is a flop: Falls heavily in third week and is struggling to cover costs in Mumbai and Delhi/UP now. FLOP

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