Ever since the sparkling Shahid, a Hansal Mehta film has always been a “look forward to” event for me every year. Mehta has not disappointed me until last year’s Simran, which to me was a strictly average outing for someone who has made films like Shahid, Citylights, and Aligarh. Omerta is his latest offering staring Rajkumar Rao, the man who reserves his best for Mehta. I was extremely excited for this film primarily to know the story of a man who was important enough to be put in the same league as the unscrupulous Hafiz Muhammad Saeed and the nefarious Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar when their brothers hijacked the Infamous, Kathmandu-India flight.
Omerta unfolds in multiple timelines. We see Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, an Indian born British citizen—that’s how he identifies himself — kidnap foreign tourists in Delhi, get inspired by the plight of the Muslims in Bosnia to do something about it as he is living in England, take his training in Pakistan and then get promoted to get his skills honed under the shady ISI. We see how he is arrested in Delhi and serves time in prison and then a glimpse of how he is taken out of prison. The film, in its final act, shows us how Omar was instrumental in the kidnapping of Daniel Pearl, the reporter from Wall Street Journal, whose kidnapping and murder created a major ruckus among the international media.
Omerta is a mixed bag but I will start off with the things that I liked about this film. Hands down, Rajkumar Rao is the best thing about it. When he played a lawyer in Shahid who was almost lured into terrorism, Omerta was waiting to happen just around the corner. Here he plays a full-blown terrorist who might have started off as someone who wanted to do something about the plight of the Muslims in Bosnia but quickly gets transformed into a monster who almost takes pleasure in spilling blood. The transformation of the man is sublimely brought out by Rao and he gets under the skin of the character.
The scene towards the end where he butchers an innocent with blood spilling all over his face and clothes — complemented with the gruesome sound of flesh being chopped — will make you cringe. Nothing is shown but this one scene shows us the monster that is Omar in its entirety. The effect is achieved using close-ups, sounds, and the temperamental lighting. The little smirk he had on his face at the end of the act was horrifying. This will easily be one of the most gruesome scenes to have ever made it to the big screen in Bollywood. Another amazing aspect of Rao’s part was how quickly he shifted gears between a charmer and a monster.
In the initial sequences we see how effortlessly, Omar makes friends with tourists and lures them into a trap. What is interesting to note here is that he is so comfortable in both these shades that we are able to comprehend how shockingly maniacal the real Omar must have been to his victims.
The film’s look and feel is authentic, stark and gets to you from the very beginning. Even when Omar is shown making friends with the foreigners, going on shopping trips or even spending time with his father, there is a feeling of unease and an air of some unknown evil lurking somewhere near. If one looks closely, Hansal Mehta draws a line between Omar in Omerta and Omar in Shahid. If you remember Omar (Prabal Panjabi) appeared in Shahid too who befriends the lawyer when he is incarcerated and offers him a seat on the Jihad train. Shahid says no and decides to be a lawyer and fight cases for Muslims who have been wrongly accused. The scene where Omar snaps on his fellow Muslims for eating in the month of Ramzan is the common thread between the two films. That was an intelligent fallback. The casting in Omerta is dead right.
The film is also able to keep the viewers interested. The story moves at a brisk pace and has enough segments of interest and political importance to keep us hooked. The fact that the ensemble cast takes these segments seriously only makes them that much more relatable and horrifying.
Now for the cons. I felt that the film remained undercooked. When I go into a film like this, I am more interested in knowing why someone like Omar did what he did more than how and where he did it. This film leaves you where you were in terms of the “why” when you walked into it. It seems that either Hansal Mehta didn’t have the material to answer the “why” or wasn’t allowed too. Either way, it just doesn’t make sense to make a film about a dreaded terrorist and not answer that resounding “why”.
The editing didn’t work for me either. The film moves back and forth in time which in this story was not needed. This could have easily been a linear story showing the metamorphosis of the man from a student to a dreaded terrorist. The cutbacks in time made it sometimes confusing and hard to relate to. A linear edit would have given the film clarity and compounded its effect. However, the editor can say in his defense that the linear approach might have exposed the lack of meat in the story further.
The film is too short and is crammed in with too many crimes that are not given enough time. The Delhi and the training bits make up almost 70 percent of the film. The escape from the Indian Prison and the time spent in jail, his marriage and some parts in Pakistan is another meager 10 percent. The rest of it is the Daniel Pearl episode. That leaves very less room and time for events like the 9/11 connection, the Mumbai attack assistance and many others that were attributed to Omar. Even the escape from the Indian prison — that being one of India’s greatest shames in its history of fight against terrorism — is merely brushed off, leaving it to just some news footages.
When you see this film, you do not see anything that you haven’t known from newsreel and newspaper and that I believe was a huge letdown for a film that aims at being a biopic. Rajkumar Rao’s British accent feels forced at many junctures. The film also leaves behind questions regarding his incarceration in Pakistan. Was he actually a double agent or was he just a terrorist who had exhausted his usefulness to Pakistan? All these questions are never answered. Neither is the question that why the Pakistanis went to the extent of incarcerating him when whatever he did was on their instigation. The explanation that is given is never enough.
Overall, Omerta needed a lot more material and insight into the life of the terrorist to makes any significant impact. Whatever impact it has is because of Rajkumar Rao’s spirited act. The man owns the film and brings the kind of brooding intensity to the tale that was an absolute necessity. Some sequences stay with you long after the film is done, but it isn’t able to make an impact on you like some of Mehta’s best films. Precious details are missing in this film and it is hardly able to create the kind of picture that would mke Omar accessible and intriguing.