Writer-Director: Hansal Mehta
Cast: Rajkummar Rao
Streaming on: Zee5
In November 2017, I had interviewed filmmaker Hansal Mehta at his office for a project I was working on. After the interview got over, I asked him when his latest film Omerta is releasing. He said something like, “Usko thoda time lagega. Film censorship mein atki hui hai”. I watched the film on the streaming platform Zee5 today. I wondered what could have been the issues that censors must have objected to? Was it the opening of the film that plays out over a black screen with desperate screams for help? The police interrogation scene which is actually a single shot of cops beating Rajkummar Rao. Or was it something that was completely chopped off from the film? Don’t know. But what is there in the film is remarkable.
I Googled Omerta. It means (among the Italian mafia) a code of silence about criminal activity and a refusal to give evidence to the police. Here, it seems to be a word play on the name of its central character Omar Saeed Sheikh, a British citizen of Pakistani origin. He is one of the most dreaded terrorists who’s linked with IC-814 hijack, murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl and as the film hints in the end, 26/11 Terrorist Attacks of Mumbai. Omar is not a hero. He never can be. Writer-director Hansal Mehta doesn’t try to humanize him either.
Watch trailer of Hansal Mehta’s Omerta starring Rajkummar Rao:
Instead, Mehta avoids clichés of dramatizing the protagonist’s arc and danger of justifying criminal acts by humanizing them. He constantly shows the religious fanaticism that leads to such violent radicalism. How organized crime portrays killing in the name of religion as a ‘holy war’, how educated people are manipulated and brainwashed to ‘take revenge’ of their brothers’ and sisters’ deaths/rapes. In one scene, an ISI agent (Rajesh Tailang) tells Omar that they need intelligent and educated Jihadis like him. An illiterate one is of no use. It’s a sad comedy.
He keeps the narrative to the point and covers about 15 years of Omar’s life in less than 100 minutes of runtime. It is commendable that in a film involving international politics, religion and crime, the filmmaker doesn’t lean towards either left or right. He pierces through the mentality of these humans turned terrorists. The film features real, news footage of some of the key incidents in the terrorist’s life/career, giving it a documentary-style feel. The visuals have a blue overlay, as cold as Omar portrayed bravely by Rajkummar Rao. It’s all in his flinty stares.
Rao swiftly switches between accents – a borrowed British one to Hindi to a desi/sub-continental one while talking to journalist Daniel Pearl (Timothy Ryan Hickernell). He’s introduced as this deft, cold blooded mastermind. What highlighted his coldness for me was when he orders a glass of milk while interacting with a Czech national at a bar/restaurant. Reminded me of Colonel Landa from Inglourious Basterds, Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men, and Alex DeLarge from A Clockwork Orange. There’s something off, unsettling about a grown up man drinking milk. Does it symbolize the evil conquering the innocent, pure? Maybe. Nevertheless, a powerful visual storytelling tool.
Omerta is undoubtedly a work of cinematic brilliance. Mehta uses symbolic visuals, silences and music smartly. It enhances the solid performance given by Rajkummar Rao. Aditya Warrior (editing) Anuj Rakesh Dhawan (cinematography), Ishaan Chhabra (music) and Mandar Kulkarni (sound) together create a powerful audio-visual spectacle. Omerta is a brave and brutal take on the futility of religion when it is used to propagate communal violence and disruption. From the trailer what seemed like a biography of a terrorist, is actually a comment on religious fanaticism. Do watch it.