Omkara is a modern retelling of Shakespeare's Othello where all the pieces fall into place more or less on cue: the powerful title character (Ajay Devgan), his loyal second-in-command, Langda (Saif Ali Khan), and the inexperienced Kesu (Vivek Oberoi), whom Omkara promotes to a key position instead of Langda, leading to jealousy and tragedy. An innocent victim of these machinations is Dolly (Kareena Kapoor), whom Omkara loves but comes to distrust through no fault of her own.
Those are the major elements of the story, but the characters sometimes feel too much like functions of the plot, taking their places and behaving as they must to reproduce the Shakespearean narrative. For instance, Langda's shift from trusted friend to conniving betrayer is too abrupt. We aren't given a strong sense of closeness between him and Omkara that would give Omkara's decision or Langda's subsequent campaign of revenge strong emotional weight. He becomes a villain because he's the Iago of the piece and that's what Iago does. Missing from Saif Ali Khan's performance is a sense of vulnerability that might have added a welcome layer of complexity to the character; Langda clearly believes he is entitled to the position bestowed to Kesu, but what about his relationship with Omkara makes the slight so shattering that he responds with such cruel revenge? Might the film engage us more fully if it invited us to feel sympathy for the devil?
Also somewhat underdeveloped is the criminal underworld in which these characters operate. We know that Omkara is a powerful gangster working closely with a local politician, Bhaisaab (Naseeruddin Shah), and in their endeavor to consolidate power there are rallies and shoot-outs and scandals, but I was often unclear about who is shooting whom and why. The political storyline is just a backdrop, only of passing interest in a story that is really about the relationships between its core characters; a reduced, more streamlined approach to these background details might have smoothed out the narrative.
But though the setup feels at times laborious, the payoff is remarkably potent. As director Vishal Bhardwaj zeroes in on his four main characters and his key theme of jealous pride – specifically, jealous male pride – his film builds dramatic momentum, and by the time we reach the inevitable, tragic climax we realize how well paced the film is as a whole, how it built gradually and inexorably, though imperfectly, to that end.
The climactic scenes are just about perfect. Bhardwaj does not ramp up the action, but rather reins it in, letting it build slowly using silences, pauses, and ominous fade-ins and fade-outs between scenes. There is a great shot of Dolly after she is threatened and accused by Omkara; she is terror-stricken, and the director holds the shot long enough for us to ponder her face, its bewildered innocence, letting us consider how she may be the only truly innocent character in the film. The sound and movement of a swinging bench punctuate the tragic scene in ways that should be seen to be appreciated.
As a screenplay, Omkara might have benefited from fuller characterizations and a simpler plot that does not rely so heavily on its characters to behave exactly the way they must to achieve the desired end; Langda's plan to implicate Kesu and Dolly of adultery requires not only deft planning but a measure of psychic ability to predict that everyone will do and say exactly what he needs them to, and not do or say the obvious things that would reveal him to be a liar. But I'm not familiar with the original Shakespeare work other than its general outline, so I cannot make a direct comparison between the execution of the original plot and Omkara's interpretation. Maybe I should take it up with the Bard.
But as a piece of filmmaking it's excellent, and as a study of masculine insecurity it's insightful. In an important scene Omkara's sister, Indu (Konkona Sen Sharma), who is also Langda's wife, lashes out at her brother for suspecting Dolly of infidelity, arguing that women give up their lives to be with men only for men to doubt their honor. Indeed, it's male frailty (Langda's resentment and Omkara's paranoia), not female frailty, that leads to tragedy in this story. It's a man's world, we observe, and women live in it, but they also may die in it.