Two excellent films stood out among those screened at the recent 2006 South Asian Film Festival in San Francisco (organized by 3rd I Films).
What if Othello were to appear on Oprah? She would probably ask him about his childhood, growing up as a Moor in a predominantly Christian world. And Dr. Phil would chime in about how he was bullied as a child, always separate, always obsessed about becoming “like the others” but at the same time feeling somewhat “lesser” because he is in the minority. Iago, a man with his own complexes, would play on those feelings, enhance them, leading Othello to the tragic end we are all quite familiar with.
As if Othello on Oprah wasn’t bizarre enough, now try and transplant Othello to India, to Bollywood. How does one do that without avoiding the obvious absurdities associated with this transition? Well, just ask Vishal Bhardwaj, the director of Omkara, who’s done just that. This is not the first time Bhardwaj has taken the Bard to his homeland. He did it first in Maqbool, an excellent adaptation of Macbeth and its overt themes of lust for power and betrayal adapted to Bombay’s complicated and glamorous underworld. With Omkara, he alters Othello and the inherent insecurity and paranoia of its leading characters to create a stylized Bollywood drama, songs and all.
A few states in India’s north are dirt poor and completely lawless. Although on paper there is a government, it is almost a joke, since most of the villages are run by gangsters. The only time the government does indeed have any power is when it consists of the local hoodlums (which is quite often). Because of the poverty and illiteracy in those areas, the region is overrun by largely medieval beliefs and this is where India’s notorious caste system still holds some sway.
It is in one of these states, Uttar Pradesh (also Bhardwaj’s hometown) that Omkara is set. The movie tells the story of a half-caste gangster (Omkara/Othello), played by Ajay Devgun, who makes it big to become leader of the gangs in his district, comprising of a number of villages. He ends up marrying a rich woman (Dolly/Desdemona), played by Kareena Kapoor, from a respectable high-caste family that opposes the match. Early on in the film, Dolly’s father warns Omkara or Omi, “Jo ladki apne baap ko thag sakti hai, wo kisi aur ki sagi kya hogi (She has deciev’d her father, and may thee)."