Director: Hansal Mehta

Cast: Rajkummar Rao, Rajesh Tailang, Rupinder Nagra, Timothy Ryan Hickernell

Omerta, a biographical drama on British-Pakistani terrorist Omar Saeed Sheikh directed by Hansal Mehta, opens with unidentified wails flooding a pitch-black screen. This might be the maker’s way of informing us that the story – as is often the case, but frequently neglected by Hindi cinema’s hasty biopic directors – began long before the film that will attempt to encompass it. We, the viewers, glued to our seats in an air-conditioned hall, are only perhaps joining it at a customized juncture. These agonizing cries go on for a tad longer than expected; they are designed to unsettle us, and to disrupt our sense of tolerance. By the time we see a young, pensive Sheikh (a bearded Rajkummar Rao) befriend a couple of ‘Western’ tourists in Delhi in 1994 before kidnapping them – like a charming tiger gently nibbling on unsuspecting victims – it becomes clear that the black screen was in fact the inside of his theatrical mind.

Thirty minutes later, when Sheikh is imprisoned in Tihar jail, the sources of those wails flash across the screen. We (are forced to) see explicit images of burnt corpses, mutilated bodies and violence from the infamous Bosnian ethnic cleansing campaigns. Again, we are in the crowded head of a militant who, determined to face the reality of these graphic pictures, dropped out of his London School of Economics graduation course to make “disruption” – a perpetual sense of discomfort – his default being. It’s something he comes to thrive on.

For example, he doesn’t shy away when, in a strangely suggestive moment, a friend in a jihad training camp shows him the ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs of his deceased family. It’s a flimsy scene to have in a film, almost as if the director were urging us to “see” the terror that begets terror. But it is something you believe Sheikh might have insisted on experiencing – given that he employs these memories as fuel to light the coals that constantly displace his footholds.  

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Over the timespan of more than a decade, this theme of unsettlement reveals itself through Sheikh’s journey up the ladder of jihad: he is a radical misfit in London’s quaint Asian localities, a restless student whose extremism stems from the uncomplicated purism of a pre-internet-age era, a deflected but milk-drinking son to a religious father, an ‘educated’ English-speaking anarchist in a club full of unlettered passion (while the top brass rewards his exclusive nature, insecure training camp colleagues dismiss him as a mollycoddled elitist), and a self-righteous Muslim prisoner who cannot understand the vegetarianism of his mates. At no point does he feel like he truly belongs anywhere – which is what might partially explain his unstable accents and linguistic indulgences (it’s an acting flaw, no doubt, but it oddly adds to the murkiness of his motivations). And which is also what makes him such an inexplicable portrait of evil.

How do you really explain a real-life villain? If he isn’t available or alive, rather than an amplified study based on assumptions, you decorate the facts at hand. You distort a few incidents, because the truth offers a limited perspective. As a result, those bleak images aside, we are offered little by way of exploration of the man behind the terrorist.

More than a reductive term like ‘evil,’ it’s a sickness, an addiction – one that is writ large over the formidable actor’s face despite his failing accents – that Mehta tries to discover by staying at arm’s length

Mehta himself isn’t sure of the man, and it shows in that he instead chooses to construct the events – the Delhi kidnapping, the training camp flashbacks, the Daniel Pearl abduction – that came to define his subject’s personality. Some awkward family conversations aside, we are none the wiser about anything within Omar Saeed Sheikh, except the perception of power. 

At his wedding he urges his father to notice the important dignitaries and guests – a symbol of a tortured child in need of emotional validation. This scene, ironically, doesn’t quite fit into the film’s texture because of the closeness – the fleeting humanization – it attempts. It isn’t glorifying him in any way, but it somewhat convolutes the idea of control in a man whose blind passion actually leads him to ‘ration’ his hatred between different causes – from Bosnia to America to Kashmir to Mumbai. He has enough of bitterness and undefined purpose in him to compartmentalize his sense of betrayal. It’s not so much the pride and vanity of a man incapable of harnessing these emotions for anything but his jihad as much as it is the filmmaker’s inability to follow through on the father-son equation.

The inflated ego is later visible during his time with journalist Daniel Pearl; he is angrier than ever here, speaking and reacting differently, more due to Pearl’s refusal to be petrified (unlike the Delhi hostages) and acknowledge his elevated status. Because by now, his principles have shed the dizziness of an excitable startup and acquired the ‘adult-ness’ of a high-level job for him – evident in the manner Mehta places formally disparate scenes of “corporate evaluation” (superiors praising his commitment) along the way.

This methodical distance might feel like a flaw while we watch the film. But on closer observation, I cannot deny that there may not be other feasible ways to depict the life of people who thrive on ending stories. In cases like these, there are perhaps no answers or backstories that can highlight the machinations of madness. More than a reductive term like ‘evil,’ it’s a sickness, an addiction – one that is writ large over the formidable actor’s face despite his failing accents – that Mehta tries to discover by staying at arm’s length. It isn’t spelt out, but it becomes about a man who wants to succeed at earning the respect of entire countries in order to compensate for his father’s disappointment. Isn’t that almost always the case?

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Rather than seeing different versions of the same person, Mehta suggests we read the same person in different circumstances – a desensitized extension of situational biopics such as United 93 and Patriots Day. Viewers are pushed to derive a sense of triumph from a system’s procedural proficiencies through those films; Omerta demands a sense of loss from terror’s unwavering procedural efficiency. Rao isn’t always convincing, but there’s something sinister about him “acting” normal, especially when he has to earn a potential victim’s trust – like a con artist with so many options that he is unaware of his own real personality.

Hansal Mehta has fashioned a second wind out of choosing subjects – Shahid, Aligarh, Simran – that deal in various hands of tragic disclosure. Unlike other Indian biopic specialists, he invests in forgotten headlines about underdogs who remain under to expose a society that keeps them there. There has, however, always been an imbalanced sense of intimacy in his treatment of these themes – one that extends beyond dry information into the realms of opinionated political inclination. Omerta, too, bears this burden in its confident strokes of a troubled neighbouring nation and its shady bureaucracy.

But Omar Sheikh’s dispassionate, detached world is an anomaly in context of the director’s storytelling palette. It is clinical, and not as personal, and therefore not as flawed as his regular leaps of faith. The wails happened, and the terrorist in turn enabled a separate culture of wails – there are no two ways about it. His actions don’t quite merit the kind of typical psychological depth that can dramatize them any further or interpret them any differently. We don’t fully understand the character, and we’re conditioned to fear what we don’t understand. This amounts to why Omerta is a decent, focused film. I’m not sure it could have been any more than that.

Rating:   star

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