The 20-year long career of Vishal Bhardwaj as a filmmaker is a thing of wonder. After making a debut with Makdee, a children's film that equally enthralled the adults, the maverick filmmaker has gone on to make ambitious attempts in every possible genre – be it noir-thriller, satire, black comedy and dramas rooted in both current and period-based socio-political climate. But his love for Shakespeare is what has always brought out the absolute best of him – and Omkara, his third feature which completes 15 years this week, is a glorious testimony to Bhardwaj's brilliance at finding a place for the Bard in the Bombay cinema landscape.
Borrowing its premise from Othello, Omkara takes us to the rural hidden heartlands of Uttar Pradesh, observing a world where violence is the norm and local politics is a game played and won by muscle power. Vishal Bhardwaj's genius lies in having the vision to ingrain the theatrical charm of Shakespeare in a milieu that couldn't be more different from his plays, but still sharing the same searing emotional thread with his tragic dramas.
Omkara is, hence, a film both realistic and larger-than-life at once – a combination not many films can claim to have accomplished. It is a morbid, brutal world, inhabited by characters who are both real and dramatic at once – and overall, there is a mythical air to the manner in which Bhardwaj stages his narrative. Take the Bahubali-anointing sequence for instance, where the power-wielding men pray at a temple located at a much higher altitude, while we can see the common folk dance in the background, waiting to know who is going to be their next overlord.
Omkara is also one of those fewer films that truly does justice to its 2.35:1 cinemascope privilege. The film is largely set against vast outskirts, brimming with rusticity and bouts of gentle natural beauty. The narrative too is pretty evenly divided between the intimate personal spaces, and sequences of massive gatherings and celebrations, where bureaucracy mingles with gun-wielding hoodlums. Such a narrative required all-consuming imagery, and cinematographer Tassaduq Hussain paints a spectacularly rich canvas to capture such a landscape.
Omkara also spawned a legion of other rustic heartland dramas, none of which really matched the grandiosity of what Bhardwaj achieved here – and a possible reason is how intensely Bhardwaj and his writing team etched the colourful universe here. Like any great student of screenwriting, Bhardwaj understands the importance of a great opening scene that shoots us off right in the heart of that universe, and even later on often attempts to stage every scene like an individual short film in itself. The scenes build up with simmering tension and then blast open in the end. Take the scene with Langda Tyagi (Saif Ali Khan) and Rajju (Deepak Dobriyal) where they are sitting on bridge-side drinking in the middle of a day. Rajju is lamenting losing Dolly (Kareena Kapoor) to Omi (Ajay Devgn), and the scene neatly and seamlessly jumps from solemnity to comedy to intensity. Overall, once the plot is set in motion, there is intrigue in the way the screenplay unfolds. Special mention goes to the delectable dialogues by Bhardwaj himself, where every line, be it an expression of love or the choicest of abuses, has a flavourful poetic charm to it, which paved the way for a certain kind of dialogue. When it comes to dialogue, Omkara ran so that a film like Gangs of Wasseypur could run.
However, it is mostly the fabulous staging by Bhardwaj that keeps us mesmerised. Though the narrative is dark and violent on the surface, Bhardwaj displays equal care in how he handles the softer, fragile moments. The way Omi and Dolly's poignant love story is built up is a thing of sheer beauty, as we often see them in spaces of their own, cut off from Omi's pragmatic cold-blooded interactions with the outside world. Vishal Bhardwaj uses his music to great effect to capture the delicacy of their romance, be it the establishing of their blossoming love in a haunting montage set to 'Naina Thug Lenge', or 'O Saathi Re,' where in a long take, the camera lovingly follows Dolly and Omi in slow-motion while Dolly playfully chases Omi with a gun for calling her a witch before they finally fall in each other's embrace. Even a minor moment like Omi trying to wake up Dolly acquires such beauty as we hear Suresh Wadkar sing 'Jag Jaa' in the background (this song becomes all the more haunting when a similar visual reoccurs in the climax.)
Even during a tense story-graph where Omi reconsiders his trust in Kesu (Vivek Oberoi), there is space made for an utterly casual scene where Kesu, totally oblivious of Langda Tyagi's evil intentions, teaches an American love song to Dolly (which she wants to sing for Omi) on an open terrace against a gently setting sun. Even there, Kesu spends some time trying to correct Dolly's enunciation of the word 'Bottom.' In a macabre world like Omkara, this moment feels so out-of-place – and yet, perhaps precisely why it is required there. Omkara very effectively tussles between these moments of beauty and brute, and keeps us in turmoil, for we fully know how hard it is for these stories to end well or in serenity.
But the greatest legacy of Omkara lies in how it gave us a villain so magnificently delicious that made us wonder why the film wasn't named after him. Langda Tyagi, the begrudged loyalist played by Saif Ali Khan, who unleashes his inner evil after being shortchanged by his mentor, is an antagonist as mythical and larger-than-life as they come.
The film teases us initially in terms of declaring a protagonist, lending great enigma to Omi's entry in a silhouette, and then giving him great lines to mouth off as he proudly declares his faith in Dolly's love for him. And then, of course, there is that classic title song where we finally stand witness to the grand display of Omi's mettle as he demolishes one of the bad guys, both with brawn and wit, with Sukhwinder Singh's robust thumping voice singing his praises in the background.
However, what sets the story in motion is when we enter Langda Tyagi's inner world that is seething with a sense of betrayal and anguish. From that point on, we rather hypnotically follow Langda on his descent into pure evil, intrigued by the mechanics of his sinister mind, an intrigue that eventually overpowers our sadness for the star-crossed love of Omi and Dolly.
Very few films have been this enamoured by their antagonist – and Saif Ali Khan sank his teeth into this role with unprecedented gusto, stealing the show outright (which is saying something, considering how the film features stellar performances all-around – especially from Konkana Sen Sharma and Deepak Dobriyal as the supporting players.) This was one of those dream roles that actors wait for their entire careers, brimming with potential for all the histrionics. Saif had already begun venturing into films that gave him more serious roles to play but even 15 years later, nothing comes close to the risk that he took with Omkara, and how gloriously it paid off.
Langda Tyagi remains all the more memorable for being one of the last flag-bearers of a dying tradition of our mainstream cinema – the villain figure.
2006 was the year of many new things happening for Hindi cinema, with trailblazing films like Rang De Basanti and Lage Raho Munna Bhai winning over the audience, and the ushering of multiplex films like Khosla Ka Ghosla and Pyaar Ke Side Effects that proved the existence of a reliable niche audience. Amidst these big little changes, our films were increasingly going away from narratives that had space for an all-out vicious villain, without whom our hero's victory has become incomplete to an extent. The Filmfare Awards discontinued the villain category altogether, after awarding Saif Ali Khan for Omkara.
Langda Tyagi is the last of our legendary villains, and will always remain iconic.