Bollywood’s take on Shakespeare is still one of the best adaptations out there
Dear filmmakers: If you’re going to remake an old story, you better damn well do it right.
That isn’t a targeted statement so much as a PSA (though it stings freshly of ABC’s abominable Dirty Dancing), and a direct product of the fact that I was spoiled in 2006 by Omkara, an Indian film version of Othello.
Omkara was the second Shakespearian endeavor from director Vishal Bhardwaj, who released Maqbool in 2003, based on Macbeth. Both films — and 2014’s Haider, based on Hamlet — transpose the Bard’s classics to regional India, and Omkara remains a stunning retelling of a world-renown story that is anything but old.
Our title character is Omkara (Ajay Devgn), who treads the indistinct line between politician and gang leader, stigmatized for his caste rather than the color of his skin. Desdemona becomes Dolly (Kareena Kapoor), Cassio is Kesu (Vivek Oberoi), Iago is Langdya Tyagi (Saif Ali Khan), and the general is Bhaisaab (Naseeruddin Shah). When Omkara names Kesu his deputy over longtime ally Langda, he hatches a plan that will destroy Omkara, Dolly, Kesu, and anyone else who gets in his way.
Shakespeare’s immortal characters speak Hindi with thick Uttar Pradesh accents in a dialect almost indecipherable compared to “filmi” Hindi, which Bhardwaj once noted doesn’t really exist. They carry cell phones, smoke herb-laced cigarettes, wear kurtas and dhotis and saris. It’s not obnoxiously modern, but it’s a stunning break from previous Shakespeare adaptations. Bhardwaj draws excellent performances from popular Bollywood stars (particularly the women, who rarely get to be more than beautiful props in crowd-pleasing movies) and cinematographer Tassaduq Hussain puts a rustic lens on the murky tale.
Most remarkably, Omkara doesn’t reject its Bollywood roots. Independent Indian cinema (“artistic” or “alternative” films) often omits the song-and-dance visuals of commercial fare, but Omkara boasts both a nuanced musical score and chart-topping Bollywood bangers (all composed by Bhardwaj). In “Beedi,” local dancer Billo (based on Othello‘s Bianca and played by Bipasha Basu) dances for Omkara’s party while Langda and Rajju conspire to get Kesu embarrassingly drunk.
More than 10 years after its release, Omkara remains one of my favorite pieces of Indian cinema. It doesn’t conform to Bollywood conventions but isn’t so self-serious as to alienate intrepid audiences. It is, simply put, a damn good movie, an adaptation that should set the standard for so many that will inevitably follow.
Where to watch: Einthusan.com