Rajkummar Rao delivers a powerful psychological portrait of one of modern world’s scariest terrorists in Hansal Mehta’s best film till date
In the film’s climax, Omar Saeed Sheikh, the British terrorist of Pakistani descent, hacks journalist Daniel Pearl’s head off his body for almost two minutes. The scene takes place in the middle of nowhere in complete darkness, under the dim light of battery torches that Omar’s associates hold on to as they watch him stab Pearl to death and then severe his head. It is a tiresome process, and all you can see is Omar’s face in the pale fluorescent light, splattered with blood and evil. All you hear is the horrifying sound of meat and bone being repeatedly chopped, Omar’s excited breathing, the twisting of ligaments, the forceful tearing of muscle, the squirting of blood and then, the final separation – followed by complete silence. The horror of what transpired hangs suffocatingly in the air.
Omerta is a masterful portrait of one of modern world’s most dangerous minds, crafted and performed with brutal honesty. While the well-read might be well-aware of Omar Sheikh’s story, the experience of watching it come alive is something one rarely sees in Indian cinema.
The journey starts off with Omar Saeed’s ideological upbringing and goes on to trace his psychological transformation – it is a movement from the doubtful Thomas to the stubborn believer. We flit back and forth between his wobbly attempts at kidnapping American and British tourists in India in 1994 and subsequent arrest, his ideological disagreements with his father during his London School of Economics days and growing affinity towards extremist policies, training and climbing the ranks in terrorist groups, discovery of self-worth in prison, his heroic release and forging of successful alliances with various terrorist organisations like the Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and finally the motivated and well-planned kidnapping and assassination of Daniel Pearl. While the film struggles to find its bearing initially – it almost seems a little confused about how much information to bombard the audience with – it soon settles on sketching Omar’s personality curve rather than being a news documentary. And that is what makes it a winning decision. Omar is more interesting than the sum of his actions. For example, the details of why and how he is arrested are available publicly for everyone to consume. You understand the man better when you watch him pee – butt naked – while the other inmates sing the Indian national anthem in the background. Omerta is filled with moments, nuances and details that help you understand the man – his how and why – creating an engaging and unforgettable introduction to possibly modern Indian cinema’s most powerful characters. You will not be able to shake off the memory of watching Omar being carried on shoulders by numerous excited associates after his release from prison (in exchange for the freedom of passengers of the Indian Airlines Flight 814 in 1999) in a rugged valley in Afghanistan, amidst celebratory gun shots and cheering. His evil glee, his first victory, stays with you. Early on, as he prepares himself to craftily kidnap foreign nationals in Ghaziabad, you watch the man do ab crunches and push ups in his hotel room, and then vigorously fuck a prostitute, his face gleaming with the need to win, to dominate. You see him softly – but confidently – argue with his troubled father, who try hard to hold on to his frightfully intelligent son. You watch Omar shrewdly lay the trap for Pearl, slowly spinning a web of deceit around the man. You see his frustration when Pearl refuses to break under torture – a stark contrast to his first captives, who bent much easily. You see that crooked, I-am-better-than-you, you-cannot-stop-me half-smile on his face in various moments of the film and realise that he is truly the face of evil – which also explains why the man is still alive today – and was able to place hoax calls to India and Pakistan’s foreign affairs departments during the 2008 Mumbai attacks from inside his prison cell in Pakistan.
This is definitely Hansal Mehta’s best film till date because this is his first offering of a complete cinematic experience. The camera tells a story rather than being a spectator that has till date only “documented” characters and their journeys in his films. The film is built with excellent editing, cinematography and background score – departments that generally do not have a language of their own in his films. Mehta has always documented a narrative. In Omerta, he finally delivers his personal interpretation and directorial vision. What he delivers is a brave film – I cannot repeat that enough – sans judgement, politics and toxic nationalism.
And what can I say about Rajkummar Rao? That he is the best we have? You know that already. But if you want to see passion, dedication towards craft, hard work and absolute immersion into a character, Omerta is the film to watch. This is what the best of actors, around the world, do, to produce the best of cinema. With Omerta, Rao has created a benchmark for Indian actors, which will be very difficult to match, let alone beat