Monday, May 14, 2018

Omerta: Review

There’s a scene some way into Omerta which serves as a reminder that this isn’t the first Hansal Mehta film to feature terrorist Omar Sheikh. In Shahid (2012), would-be-lawyer Shahid Azmi (Rajkummar Rao) is serving time in Delhi’s Tihar jail. There, he’s reprimanded, along with other Muslim inmates, by a bearded man in spectacles for eating during Ramzan. The man later introduces himself as Omar Sheikh, and tries to recruit Azmi to the jihadi cause.

In Omerta, Mehta recreates the same scene, down to some lines being reproduced word for word. It’s Rao as Sheikh this time, and though Azmi doesn’t appear in the scene, it’s mildly surreal to see the same actor who played the prey six years ago now playing the hunter. There’s a fair amount in Omerta that’ll remind viewers of Shahid: the unadorned visual style, the unsettlingly quick editing, the passages which show the making of a terrorist—though in Shahid, which only spends 10 minutes on Azmi’s flirtation with the cause, radicalization comes about because of personal experience, while in Omerta, it’s the suffering of distant others that gives birth to violent ideology.

Omerta begins in 1994, with Sheikh befriending, and then abducting, Czech, American and British citizens in Delhi and making ransom demands, scenes that’ll inform his later kidnapping of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Later, in a series of flashbacks, we’re shown how he went from a student at the London School of Economics to a dreaded terrorist with links to Jaish-e-Mohammed and Al-Qaeda. When we’re introduced to the younger Sheikh, he’s already on the cusp of radicalization, a well-off, serious man troubled by the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims by Serbs in 1992. Despite his alarmed father’s pleas to finish his studies first, it only takes a few nudges from the local maulana to indoctrinate Omar.

We see Sheikh in Pakistan, in jihadi boot camps in Afghanistan, in training with the ISI. Through it all, he maintains the same unnerving seriousness and cold drive. Had the film started from a little earlier in his life, when he was possibly less certain in his convictions, might this have been a richer study in deepening religious fanaticism? In Omerta, there’s no hardening of ideology, just the accumulation of skills and execution of plans. Mehta details the set-up at various levels of a terrorist organization carefully, and there are some tense sequences, but not much engagement at a psychological level. The real-life Sheikh might have been charismatic, but Rao’s portrayal stops at scarily intense—even when he’s trying to ingratiate himself, he comes on a little too strong.

Then there’s the accent. Rao gamely adopts a British twang whenever Sheikh—a Londoner for much of his early life—is speaking in English, but he just doesn’t sound comfortable. You can sense the actor’s relief whenever he slips in Hindi or his regular spoken English, which he turns on when he’s talking to Pearl—a strange case of an ostensibly put-on accent sounding more “correct” than the character’s natural one.

Mehta’s frequent juggling of timeline and location means the jag and jump of the filmic technique matches the fragmented nature of the narrative. The chaos is needed, for though there’s some shock in Omerta, there’s little surprise. By concentrating on how terror agents operate on a daily basis (some of the better scenes show Sheikh baiting his quarry with chess and a guided tour of Red Fort or by helping them bargain in a curio store), Mehta offers a ground-level view of terrorism that’s less jingoistic than what Indian cinema usually has to offer. What you don’t get is the immersion into a character’s psyche that marked the previous Mehta biopics, Shahid and Aligarh (2015). In the end, we’re not much closer to understanding the man holding up a decapitated head than we were at the start.

This review appeared in Mint.

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