Synopsis – A recounting of the story of infamous British-born terrorist Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who kidnapped and murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002.
My Take – As human beings, no matter how glittery or positive we think of ourselves to be, there is always a side in us which forever remains fascinated with the dark. If you don’t agree with me, just have a look at our pop culture, were various forms of antagonists, like mass murderers, serial killers, terrorists have been glorified as examples, mainly as deep down everyone is fascinated with one question – what makes them tick? Hence, I can imagine how hard it must be for filmmakers to tell stories of such notorious individuals without humanizing their intentions or underlining their barbarism with a cultural/religious rationale that may perhaps be intelligible only to the perpetrator of the violence.
Here, director Hansal Mehta joins hands with his favorite actor Rajkummar Rao (after Shahid, Citylights and Aligarh) to bring us a tale of one such wicked in an unusual biography of the dreaded British born terrorist Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, which shows how evil can emerge from common places, and an unexceptional mind can also be quite terrifying. Following its screening in the Special Presentations section at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, the Mumbai Film Festival, Florence Film Festival, Hong Kong International Film Festival and the Busan International Film Festival, this Hansal Mehta directed film, is a docu-drama devoid of any excessive cinematic liberties, which without making any commentary on religious differences, traces Omar’s journey from his life as a student at the London School of Economics to a radicalized militant with links to the 9/11 attacks.
But as biopics go, this one chucks all templates out of the window, as Omar’s childhood is given a complete go-by, as are a backstory and conventional explanations for his murderous actions in the years of his life, a tactic which helps director Hansal Mehta and actor Rajkummar Rao to portray Omar with a cold, chilling efficiency, yet also a rather opaque presentation where we struggle to understand his motivations completely. For some this may be just a clinical, factual, dispassionate account of the protagonist’s life, for others this 96 minute long film is an intelligent blend of real life facts were director Mehta is going for the effect of Omar’s actions than depths by focusing on his modus operandi rather than his intentions and ideologies.
Set in 1994, the story follows Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh (Rajkummar Rao), who following the instructions from a Mulla arrives in Delhi in the guise of an alias Rohit Verma, and goes on to execute a failed kidnapping of four foreigners (a Czech, an American and two British) by befriending them, all in order to send a western countries a strong message against killing Muslims. In a series of flashbacks, we see how Omar, a British-born youngster of Pakistani descent who despite being a student at the respected London School of Economics and a gifted chess player, left his normal life and a confused but loving father Saeed Sheikh (Keval Arora), behind to join the Islamic aid expedition in order to provide some kind of help to his religion.
With his indoctrination coming in the hands of trusted local clergyman Maulana Ismail (Rupinder Nagra), Omar is instead sent to Pakistan to enlist in the Holy war, which is followed by his training in jihadi boot camps in Afghanistan and ISI grounds. Years later, following his release from prison as a bargain for the lives of Indians aboard the Kathmandu-Delhi hijacked flight, Omar goes on to rise up the ranks of Al-Qaeda and becomes a top militant, by playing his part in the 9/11 Twin Tower attacks, and eventually gaining notoriety for the abduction and murder of The Wall Street Journal newspaper reporter Daniel Pearl (Timothy Ryan Hickernell), in 2002.
In India, a good film is supposed to contain the right amount of masala, the presence of a gripping plot, relatable characters, and most importantly a protagonist who the audience falls in love with, however here, the tables are turned upside down. In fact you hate almost every character you see on screen including the lead, and that’s the point director Hansal Mehta is striking for, all without glorifying evil one bit. Written by Mehta and actor Mukul Dev, the film plays out like a crime thriller, which takes a cold and brutal approach to telling the story, by exposing state-sponsored terrorism and how it manipulates young minds into believing a sordid interpretation of struggle or fight against the enemies of one’s religion. This is not a film about the rightness or wrongness of Omar’s cause or the political situation that inspired it, it simply documents his cold-blooded journey.
While, director Mehta could have served up a cautionary tale of a promising young man who turned to fundamentalism and committed horrible crimes in the name of religion, but he never goes there, mainly as the film aims to offer nothing to those who are invested in the idea of the inertia of human goodness, in the sense, probably a tragedy changed him, no, instead we are compelled to confront the possibility that a seemingly normal, intelligent, educated individual with no personal tragedy haunting him could be easily brainwashed into deep commitment to an extremist cause, or worse, that a human being could be unadulterated evil simply because he is. Which the title takes its name from the vocabulary of the Italian mafia, for code of silence and refraining the accused to give any evidence or speak out when questioned in investigation, the film does not take it literally, as the authorities here, are the callous Western superpowers and other exploiters of the Muslim society who will never punish their own and therefore must be brought to justice by those they have wronged.
Using actual media footage of some of the incidents, director Mehta creates a steely depiction of Sheikh’s terrorist activities. Portrayed with cold, unrelenting conviction by Rajkummar, Omar Sheikh becomes a real man of the world who in his head has chosen the holy path of ruthless revenge for the wrongs supposedly done to his fellow Muslims all over the world. One thing that works wonders for the script- the fact that despite the universal truth that ‘Nothing justifies terrorism’, it does present a neutral view of what goes into making a terrorist, with the audience using their intellect to see things neutrally.
At some points you would even feel that you are watching a documentary, which works as a brilliant advantage. For instance, the situations where Omar is seen protected by authorities and supported by the system raises questions- but at the same time it makes you wonder- wouldn’t it happen the same way if the person was an Indian avenging other enemy countries? In a deliberate attempt to put you off in your seats, director Mehta has not made this an easy film to watch as it cuts the protagonist’s movements down to size in episodic chunks and then regurgitates the vivid moments into scenes of color-blinded documentation, for example the moment where Omar, masquerading as Rohit is accosted by an aggressive Delhi cop on the road who tells him bluntly that he looks like a Muslim. Also, the scene where Pearl is killed is invisibly violent yet horrifying, even though DoP Anuj Rakesh Dhawan does not show the actual beheading on screen, yet manages to capture every molecule of ruthlessness in that gory scene.
It’s with Anuj Rakesh Dhawan’s cinematography, Mandar Kulkarni’s sound work and Ishaan Chhabra’s score that director Mehta creates an inky atmosphere in order to narrate the story in a kind of way he wanted, away from Bollywood thrillers and more in the range of an international film, with the film being majorly in English adding to that fact. Within just 96 minutes of run time, the film packs 23 years of Omar’s life and this, probably is the only point where the film falters. Director Mehta’s frequent juggling of timeline and location means the jag and jump of the filmic technique matches the fragmented nature of the narrative and the chaos is needed, for though there’s some shock in the film, there’s little surprise as he allows us to penetrate the protagonist’s consciousness beyond a point.
We only know as much about Omar Sheikh as he want us to, for example, his marriage is shown but we never get an insight into the husband. A lot has been written about him and his plans, so people looking for something extra will be disappointed. However, the film is held together by Rajkummar Rao‘s performance, who undoubtedly has become one of the best actors in the Hindi film industry. As always magnificent, here, Rao in his portrayal of Omar Saeed is so tortuously real that you wouldn’t think of him as any other. Nailing the man’s quiet aggression and anger, as well as his body language and mannerisms, Rao is subtle yet frightening. It’s a very complexly written character because in real you know what he has done but on frame you know how well Rajkummar Rao is portraying it. Keval Arora as his father also does a good job and shares a natural chemistry with Rao.
The supporting cast, all of whom have brief but important roles, Rajesh Tailang, Happy Ranajit, Abhimanyu Garg, Inderpreet Sawhney, Rupinder Nagra and Roopak Kathpalia are good too. Also despite appearing in barely a few scenes, Timothy Ryan Hickernell, who also appeared in director Mehta’s Simran, shines as Daniel Pearl. His minimalist acting combined with the minimalist writing and direction ensure that Pearl becomes a full-fledged person in our eyes in those few scenes, instead of being a mere statistic in Sheikh’s roster of crimes. On the whole, ‘Omerta’ is a taut and compelling thriller which despite its dark unrelenting portrayal of violence is worth a watch for Rajkummar Rao’s stunning performance.
Directed – Hansal Mehta
Rated – PG15
Run Time – 96 minutes