By Poulumi Das
Before Omertà, the dreaded terrorist Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh had found his way to the big screen on two different occasions. The first was in Michael Winterbottom’s 2007 film A Mighty Heart starring Angelina Jolie and based on the memoir of Mariane Pearl, widow of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. The second, coincidentally was in Hansal Mehta’s Shahid (2013), a biopic on slain lawyer and human rights activist Shahid Azmi.
In Shahid, Sheikh’s presence was incidental to the film. Played by Prabal Panjabi, he tries recruiting Shahid Azmi (Rajkummar Rao) after revealing the Air India IC-814 hijacking plan to him in Tihar jail. Both the films however, barely scratched the surface of the sangfroid that a dangerous sociopath like Sheikh was capable of maintaining. That’s precisely what Mehta’s Omertà, a docu-drama-style biopic on Omar Sheikh – starring Rajkummar Rao with a terrible accent – sets out to correct.
Omertà, arguably Mehta’s most provocative biopic, throws light on the improbable life of Omar Saeed Sheikh, a British-born terrorist of Pakistani descent. Sheikh has been well known for his connection to Osama Bin Laden besides being directly involved in the kidnapping of foreign nationals in Delhi, 9/11, and the kidnapping of Daniel Pearl.
Over the course of the last five years, Mehta has built an inimitable cinematic voice evident in reinvigorating Bollywood biopics. In a universe populated by hagiographies or masala entertainers like Sarbjit, Mary Kom, and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Mehta attained the reputation of hunting down unconventional stories that were just waiting to be adapted on the big screen. His last three outings, Shahid, Aligarh, and Simran are a testament of films that have profited from their phenomenal source material (regardless of how the final product eventually looked). Omertà, too is no exception.
Another element sets Mehta’s biopics apart: His propensity to delve deep into the minds of his protagonists – be it gay professor Ramchandra Siras or terror convict turned lawyer Shahid Azmi. It’s this very trait that’s glaringly missing in Omertà. Despite Mehta setting up the film in a way that it holds no unique value if it doesn’t spell out the specifics of how an ordinary man becomes the face of fundamentalistic Islamic terror. The film’s tagline goes as far as claiming that it is “a brief history of terrorism” – and yet it seems disinterested in investigating the very mind of Omar Saeed Sheikh.
Omertà’s biggest flaw then is that it forfeits its sole purpose: identifying and studying a monster.
Ironically, what was once Mehta’s strength ends up highlighting the film’s greatest weakness. Omertà is disappointingly as effective as a dramatised Wikipedia entry. There is nothing in the film’s 96-minute runtime that hasn’t already been told. Omertà’s biggest flaw then is that it forfeits its sole purpose: identifying and studying a monster. Instead, your semi-compelling consolation prize is a chilling portrait of a man battling with the paradox of religion, revenge, and justice.
Ditching chronology, Omertà rushes through the high points of Sheikh’s life, spending the least amount of time tracing his upper-middle class life or why he drops out of London School of Economics at 19 to join a militant training camp in Lahore. It’s suggested that he gets radicalised on an Islamic aid expedition to Bosnia; but the film barely explores how the trip came to have such a drastic effect on him, save for a casual father-son conversation.
Mehta’s misguided preference of “identifying” instead of “studying” is also why the film’s crucial scene that has Sheikh beheading Pearl after the latter tries to escape, barely manages to elevate either the film, or the level of fear in the minds of the audiences. Without context about what makes the monster inside Sheikh tick, this cold-blooded moment – that has an unforgettable shot of Rao cleaning his glasses after the act, even while half of his face is drenched in blood – adds no heft to the film. It’s also the reason that some of the film’s most arresting scenes that could have peeled the layers off of Sheikh’s personality and brought the film together, come across as independent showreels of a television newscast. After all, what’s the point of seeing the very many terrors Sheikh unleashed without being told why he did them?
The fact that Sheikh, a well-educated man willingly embraced terrorism is spelled out umpteen times in the film by several characters. It’s essentially why a subject of this nature – a man who is fully aware of his actions and opts to be brainwashed – necessitated a deep-dive into the making of terrorism. For a film that intends to be a case-study of religious fundamentalism, Mehta’s hesitation to dig deeper into what egged Saeed into becoming the temperamental yet calculated kingpin ensures that Omertà is just a missed opportunity.
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