Omkara opened last week in London, and after some problems in trying to figure out how to watch this movie, we finally made it to the cinema last Tuesday. Our desi Othello is playing in Central London again, and even though I'd promised to write soon about the movie, some of us have to work too you know!
I was keen to see Omkara for two reasons. The strongest one would have to be that I was really interested to see how Vishal Bhardwaj would have translated Shakespeare into Bollywood - especially given that this is one of the bard's darkest plays. There are identity & racial politics in Othello as well, which are not perhaps as significant in a Bollywood version (unless we see it manifested as inter caste tensions, which is exactly what Bhardwaj chose to do with his depiction of Omkara as the half caste)
The other reason I was intent on watching this movie is also because it is set, very explicitly, in Uttar Pradesh, a state with which I hold somewhat confusing ties. My family hails from the Hindi heartland - my father's village is in the district of Azamgarh, famous for Mulayam Singh Yadav, Dawood Ibrahim & Kaifi Azmi. My mother's family hails from the Rajput strongholds of Jaunpur & Varanasi, so I'm about as much of a UP bhaiya as you can get.
I've never lived in UP though. (Wait. That's not true - I did study for two years in Dehra Dun when it was still part of UP, and not the capital of Uttaranchal). But Uttaranchal, & Dehra Dun in particular, are not really the same cultural space at Uttar Pradesh. There is a different feel to the Gangetic plains that are quite similar, but also very distinct, from its downstream (and much more vilifed) neighbour, Bihar.
So for me, UP is where we went to visit a whole gaggle of relatives and cousins, but having never lived there, I don't really have much of a relationship with the place. UP is, despite what other parts of the country might say about it, the heartland of the country as a whole. It is the mother ship of all of Indian politics, the state that makes or breaks governments (with 85 seats in Parliament, its not that surprising). Developmentally, UP is doing pretty badly, but takes consolation in the fact that while its not quite Punjab, its better than Bihar (pretty lousy benchmarking, I know, but hey - you're only as good as your neighbourhood, right?)
So it's a bit surprising that UP hasn't seen that much depiction in Bollywood. When referring to generic village settings, film makers tend to keep them fairly generic (e.g. Viraasat or Mother India.) If there were ever references to people from the heartland, it was when they had made their exodus to the cities (Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon, Company) People always left UP to pursue their dreams, to live lives. UP was stagnation, tradition, suffocation.
As Indian movies started to market themselves more explicitly to the diaspora communities, Indian cinema became enamoured of the jovial Punjabis, with their loud voices, bhangra and lassi. Uttar Pradesh, in contrast, has Bhojpuri, dhobiyaa naach & kachories. Not quite the most glamourous of combinations.
And in this one aspect, UP lagged its poor brother, Bihar. Bihar was so bad, things were so horribly wrong there, that it captured the national imagination in another way. Film makers fell over themselves when they wanted to make "gritty" realist cinema to depict the horrors of life in Bihar. Directors like Prakash Jha helped keep the spotlight on the state, and whether you like them or loathe them, the political class in Bihar has transfixed the national imagination for some time. So Bunty Aur Babli was a refreshing change last year. The film shot extensively in UP landmarks, in Lucknow, Kanpur & Varanasi. The fictitious towns of Pankhinagar & Fursatganj are amusing as situations, but also very apt depictions of the third tier cities that make up most of semi-urban UP; places like Banda, Gorakhpur, Sultanpur & Barhalganj (I bet you never heard of some of these)
But B&B really captured the quintessential spirit of UP - a series of small towns, dusty, poor, unglamorous, but burning with ambitions, desires, the need to DO something, break out and get away. In many ways, watching B&B helped reinforce some key messages - the fact that whether we like it or not, UP is the heart of the country. If we really have to get something right, we need to get it right in UP, because UP carries the whole of North India. We can see this with the prosperity of Punjab & Haryana. They've been doing quite well economically for several years now, but this hasn't cascaded across North India. And the North-South economic divide is getting wider, not narrowing.
Omkara is in this sense thematically akin to its more humorous cousin, Bunty aur Babli. Both films touch upon a message that is as powerful as it is discomfiting, and one that I haven't seen articulated in many reviews - that there is a huge tract of young Indians, whose reality is not that of their more fortunate cousins in the metropolises, who are just as ambitious, just as driven for success as anyone else, but whose circumstances do not make it possible to access these opportunities. Bunty, Babli, Omkara, Kesu, Billo, Langda - all of these characters do the best that they can with the circumstances they find themselves in - and sadly, this translates into adopting a life of crime.
Bunty aur Babli treated the issue in a lighter vein, capturing the frustrations of the leads and turning them into an amusing, entertaining Bonny & Clyde adventure through India. Omkara doesn't focus on the road into crime, but focuses on emotional developments subsequent to the adoption of a criminal life. For whatever else you say about the characters in the movie, they are thugs and political goondas.
In the opening scene of B&B, Abhishek Bachchan has an argument with his father about going for a job interview to become another ticket collector - a job that is dull, lifeless and meaningless for Bachchan. This is especially poignant after the opening song sequence when he sings of leaving small towns, building houses next to the moon and writing his name in big letters on the sky (Dhadak Dhadak)
In Omkara, all the principal characters are university educated - in fact, when in the city the gangs live in a university hostel. They are literate (we even hear of how Kesu & Dolly studied in the same college) but the motives for moving into a life of crime aren't explicitly articulated. I'm willing to guess though that it has to do with accessibility to economic opportunity.
So yet again, Bollywood comes up tops. Whether it is consciously done or not, Indian filmmakers manage, despite all the claims of creating an escapist parallel for average film viewers, to build into their stories a reality that is very harsh and very pressing. We saw Manoj Kumar do it with his Bharat image, and later Bachchan personified the angry young man who saw before him few opportunities to progress in a rigid world of bureaucracy, political ineptitude and corruption.
Today, the equation has been modified. There are opportunities out there in the India of today - it is the getting there that is problematic if you aren't the product of a private education system, speak English without an accent (remember the scene when Kesu tries to get Dolly to pronounce "bottom" in the Stevie Wonder song with an American accent?) and haven't studied in the hallowed IITs/IIM's. We need to carry the country with us on this road to economic growth if we are to avoid fragmentation.