Viviek of course has turned into a whiny unpleasant political animal, but he had some really good roles in the early 2000s. So for his birthday, I will remember those.
Either my Shakespeare teacher in college, or the teacher of someone else who mentioned it to me and then it was in my mind while I was in class in college, said that the key to Othello is to understand that Desdemona and Othello were always doomed. Their romance was cracked from the beginning, she was too innocent and he was too tortured. It was just that Iago was the one to first see those flaws and put pressure on them and make them break even sooner than they would have.
That’s what Bhardwaj does so well here. You see that Kareena really truly loves Ajay with all her heart and soul. And he loves her in return. But they are so different, it is almost like two different species have come together. She is all innocence and simplicity and faith. And he is all hurt by experience and full of plans within plans and doubting everyone. The color contrast (in Shakespeare, the “Moor” versus the Italian and in Bhardwaj, Kareena’s pale skin and white clothing versus Ajay’s darker skin and ever present black cloak) is just to make sure we see the underlying personality contrast.
An interesting way to look at the film is to see the other two leads, Iago/Langda played by Saif and Cassio/Kasu played by Vivek, as extensions of the worst parts of Kareena and Ajay’s characters. While Ajay’s dark view of the world and ability to turn situations to his advantage is tempered by an innate nobility and awareness of larger goals, in Saif this same sense of expediency and scheming is turned to smaller goals of pure self-interest. While Kareena’s carefree charm and beauty have been controlled by her faithful love for one man, Vivek’s has been selfishly and shallowly used for his own ends.
Vivek is such a brilliant casting for Kasu/Cassio! The other actors fit the part generally (Ajay is darker with a strong commanding presence, Saif is good at those witty side-kick roles, Kareena is so pale and so delicate looking, and so on), but they were also clearly cast for their general acting abilities. But Vivek is essentially playing himself. That is, “himself” as the star persona he has crafted. Young, charming, ladies man, but there just isn’t much more there. Heck, by Omkara he has already followed the Cassio trajectory of being promoted beyond his abilities thanks to his charm(Yuva, Kyun! Ho Gaya Na), and then failing (Kisna). And just like Desdemona and Othello didn’t really need an Iago to ruin their love, I don’t think Cassio/Viviek really needed an Iago to make him fail. Iago just sped up the process that was going to happen anyway. Cassio was never going to make a great leader, he just didn’t have the depth and fire in him; and Vivek, despite his early promise, could never really be a major star.
(and he was SO SO promising!)
Saif, on the other hand, excellent in this role, far exceeding expectations! He gets that Iago has to be a mixture of charm and ability, but not too much charm and not too much ability. He has to come off like your standard “hero’s best friend”, funny but overlooked, that kind of role. That’s his power, that Othello never thinks to distrust him because he never really thinks about him at all. It’s just good old Iago, who can be made fun off, who can be passed over for a promotion, who will always give disinterested advice and follow any order. And again, kind of clever casting, considering Saif played that exact helpful friend role in so many movies through out the 90s. Not so much in the 2000s, after Hum-Tum and Kal Ho Na Ho let him break out of that mold. But can you imagine if this film had been cast with Akshay instead of Ajay? The weight that would give to Saif’s betrayal?
But I am so glad we got Ajay. Ajay is just magnificent when he wants to be. He has such amazing presence. His first scene is almost wordless in this, he just walks out of a hallway and stands in front of his enemy and looks down the barrel of a gun. He lets Saif and his other cohorts do the talking for him, and yet he is in complete control of the scene. You can really feel his power, how he is the center of this whole little world, the one strong piece everyone relies on. And how horrible it is to think about him shattering.
That’s what Iago does, he doesn’t just destroy the love between Desdemona and Othello, that was always doomed. But he does it in such a way that it manages to destroy Othello himself as well. The tricky part for the filmmakers is to make Othello be completely destroyed without ever undermining his power and strength, without ever making him look foolish or weak. Ajay and Bhardwaj convey this brilliantly, making “Omkara” always close to seeing through Iago’s machinations, only falling pray to them through a series of unfortunate coincidences. And being mostly blind to Iago’s tricks only because he himself is too large natured, to far-seeing, to be able to conceive of such petty trickery. While at the same time being too dark and doubting to conceive of Kareena’s incredible purity.
All of this is straight up Shakespeare, but there are a few interesting changes Bhardwaj makes to the story. Not even changes, really, just small additions.
So, SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER
I don’t remember if Desdemona’s suicide plan is in the original play or not (I haven’t read it since college), but if it is, it isn’t talked much about. But in this, Bhardwaj makes it a major plot point, that Kareena was planning to kill herself on her wedding day to a man who wasn’t Ajay. And that Ajay had never considered making a move on her, until he learned that the alternative was her death.
Their little romance is really lovely, what we see of it. Like in the play, he is a rough fighting man who is connected to her father through their shared leader (in this case, Ajay is the head of the ‘youth party’ for Naseeruddin Shah’s politician, while Kareena’s father is Naseerji’s lawyer). But while in the play we learn of their romance through Othello’s description, in this Kareena is given her own voice and perspective. For her, Ajay suddenly burst into her life when he came to her house seeking sanctuary after a fight and fell injured in her arms. She never considered marrying him, or even speaking of her feelings, but accepted that it was her fate to love someone she could never be with, and that she would rather die than keep living with this pain.
Ajay through out also appears to never actually consider the possibility of being with her. Or perhaps, with any woman. He seems to keep himself remote from everyone, even his closest lieutenants. It was only Kareena’s announcement of her planned suicide which drove him to action.
That causes a slight re-focusing of the ending. Yes, Kareena dies. But she was always going to die anyway, she just gained an extra 6 weeks of life between her scheduled arranged marriage/suicide and her death at the hands of Ajay. And, on the other hand, Ajay was always going to kill her. Her suicide note addressed to him, specifically uses the language “when I die, add me to the list of those you have slain”.
Ajay’s brute force was always over-whelming for her more gentle nature. Ultimately, his violent and distrustful way of seeing the world led him to suffocate her. But that same blunt brutality also lead him to ignore her initial hesitant advances, and would just as surely have lead to her death by suicide because of disappointed love. Their personalities were fundamentally incompatible, only held together by illogical love on both their parts.
The other big difference I noticed was in the strength of the Konkona Sen Sharma character. In Shakespeare’s play, Emilia, Iago’s wife, has a couple of great speeches about her distrust for men and practical attitude towards love. She is a companion for Desdemona and a convenient plot device, passing information and the pivotal handkerchief between Desdemona’s private female world and Iago. But she is mostly a fairly minor character, quickly killed at the end after having given her vital information to Othello.
Not so here! Konkona’s Indu is a vital force in the film, which serves to strengthen not just her role, but all the female parts. Konkona is the older female of Ajay’s household, he calls her “sister” but it is unclear whether she is truly his sister, or merely a woman he has adopted as his sister. Either way, the important thing is that he calls her “sister”, not “sister-in-law”, making his relationship to her primary, not secondary to his relationship to Iago. Ajay may never have considered marriage, but that doesn’t mean he has no women in his life. And his treatment of Kareena doesn’t mean he is naturally misogynist, just that he has a huge blind spot where she is concerned.
Speaking of blind spots, Konkona’s increased role also shows how Kareena DOES NOT have a blind spot when it comes to Vivek. Konkona treats Vivek, and is treated by him, in much the same way as Kareena does. Kareena is simply following her example in how women in this household act with their partner’s friends, and is not crossing any lines or acting in a way to arouse suspicion.
Most importantly, Konkona immediately takes on the position of Kareena’s defender. In the original play, there is the awkward ending in which Othello plays both Desdemona’s murderer and her chief mourner. In this, Konkona says many times that, since Kareena has run away from home and been brought to share her life with Konkona in their rural compound, Konkona is now her family.
This reaches its fever pitch at the end of the film, when Ajay has begun to draw away from Kareena, has even hit her. Konkona spots the bruises and insists that Kareena break off the marriage if she has any doubt, that it is not too late. And she confronts Ajay over his actions, taking Kareena’s side over his. Konkona is only person in Kareena’s whole life who has ever been on her side, including her own father. Konkona being there during this time, supporting her, makes Kareena’s decision to stay with Ajay after all not merely a matter of desperation, of having no where else to go and no one to support her, but an actual choice. It gives the Desdemona character back her agency, makes her more than an eloped bride who has no choice but to stay with her husband.
In the same way, making the wedding the finale of the plot, rather than the beginning, serves to give Kareena agency. She is not yet married to Ajay. She has the option of leaving him. Konkona would support her, even if no one else would. She is the one who makes the decision to stay, who decides she would rather live with the man she loves, even after he has started to distrust and abuse her, than anywhere else.
(There are like 5 fanvids I could have chosen from to represent this concept. The ‘I love you even though you hurt me’ idea is very very present in Indian film!)
During the wedding celebration, Konkona mentions again and again that she is there to help “her” girl have a grand celebration. She even bullies the musicians to come play at Kareena’s wedding, abandoning Ajay’s side. In the end, when Ajay has killed Kareena, Konkona is the one to find them. And, in the most dramatic change from the stage play, she is the one to take revenge, killing Saif with a slash of his throat, not for having brought down Ajay, but for having indirectly killed a woman Konkona loved through his actions.
The play may be called “Othello”, and the film may be called “Omkara”, but Konkona’s character is there to constantly remind us of the real victim, unintended though she may be, of all these actions. Desdemona, who never did anything wrong or false. Who was pushed from man to man, a father who saw her as something to be married off as he willed it, a fiance who saw her as a possession that was stolen, a lover who saw her as a weakness that could betray him, and a schemer who saw her merely as a means to an end. Heck, multiple schemers! Even Vivek was willing to use his friendship with her as a means of forcing a pardon from Ajay, rather than providing support in her difficult time as a new bride-to-be. Only Konkona is there to remind us that Kareena is a person in her own right, who should not be forgotten or ignored, and who deserves to be mourned and avenged by someone who besides the same man who killed her.