Monday, January 30, 2012

Dabbling in the murder-suicide side: Omkara and Tere Naam

OK, so I am being a terrible Bollywood blogger. I keep talking about these movies I’ve seen and how I want to write up posts about them and I take forever to do it if I even remember (although I am admittedly better about this kind of stuff than my nonexistant co-bloggers!). Here are a couple more of the films I saw from the library about a month and a half ago.

The reason I lumped these two films together rather than mash them in with the post about Pyaasa, Bombay and Bobby is that both Tere Naam and Omkara are darker films, each in a different way.


Omkara is a retelling of Shakespeare’s “Othello,” desi style. Now, as someone with an English literature degree, I know a thing or two about Shakespeare — I even took a semesterlong course in nothing but Shakespeare — and about how his storylines underpin just about everything (including, for example, The Lion King as “Hamlet” for kids). But I am admittedly a bad English major who does not love the man, and Othello is one of those rare texts about which I know little except the (tragic) ending.

However, it’s probably a good thing I didn’t know much about Othello going in. Much of the story — and therefore much of Omkara’s story — is dependent on back-stabbing and power politics within a ruffian army (in Omkara’s case, it’s more or less a gang of thugs).

For all of the bad Bollywood adaptations I’ve seen of things, Omkara is a powerfully good one. It takes the darkness of Othello and translates it well. And in translating the dialogue, it comes away from the flowing poetry of Shakespeare and becomes the language of ruffians: dark, foul and crude (which Shakespeare also was with his double meanings).

Ajay Devgn plays the title role of Omkara Shukla (adapting Othello), a sort of political enforcer (read: political thug) for a local politician, and Saif Ali Khan as Langda (Iago) and Vivek Oberoi as Kesu (Cassio) play his lieutenants. When Omkara is promoted and chooses Kesu as his replacement, Langda becomes violently jealous and plots Omkara and Kesu’s downfall, including involving Omkara’s bride-to-be Dolly (adapting Desdemona, played by Kareena Kapoor) and Billo (adapting Bianca, played by Bipasha Basu), a dancer that Kesu is smitten with.

Despite my usual distaste for Ajay Devgn (who often seems uncomfortable and fidgety in roles) and my ambivalence for Saif Ali Khan (who is often blandly forgettable), both were downright amazing in this film. Both play decidedly dark roles, and I think both may simply be suited better for that. Ajay is at moments chilling in his portrayal of powerful, controlling Omkara, and the same can be said of Saif playing a bloodthirsty, plotting Langda.

And then there are the powerfully romantic moments between Omkara and Dolly that are so soft and even more deeply felt than the typical Bollywood romance. But of course these too are underlain with Omkara’s jealousy, distrust and desire for possession, all of which become a factor in Langda’s plans to bring down Omkara.

True to Shakespeare form, the politics of the film and the intricacies of Langda’s plot are hard to follow if you don’t keep on your toes because they involve simply everyone. And then, ultimately, the film ends in the true form of Shakespearean tragedy: a pile of dead bodies. If you know anything about Shakespearean tragedy, you know to expect that almost no one will survive. And just because this is the Hindi cinema version doesn’t mean this one ends any differently.

But I have to confess — I thoroughly loved it.

Tere Naam

In Tere Naam, a sort of rowdy ne’er-do-well named Radhe Mohan (Salman Khan) hangs around outside his alma mater picking on people, including Nirjana (Bhumika Chawla), the traditional daughter of a Brahmin priest. Radhe slowly falls in love with Nirjana, who slowly befriends him but refuses to consider him romantically because he is a ne’er-do-well and her marriage has already been arranged with a priest-in-training. Radhe continues to pursue her despite this until he is attacked by a gang and beat in the head, causing him to more or less lose his mind. He is then taken to an insane asylum.

As you can guess from the description, yes, Tere Naam is darker than your typical film. Radhe clearly has issues with wanting to possess and control Nirjana despite her wishes and her family’s wishes. He also has problems before he’s beaten up in which he appears to go outright mad, verging on serial killer psycho — when Nirjana refuses to see and speak to him, he ties her up so that he can talk to her.

However! After reading the description, I thought it was going to be darker than it is. Yes, Radhe is sort of a delinquent, but he’s not really a criminal or a thug in the way the gang in Omkara is. Yes, he has moments of madness and a dark possessiveness around Nirjana. But for the most part, the main story of Tere Naam is a simple Bollywood love story with a man of bad reputation falls in love with a good, religious girl who will not have him (in fact very similar to Max and Roseanne in Josh). It is funny, romantic, cheesy, all in the appropriate Bollywood doses.

Although I’d offer a word of advice to prospective suitors based on Radhe: It is unwise to propose to your prospective wife-to-be by telling her you'll slap her father unconscious; unless, of course, you're entirely convinced she hates her father. (Yes, that’s how Radhe proposes to Nirjana, which makes her fear for her life and her father’s and sends her running as far from Radhe as she can get.)

It’s only after Radhe is injured and becomes truly mad (though mostly a vegetable at first) that the film really becomes dark. The “asylum” where he goes uses “traditional” methods to treat the ill, including chaining them to poles, keeping them behind bars and the like. The asylum itself is more like a dungeon than anything else.

And of course once Radhe is gone, Nirjana realizes that she actually loved him. And she feels with the guilt and remorse of how she treated him, and goes to see him. She is horrified by what she finds there, Radhe sleeping chained to a pole, injured and bleeding and uncared for as flies swarm around his wounds — a Radhe who, by the way, has regained some sanity but can’t get free because, well, he’s chained. Later he escapes and runs all the way back to town, barefoot, barely clothed and carrying his chains, only to find that Nirjana has killed herself out of grief for him.

Radhe is now sane, but has another sort of breakdown crying over Nirjana’s corpse. With nowhere else to go, he returns to the asylum.

Yes, this film is that sort of dark and depressing. It’s poignant too, in a way, but I definitely prefer the devious darkness — full and complete with reason — of Omkara to the sort of depressed darkness of this film. Perhaps it’s just because this film to me felt like it mushed the darker side onto the end too haphazardly for a film that was mostly, as I said, a normal romance about a less-than-upstanding guy who falls in love with the very conservative and traditional girl.


  1. This reminds me, I still need to watch Omkara. The songs were pretty good too! Actually, I am waiting for your review on Dil Chahta Hai!

  2. Oh, I completely forgot about that, and unless I watch it again soon, I may not get around to an individual review. But you can read the blog post I did bidding farewell to college with Dil Chahta Hai, 3 Idiots and ZNMD at this link.