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April 23, 2007

The William Shakespeare Blog-a-thon: Omkara

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Vishal Bhardwaj - 2006
Eros Internation All Region DVD

I have not seen Bhardwaj's version of the "Scottish play". That film was critically and commercially successful enough to encourage Bhardwaj to try adapting Shakespeare again with this version of Othello. While Omkara has its faults, I always find it interesting to watch any kind of attempt to transpose Shakespeare into a different time and culture. In this example, the action takes place in contemporary India, filmed primarily in the countryside of Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra. Othello is renamed Omkara, usually refered to as Omi, and is the gangster chief in his region.

What may be a problem for Shakespeare scholars is how this Othello is presented. Unlike the Moor of traditional productions, Omkara is refered to as half-caste. His mother is described as a slave, which may or may not be an accurate translation from the Hindi dialogue. This brings up the question as to whether what marks the Othello character as an outsider needs to specifically be racial, or is the spirit of the play primarily in the narrative of a trusted adviser manipulating people for his own benefit, making his declared best friend lose trust in his wife before murdering her?

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What may also be considered a problem with this film, but may well be a problem with almost any production of Othello is that Iago is the more interesting character. Here renamed Langda, Saif Ali Khan (seen above) takes his part and runs away with the film, fully enjoying his villainy. In the other productions of Othello that I've seen, the Moor is something of a stiff, trying his best to be one of the guys, but inhibited by his sense of nobility. The Iago here relishes pulling strings and pushing the buttons of those who trust him. The scenes of Langda setting up the machinery of tragedy are laced with black humor. Too often the scenes of Omkara with his Desdemona, here named Dolly, are dull.

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This being a Bollywood version of Shakespeare, there are scenes of singing and dancing. As is often the case in a Bollywood film, the musical portions are the best part of the film. The film stops to allow Bipasha Bisu two opportunities to sing, dance and show off her belly button in her role as Billo, Shakespeare's Bianca. One good thing about DVDs of Bollywood films is that if you want to skip the story but simply enjoy the musical numbers, that option is available. At one point in the film, Dolly, the Bollywood Desdemona, sings an off-key version of a Stevie Wonder song to Omkara. Had I had my way, this Desdemona would have been smothered so much sooner.

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Of the other screen Othellos I have seen, Orson Welles knew how to dominate the screen. His is the only filmed performance that I would bother to see again. Laurence Fishburne did a good job in the 1995 version directed by Oliver Parker, but Kenneth Branagh had all the fun as honest Iago. My introduction to Othello almost put me off to the play altogether. Laurence Olivier may be the greatest Shakespearean actor of my time, but in film he was sometimes still playing to the audience in the balcony, overacting when he should have toned down his performance. I could not stop laughing when I first saw Olivier in blackface in the 1965 film of Othello. Not only did I think that the make-up was a stupid idea at the time when Martin Luther King, Jr. was making news, but I kept on waiting for Olivier to bend on one knee and belt out "Mammy". An honorable mention goes out to Ronald Colman who played a murderous actor playing Othello on stage in A Double Life.

Links to this blog-a-thon will be added during the day. If you wish to contribute a link, write to me at lensdarkly@yahoo.com.

Links: The Shamus investigates Branagh's Henry V
Flickhead - The Bard vs. The Shatner
Odienator discusses actors who should not do Shakespeare
Edward Copeland covers the book The Shakespeare Riots
Daniel Eisenberg on Olivier's Henry V
Windmills of my Mind looks at Shakespeare behind bars
Filmsquish does Tromeo and Juliet
All about my Movies' Emma lists her favorite Hamlets
Ogg's Movie Thoughts are about Hamlet goes Business
The Film Experience loves Lady Macbeth
Jurgen Fauth comes to praise Brando as Marc Antony
Cinebeats takes on Vincent Price and Theater of Blood
Bleeding Tree gushes forth on blood Titus
Andrew Bemis on Polanski's version of "the Scottish play"
Jerry Kutner at Bright Lights After Dark shares a clip from Chimes at Midnight
while Noel Vera takes a good look at Orson Welles and Falstaff
George Thomas looks at the Bollywood Maqbool
Brian Darr takes on Bugs Bunny and the Bard
Bohemian Cinema shows Shakespeare as the ultimate ad man

Posted by peter at April 23, 2007 12:03 AM

Comments

Posted by: Noel Vera at April 23, 2007 07:23 PM

Some good actors are at their best on film; others are at their finest on stage. I saw a New York stage production of Othello some years ago starring James Earl Jones and Christopher Plummer. Jones was okay, but not nearly as effective as he is on film. Plummer's Iago, on the other hand, was the greatest stage performance I have ever seen. And he was as subtle and intimate as he is in his best film roles. At no time did he seem to be playing "to the balcony."

Posted by: c. jerry kutner at April 23, 2007 09:12 PM