By Proma Khosla, Daily Bollywood Columnist
Published November 15, 2012
I’ve made it pretty clear over the past few weeks how much I adore cheesy romantic Bollywood movies, so the time is ripe to assert myself as a legitimate cinephile. Bollywood, like Hollywood, has a thriving independent film genre, though we tend to call it “artistic” or “alternative.” These films are as excellent as commercial Bollywood is terrible.
My favorite is the 2006 masterpiece “Omkara,” a modern adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Othello.” Under the visionary direction of Vishal Bhardwaj, “Omkara” brings Othello to modern-day Uttar Pradesh, India, in a thrilling narrative of love, deception and politics that resonated with me far more than Shakespeare’s original work. I saw “Omkara” before ever reading “Othello,” and my comfort and understanding of the latter text can be almost entirely credited to Bhardwaj’s adaptation.
Bhardwaj brings out the best in his cast, from the already-gifted Ajay Devgan to the surprisingly villainous Saif Ali Khan. Even Kareena Kapoor and Bipasha Basu, who star almost exclusively in worthless films, deliver quality performances worthy of the onscreen equivalents of Desdemona and Bianca, respectively. Kapoor, in particular, is a revelation as she brings to life Dolly’s tender innocence and subsequent anguish when her lover turns on her.
Khan is a revelation of pure evil as Langda Tyagi (Iago), puppeteering the destruction of everyone around him with utter ruthlessness. He has since returned to playing conventional leading men, but I can’t even be upset at this lack of diversity in his repertoire. If anything, it makes Langda stand out even more as one of the most unforgettable performances in Hindi film history.
Beyond that, the film itself is excellently made. Each time I watch it, a new aspect of the filmmaking stands out. Most recently, it was the cinematography; each shot is so carefully and artistically composed that from an audience viewpoint it’s like actually being there in Omkara’s home leading up to the events of his disastrous wedding night. The dull, warm colors of Uttar Pradesh tint the film like a Western, but it never loses that edge of darkness which underlies Shakespearian tragedy.
Bhardwaj, the artistic powerhouse that he is, also composed the film’s brooding background score and surprisingly well-placed musical numbers. Normally, it makes no earthly sense to have Bianca singing and dancing amidst one of Iago’s plans, but “Beedi Jalaile” was one of the surprise hit songs of 2006 and remains popular today.
Few cinematic moments can compare to the haunting sound of “Jagja,” (“Wake up”) as sung by Omkara to the lifeless body of his lover just moments after he has killed her. A chilling musical score accompanies almost all action in the film, contributing to the haunting feeling that can’t be shaken even in the lightest moments.
I could go on for hours about the gritty, artistic brilliance of “Omkara,” but there are dozens of other films in this genre of Indian film that deserve mention. The reason they remain overlooked, however, is because many tackle complex social or political subject matter that “mainstream” audiences do not take kindly to at the movies.
Take, for example, Deepa Mehta’s 1998 masterpiece “Earth.” Truthfully, I would hesitate to call this a “good” film, because that implies that it can be viewed more than once. I would not watch “Earth” again because I was so shaken by the ending. But it was an incontestably well-made film, one I would recommend everyone watch — if only once. It addresses the horrors of India’s partition in 1947, a gruesome conflict that tends to get overlooked in historical context when juxtaposed with the apparent thrill of Indian independence.
I noticed a similar theme in one of this summer’s alternative films, “Ishaqzaade,” about a Hindu boy and a Muslim girl who fall in love against their family’s wishes. Apart from the obvious parallel to “Romeo and Juliet,” the film focuses more on the religious conflict between the households and the irrational stubbornness of both sides in refusing to make amends.
At least the Montagues and Capulets see reason over their children’s dead bodies; the Qureshis and the Chauhans actually shoot down the young lovers until Parma (Arjun Kapoor) and Zoya (Parineeti Chopra) have no choice but to end things on their own terms. It leaves the audience with another unsettling message: All over India — and the world, no doubt — people are punished for something as benign as whom they love. Like “Earth,” “Ishaqzaade” left me shaken by the capacity of human beings to perpetrate hatred based on arbitrary divisions.
At some point this discussion of excellent cinema took a turn for a human interest piece, but my point is this: Bollywood is more than fun-filled musicals and mindless entertainment. Indian cinema happens to house the films that have impacted me most significantly, films with distinct social and political motifs that need to be acknowledged. Alternative Indian films do not have as large an audience as their Hollywood counterparts, but their artistic and cultural merit remains invaluable.