By Taruni Kumar
I must confess the thing that I was looking forward to most in Hansal Mehta’s Omerta was Rajkummar Rao’s Southall accent. How gloriously bad or good would it be when he angrezed it out in his role as Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh. Sheikh is the infamous British terrorist of Pakistani descent who was involved in the kidnapping of 4 foreign tourists in New Delhi in 1994, the 2002 kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and whose name crops up in connection with 9/11, the IC 814 hijacking and even the 26/11 Mumbai terror strike.
As the film progressed, I realised Rao’s accent was the perfect analogy for the movie itself: Sometimes perfect but every now and then strange cracks appeared.
Anyone who walks in to watch Omerta with no context of what the film is about isn’t going to glean much from the first 20 or so minutes. It seems like a disjointed account of a Muslim man, on a vague mission assigned to him by a Pakistani maulana, walking around Delhi’s streets, befriending foreigners and using the same secret password, “Salaam doctor sahab”, to introduce himself to co-conspirators. But when the first gun appears and Sheikh goes off on a rant about the crimes of the West against the Islamic states’ then people, it becomes evident that this Muslim man is meant to be a terrorist. This is, of course, aside from the standard shots of Sheikh praying at what seems to be the Jama Masjid because how are we to know unless we see Muslims praying in a quiet huddle as they do in all movies with Muslim characters who turn out to be terrorists (or not). Why else would Hindutva groups in Gurgaon have stopped Muslims from praying in open spaces? Who knows what they’d do after?
The movie continues in this sort of choppy fashion attempting to connect all the most prominent terror attacks that are linked to Omar Sheikh in the course of an 125 minutes with some scenes thrown in to point towards his terrorist training and links to ISI, Pakistan’s spy agency. But not once does it delve into the actual means of radicalisation or the reasons why Sheikh chose to travel down the path he did aside from the standard shots of incendiary speeches being given at the terrorist training camp later in the movie.
At the very least though, through the clear juxtaposition between Sheikh’s father (played by Delhi University professor Keval Arora) and Sheikh, the movie didn’t fall into the Islamophobic trap of assuming all Muslims are poised on the verge of radicalisation or the trap of setting up Sheikh’s father as a Good Muslim who prayed plenty and was super noble. He was just a regular old dad trying to get his son back on the straight and narrow and assumed at one point that his son’s new bride and future child would fix him. *eye roll*
The movie relies heavily on its background score throughout, sometimes even more so than dialogue. Like in the scene where Sheikh beats up his fellow terror camp trainee Jaffer after the nth time of the latter needling him about being from England and, thus, too soft for terrorism. The scene has no dialogue but beautifully portrays both Sheikh’s anger, Jaffer’s absolute inability to see the assault coming and the sense of satisfaction Sheikh draws from it all.
In the run-up to the film’s release, both Mehta and Rao had said that the movie was an attempt at exploring evil as a human characteristic. The attempt, one gathers from the pre-release press, was to make Rao a memorable, shivers-down-your-spine sort of fellow. Hence some of the faff about how Italian women were drawn to Rao at the festival because he evil, he hot. But the Omar Sheikh of the movie didn’t come across as plain simple evil. He came across as a misguided young man, as paternalistic as that may sound, who was convinced that what he was doing was for the greater good no matter how brutally violent it may be. At one point, Rao’s Sheikh shows a glimmer of striking self-awareness when, in conversation with Daniel Pearl, he mentions that while the jihadis think they’re protecting religion and their people, journalists think that by ‘exposing’ them, they’re protecting the world. The rift between the way each side sees good and bad is evident in Sheikh’s simplistic analysis. But even that self-awareness is couched in the continued belief that he’s on the right side.
Another pre-release comment by Rao came to mind as I watched Sheikh being praised by his seniors at the terrorist training camp in Pakistan. Rao had said in an interview to Firstpost, “Good boy role limits you but a bad boy doesn’t have any image so one gets lot of freedom, he can do anything.” But Rao as Sheikh isn’t playing the role of the bad boy at all. He’s not killing people for the sake of violence or for perceived personal gains. He’s playing out the role of the jihadi radicalised good boy, who’s following the path of violence for the sake of Islam. This is most apparent in the scene where the Maulana at the camp calls him over to introduce him to an ISI handler and suggests he go to the ISI base for training because he was an educated young man. Sheikh’s response? A breathless, “It would be an honour.”
But the smaller moments made the movie enjoyable. Early on Sheikh is stopped in New Delhi and told by a cop that he has a “Mullah jaisa look” and when he says his name is Rohit Verma, the cop asks him suspiciously if his “missus” is Muslim. Because that would explain everything. Another great moment was when Sheikh is behind bars in New Delhi and asks his lawyer if he’s happy as a Muslim in India. And the lawyer, Majeed, responds in the affirmative, taking his leave with the typically South Asian adieu, “Khuda Hafiz” to which Sheikh responds with the more West Asian “Allah Hafiz” the stern preference of the modern orthodox. There was even a moment of humour, which I think was the only straight-up laugh, when Sheikh is chastising his cellmate in jail for not keeping the roza during Ramzan and he announces to everybody that the Muslims must feel shame when they don’t have the strength to even fast for a month. After this proclamation, when everybody is paying attention, he turns to the man in front of him, asks him “Tumhara naam kya hai?” to which the man responds “Krishna.” Without skipping a beat and with the same anger, Sheikh responds “Toh tum khao na!”
Considering Sheikh’s Pakistani origins, I was quite concerned about the potential for overtly nationalistic portrayals of the Kashmir issue and Pakistan. But surprisingly, the movie, despite its many references to the Pakistan state and ISI’s duplicitous approach to terrorism, never created a faux patriotic juxtaposition. In fact, one of the most poignant moments of the film is when Sheikh is introduced in Pakistan to a young man at the madarsa where they are meant to stay for two weeks before the training camp begins. This man says he is from Srinagar, Kashmir and calls himself a freedom fighter. (At the mention of that term, at least two people sitting to my left sniggered. Bear in mind, this was a 10.30 am show on a Saturday so there were only 10 people in the entire theatre anyway.) A little later, the man is shown lying in bed and crying as he holds a photo of his parents. When Sheikh asks if he misses them, the man says this is an old photo and pulls out a new one of which shows two people who have clearly died from gunshot wounds. (No sniggering was heard in response to this reminder of the violence in Kashmir.)
Of course, there are no women in this movie which isn’t so much of a surprise. But it is strange that aside from brief glimpses of Sheikh’s wife, whose name doesn’t seem to be mentioned in the film, and Daniel Pearl’s wife, the French journalist Mariane Pearl (played by Kallirroi Tziafeta here and Angelina Jolie in A Mighty Heart), the only other woman in the movie is Bela, the American woman who is kidnapped in Delhi.
Why is this strange, you ask? Because back in 1994, in real life, the victim, whose name was Bela Nuss, is a man. So, I wondered if this gender swap was meant to be some sort of failed attempt at inclusion, if the filmmakers just wanted to include a white lady or if they really did think Bela Nuss was actually female. I was very distracted by this detail.
The movie told the story of Sheikh as a violent, troubled man very well and Rao’s acting was extremely engaging. But the one question that the movie certainly didn’t answer was, why? Why did Sheikh do what he did? What caused him to be this radicalised? What led him to want war between Pakistan and India for which he made those two phone calls to the respective governments in the midst of 26/11? Why was Sheikh the violent terrorist mastermind that he became by the end of the film from being the college student who wanted to help his fellow Muslims in Bosnia at the beginning? Even if Hansal Mehta didn’t want to dive too deep into Sheikh’s backstory, the question of why, was definitely worth exploring. With all the reporting around ISIS and its recruitment in the West, one can understand why in 2018 an Omar Sheikh would have left Britain to head to Syria. Back in the 90’s Sheikh was a rather unusual entity. Unfortunately the film doesn’t borrow from the present or quote from the past to explain what’s going on with Sheikh, a man now tied instrinsically to how we understand terrorism.
Co-published with Firstpost.