Mehta puts the ‘K’ word out there and, despite the watchful Censors, much is said in the film on the Indian government’s treatment of Kashmir — albeit by men in dark rooms, anger in their hearts and guns in their hands. Omerta goes so far as to refer to “atrocities by Hindus”, have a Kashmiri man amidst the terrorists in Karachi and depict some bloodied bodies left by State hands in the Valley.
In the charged new world we live in, the words ring loudly and, importantly, unapologetically.
As for the rest of the film, it won’t ruffle any feathers, except of Hansal Mehta fans looking for another Shahid, for exploration of radicalism as a product of chance and circumstance. Working without his usual scriptwriter Apurva Asrani — the embers of that falling-out are still glowing — Mehta says he got the idea of making a film on the infamous British-Pakistani terrorist Omar Saeed Sheikh from model-actor Mukul Dev. The latter is credited with ‘story’.
Even if you are willing to put that aside, Omerta is a surprisingly passion-less, rote incident-by-incident telling of the story of a man who is not only part of one of the most shameful chapters in India’s terror history, but whose name is on top of the list of investigators joining the dots in major terror plots across the globe, including 9/11. Omar wet his feet in India, but could be, as per some conspiracy theories, working for Britain’s intelligence agency or Pakistan’s. What explains this instant recollect, with no real big terror hits to his credit? Was it the package he offered, of a rich Pakistani boy from Southall, who gave up London School of Economics for the ragged mountains of Afghanistan? How crucial a role did the events in Bosnia play in the radicalisation of Muslim college youth such as Omar in the UK at the time?
Omerta had a chance to look at all that, but instead it focuses on easier territory such as a long training routine, a cliché Pakistani wedding, stock footage that goes on and on lazily in a film pretty short by Bollywood standards, and on a tense but inconsequential confrontation between Omar and his final victim, the American journalist Daniel Pearl. On the other hand, it skims over crucial details such as Omar’s exchange for hostages by the Indian government during the Kandahar hijacking, and his role or lack of it in 9/11 and 26/11.
Above all, it gives no insight into Omar’s descent into radicalisation, unless one can count scenes with his despairing father, that are too well-constructed. There are no tears, and only a brief mention of a mother going through hell. Whatever respect you have for the impressive father is subsequently dragged through the mud when he is brought out to mouth trite dialogues each time Omar gets more sucked into the cycle of killings. There is a hint of the role played by mullahs in moulding young minds, but not to any great revelation.
Rao tries his best, but the strain of being the only person who matters in the film, with an English accent that slips, soars, slides, strains and, sometimes, simply gives up, doesn’t help. The foreigners hired to play the bit roles of Omar’s abductees, with the exception of Allan as Pearl (marginally better), are embarrassing.
Omerta’s most genuine moments are between the band of men assembled together in camps in the middle of nowhere, bearing their own imagined or real slights, driven by little else but faith, in scenes that Mehta shoots well. The speeches of the leaders here are short but in language that appears to have emerged from scorched grounds.
Omar, the outsider, finds a few pleasures for himself here, in food, and in his superior hierarchical position, assumed naturally in the subcontinent, as the “one from London”.
Mehta has said he didn’t intend to “humanise” Omar but “demonise” him — and one scene especially makes that evident. According to him, Omerta is the “companion piece to Shahid”, that if there are victims of the system, there are those men of violence who are sponsored by that system too.
In the same breath in an interview to Reuters, he slammed “most of us liberal-mined people” of being “too passive”. Fair enough. But it’s troubling if Omerta’s slick, superficial account is his way of shaking that impassivity.