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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Omerta, Review: Omer talk

Omerta, Review: Omer talk

Alright, Omar, if you insist. His full name is Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh. If you see the film, you will discover that he is a hardcore terrorist who indulged in at least one act of barbaric butchery as well. With a name like that, he has to be a Pakistani or Pakistani sympathiser.

Omerta spans the canvas from Bosnia to the hijacking of an Indian Airlines’ plane to the Mumbai terror attacks. The film derives its title from the Italian term for a criminal code of honour that encompasses absolute non-cooperation with legal authorities. Merriam Webster defines the term as simply: code of silence. Mario Puzo, of Godfather fame, wrote a novel by the same name and a French film called Omerta was made in 2012.

Co-writer and director Hansal Mehta gives us a lot of talk, breaking his own omerta, and yet we know pretty little about the men and their motivations, besides the obvious. British-bred Pakistani Terrorist, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh initially sympathised with the cause of the Muslims in Bosnia, who were subjected to mass ethnic cleansing. From being a peaceful demonstrator there, he came under the influence of a local Mulla in England and decided to give up his London School of Economics course, to go to Pakistan and take-up violent jehad.

Trained in terrorist activities, he kidnapped four white persons, including an ambassador’s son, in New Delhi. Next, he ensnared a woman called Bela, who was held captive too. One member of his gang fell into the hands of the police, and they tortured him till the mastermind was named. Omar tried to escape, but was arrested, and imprisoned for these 1994 kidnappings. But fate smiled on the jehadi, and he was released as part of an exchange following the Indian Airlines aircraft hijacking in 1999. Not much later, he decided to target Jewish-American journalist, Daniel Pearl, who was working for the Wall Street Journal, easily the most stomach churning scenes on the film.

Mukul Dev sowed the seeds of the story in Hansal Mehta’s head way back in 2005. It took a long time to germinate because the Internet, 13 years ago, was not quite what it is now, and the subject demanded extensive research. Meanwhile, Mehta made Shahid (2012), with Rajkummar Rao, and changed his initial decision of casting Riz Khan, the Pakistani-British actor, who had done The Reluctant Fundamentalist that same year, with Mira Nair, in Omerta. Mehta decided to co-write, and shoot the Indian and British scenes in those countries. Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bosnia were recreated.

All the incidents are there for the writers-director to choose from. But to impart thrills and excitement, archival printouts are just not enough. Mehta uses-up precious footage in showing Omar waving a flag in Bosnia, knocking doors and using passwords, getting in and out of places, up and down staircases, talking to his backers pointlessly and repeatedly and ending almost all conversations similarly. As the protagonist, he rarely seems to be in control, with his handlers assuring him time and again that they will look after him. Scenes between him and his father, his father and the Mulla and him and the Mulla all strike a false chord each. When the father faces a hostile media crowd that wants to indict him for his son’s crimes, everybody hams to glory.

As Mehta’s five timer muse, Rajkummar Rao (Shahid, CityLights, Aligarh, Bose: Dead/Alive) is too accomplished an actor to fail his mentor. But for once, the script lets him down. Jehadis may be prone to jerky, abnormal behavior, and that is cake-walk to actors like Rao. But the only time Mehta lets him loose is in a blood-bath that needs to be cut down to one-fourth its length. India’s Central Board of Film Certification gave the film a ‘For Adults Only’ certificate, imposing two cuts, one where the national anthem should be removed from an offensive scene, and a scene involving full frontal nudity, that was showcased to portray the mental condition of the protagonist. In their wisdom, however, they let Daniel Pearl’s innards decorate the screen. Archival footage of the Indian Airlines flight 814 hijacking, and the media coverage of the 9-11 attacks, as well as George W. Bush’s subsequent TV address, was purchased from different sources. The former has some curiosity value, especially for the under 30 generation, while the latter has been seen countless number of times.

Rajkummar Rao as Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh takes this one in his stride. I found little difference between his portrayal of Subhashchandra Bose in the Web Series, Bose: Dead or Alive, and Omar. Naturally, Omar has a fanatic, crazy edge, that’s all. Timothy Ryan Hickernell as Daniel Pearl and Kallirroi Tziafeta as Mariane Pearl are the two non Pakistanis who have the longest roles. A pregnant Marianne generates sympathy (you might want to visit A Mighty Heart-2007, which featured Angelina Jolie as Daniel Pearl’s widow), while Timothy is convincing as Danny. Keval Arora as Saeed Shaikh is type cast and has type acted. Others in support are Rajesh Tailang as General Mahmud, Rupinder Nagra as Maulana Ismail, Harmeet Singh Sawhney as Abdul and British actress/model Nisha George.

Anuj Rakesh Dhawan is the director of photography and Aditya Warrior is the editor of the film. Ishaan Chhabra has scored the music. Omerta’s effective and loud background score comes at you relentlessly, as if nobody told them that a. the same music can get very monotonous and b. sometimes, brevity is a virtue.

To sum it up, if a political-terrorist-kidnapping-mayhem film cannot keep us engaged for 96 minutes, that’s a shame. All the radicalisation and brain-washing that Omar goes through and the dastardly crimes he commits in the name of religion are, by now, old hat. There have been twenty such films made in India, if not more, not to mention 100 activist documentaries that can give any docu-feature a run for its money. Only solid political revelations or edge of the seat thrills can sustain the genre here onwards.

Rating: **


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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