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Sunday, September 17, 2017

Omerta - in the skin of a terrorist

Rajkummar Rao is Omar Saeed Sheikh
To journalists familiar with South Asia, Omar Saeed Sheikh is a known name. The British terrorist who killed Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal journalist in 2002, has been extensively covered in the media. 

He also nearly caused a war between India and Pakistan by making a hoax call pretending to be India’s then Foreign Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee to the then Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari threatening stern action in response to Pakistani-inspired terrorist attack on Bombay in November 2008, when terrorists held India's commercial capital to ransom and killed hundreds of people.

Omar’s career in terrorism began in the early 1990s when he abandoned his privileged upbringing in Britain and quit his studies at the London School of Economics (LSE). He volunteered to seek justice for the Bosnian Muslims being massacred in the rapidly disintegrating former Yugoslavia.   

A local Muslim priest in England assisted Omar in convincing his father that Omar’s quest is genuine, and then helped him reach Pakistan where he joined a training camp and met  young men from different parts of the Muslim world who had all gathered together to be trained to wage a war against perceived and real injustices being perpetrated against Muslims.

In Hansal Mehta’s Omerta (which means the Mafia’s code of silence and non-cooperation with authorities) Rajkummar Rao portrays Omar with ice in his veins, and with a chilling realism that is unnerving, and at times even difficult to watch without feeling queasy. 

Rao, indisputably one of the finest actors to emerge from India in recent years, lives the role of the British terrorist and immerses himself in the character. He follows the minutest nuance and smallest quirk of the character with complete involvement and utter conviction. 

During his training in the AfPak border, Omar is made to realise that Kashmir needs as much attention as any other region where Muslims are being persecuted. He decides to focus on Kashmir's liberation by fighting the Indian state. He is arrested in the kidnapping of foreign tourists and spends five years in an Indian prison. He is released in exchange for Indian Airlines passengers who were hijacked by Taliban-backed terrorists in 1999.

Back in Afghanistan, Omar begins work with the Pakistani intelligence the ISI, and kidnaps Daniel Pearl, eventually butchering him. His subsequent arrest is seemingly orchestrated by the Pakistani establishment and his death sentence is never carried out and remains under suspension until his appeal is heard. According to some authoritative sources, the British intelligence is also interested in protecting Omar.

There is a passionate commitment in Rao's eyes and his voice especially in scenes which depict the courage of his conviction as when he harangues a cellmate for not observing the ritual fast during Ramzan or arguing with his father on the logic of being a Muslim necessarily implies fighting injustice against Muslims. The scene where Omar is having sex in a hotel room with a Caucasian hooker is one of raw passion mixed with red hatred.

Mehta deftly conveys the transformation of a young Muslim man in Britain into a committed militant in a few scenes that show the horrendous mayhem in the former Yugoslavia, where the Serbs massacred the Muslims, as nearly all Europe passively watched, preferring silence to action until it was too late.

In another scene that stays long after the movie ends, Mehta brings alive the human rights violations in conflict zones such as Kashmir where the state’s power is misused to subdue people’s aspiration. 

In a poignant moment, a young Kashmiri jihadi is resting with Omar in the terrorist training camp. He shows Omar a photograph of himself as a child with his parents. When Omar asks him whether he misses his parents, the young jihadi pulls out another photograph, showing blood-soaked corpses of his parents killed by the Indian armed forces. What the media reports turn into faceless and abstract tragedy, suddenly becomes all too human and real.

It is rare for a film to be made entirely from the perspective of the terrorists, without being morally judgemental. Mehta is tremendously successful in bringing to screen the smouldering subterranean anger in Omar which motivates him to dedicate his life to the cause. And Rao brings to life a terrorist’s menacing efficiency with which he puts everything at stake in an all-out attempt to win at all costs. For Omar and his ilk, no sacrifice is small and none is too big in their pursuit of their cause.

The deep-seated and ingrained anti-India anger that Omar harbours is on evidence repeatedly throughout the film and bubbles over periodically such as when he sees the Indian currency and angrily mutters, “Bloody Gandhi”, or when he urinates leisurely inside his cell, exposing his buttocks, while the Indian national anthem is playing in the Ghaziabad prison. 

Omerta is convincing because it depicts the most horrendous acts of violence with coldblooded equanimity and without fuss, creating an overall effect that is at once riveting and repulsive.  

At present, Omar apparently languishes in a Pakistani prison, and in recent days, news reports have also been published indicating that he attempted to commit suicide (in 2017) because of a fragile mental health condition.

Omerta’s world premiere was at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 8, 2017. I saw the film on September 16, 2017.

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