Hansal Mehta’s new film, Omerta, doesn’t have a hero — it’s about a man so evil and wicked that even the term “villain” falls short. The production looks at the adult life of the infamous terrorist Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh — from his student days in London to his conversion to militant Islam and consequent training, along with his eventual involvement in the 9/11 attacks, the 2008 Mumbai Terror Attacks and the murder of journalist Daniel Pearl. In 1999, the hijacking of the Indian Airlines flight IC 814 was staged in order to demand Sheikh’s release from an Indian jail. Omerta is practically a narrative reversal of Mehta’s 2012 film Shahid about the life of Shahid Azmi, the human rights lawyer who was exonerated of terrorist crimes.
After having engineered several terror attacks and killings, Sheikh was tried in Pakistan. He was arrested and given a death sentence. However, it was commuted, and he is now serving a life sentence. Since little is known about Sheikh beyond his involvement in the terror attacks and the stray hearsay, it’s obvious that Omerta’s director relied a lot on speculation when he set about making the film. “It is not fictionalising.. Yes, it is imagined, and an interpretation,” he said in an interview with Reuters. The imagining is where the problem with the ethics of this narrative emerges. While Rajkumar Rao plays Sheikh with conviction (his fickle British accent notwithstanding), there is something rather disturbing, and perhaps socially detrimental, in the way the film chooses to “imagine” things or what it chooses to “interpret.” There is no saying which parts are imagined and which parts are actually corroborated, thereby creating a delicate confusion not only about the source of information, but also the element of truth in it.
There have been numerous films that have had morally deviant subjects, and a lot of them have featured deep and rounded engagements with the ways we define the basic idea of crime and a criminal. Sadly, Omerta ends up being a rather flat narrative, clinical in its depiction of events most people are aware of through news reports. While the film does address how the jingoistic idea of nationalism — coupled with militant, organised religion — leads itself to acts of terrorism, it fails to launch itself into the larger debate surrounding the causation of acts that end up being acts of terrorism, and the complex networks they emerge out of.
“It is very easy to humanise someone like him, but I did not. I wanted to demonise him,” says Mehta of his subject. While obviously nobody condones what Sheikh or Al-Qaeda does, it is slightly naive for a contemporary narrative to limit itself to the dualities of the black-and-white demon and saint structure. With no depiction of moderate Islam in the film, the narrative runs the risk of bordering on being Islamophobic. There are scenes after scenes set in Islamic military camps, where Sheikh and the other trainees do something extraordinarily violent before bursting into a unison rendition of “Allahu Akbar.” With this functioning as a constant and recurrent trope of the film, it gets a little difficult for the viewer to discern between the man and the larger religion. And this is where one should explore the possible social ramifications of a film like this, especially in the context of a fairly communal India.
Narratively, there is no back story to connect the LSE-attending Sheikh to the gun-toting Omar, which makes the film uni-dimensional. While nothing would justify the subject’s actions, a background commentary would better help the audience grasp the sharp transition in Sheikh’s character.
When Daniel Pearl was executed in 2002, Al-Qaeda released a video that was widely disseminated. Mehta recreates the execution in an extremely gut-wrenching and viscerally disturbing scene, complete with disturbing sound effects. If this narrative device is meant to depict Sheikh’s inhuman side, it succeeds exceptionally well. But for a man who is already universally much-loathed and hated, this scene feels a little excessive.
Omerta, as it constantly cuts back and forth through the timeline of Sheikh’s misdeeds, is well edited but suffers with its abundance of cardboard characters who provide no depth or logic to why they are the way they are. As a member of the audience, I also felt the need to know the distinction between what really happened and what the screenwriters fictionalised into being. For a film that intends to make its audience pick a side against the subject, I think transparency of its narrative is quite important. What could’ve been an intense peeking into the mind of a terrorist ends up being a somewhat naive, clinical recording of his wrongdoings.
Bedatri Datta Choudhury (@Bedatri) grew up in India and has studied Literature and Cinema at the University of Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru University and New York University. She moonlights as a writer and likes writing on films, gender and culture. She lives in New York City and loves eating cake.