'Omerta': Film Review | Mumbai 2017

Omerta - STILL 1 - TIFF PUBLICITY - H 2017
Courtesy of TIFF
A gripping study of evil that reveals nothing.

Rajkummar Rao ('Newton') plays the cold-blooded British terrorist Omar Sheikh, famed for kidnappings, financing 9/11 and the murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl, in Hansal Mehta’s thriller.

Why do the best-crafted portraits of evil miscreants never get to the crux of what led them to become terrorists, murderers and serial killers? What one wants to know most is why British-born, well-educated Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who is currently serving a lifetime prison sentence in Pakistan, left the comfort of the middle class for the darkness of terrorism. Hansel Mehta’s biopic of the dangerous sociopath, Omerta, closed the Jio Mami Mumbai Film Festival with a bang. It's a gripping thriller about a brilliant career assassin, but leaves the audience no more enlightened about the protagonist’s motives than a TV newscast.

While the film may not reveal much about what goes on in a terrorist's mind, it is ably made and pushes all the right thriller buttons to keep the audience glued. In addition, Sheikh's connection to Osama Bin Laden and the 9/11 attacks, and his conviction for the murder of journalist Daniel Pearl a few months later, give the story a compelling hook for international audiences.

Michael Winterbottom’s 2007 A Mighty Heart, which centered on a memorable Angelina Jolie as Daniel Pearl’s widow, is probably Sheikh’s most well-known cinematic outing up to now, though he does appear as a character in Mehta’s own 2012 Shahid. Here, he is shown rising through native intelligence and sangfroid to kingpin status in terrorist organizations like the Kashmiri Harkat-ul-Ansar and al-Qaeda. This may give him more credit than is his due, as doubts have arisen about his real role in the attacks linked to his name.

Mehta’s regular star Rajkummar Rao plays the cool-headed, multilingual terrorist as a sinister boy-next-door. Bristling with chillingly amorality, Rao is unrecognizable as the same actor who portrayed the high-principled vote collector in Newton, India’s foreign-language film Oscar submission this year. The intro scenes fly by, briefly suggesting his privileged, preppy life in England beside a concerned but ineffectual father. He claims to have been radicalized on a trip to Bosnia during the war (not shown), when he was exposed to atrocities against his Muslim brothers.

Leaving England for his first test mission in India, he picks up three British backpackers in New Delhi and entices them back to his place for a chess game, adding an American woman for good measure. Once they’re inside, the tourists are dismayed to find themselves hostages with guns pointed at them and their fear, pitiful to watch, makes it a very effective scene.

As insidious and highly persuasive as Omar is, he’s not a very skillful kidnapper, and the police soon turn up to free the prisoners. He’s shot trying to escape. His first stint in jail, where he is tortured, doesn’t seem to faze him in the slightest; in fact, it brings out the mafia don in him — an icy, violent quality that makes others fear and respect him. He gets released in an exchange for the hostages on a skyjacked Air India flight and is soon back in action.

Aditya Warrior’s editing jumps around to follow his progress as he works his way up the ranks. Omar is tight with the Pakistan secret service and becomes an agent for them; later he’s seen recruiting young men to fight for Islam. He appears bearded and sporting gold-rimmed glasses In an Afghan training camp out of hell, where recruits show their fervor by jumping off mountains to their death as the survivors applaud. His hair-trigger temper is more prominent now, along with a streak of uncontrollable violence.

By 2000 he's a leader in Karachi and married to a trophy wife. The British link him to a money transfer to Mohamed Atta, the 9/11 hijacker. Then comes the kidnapping of Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter. Played by Timothy Ryan Hickernell as noble but naïve, he walks into a trap that stinks to high heaven. The film’s key scene is his murder, in which Omar appears as a blood-thirsty madman who wields the fatal sword himself. Like other major moments in the film, the tension is heightened by Ishaan Chhabra’s thrilling, portentous score.

The Italian word omerta, used mainly in connection with the mafia, refers to the attitude of ordinary people who look the other way and don’t betray the criminals. It’s a bit of a stretch to connect it to this story, except insofar as Omar appears to be part of a vast international terrorist network that protects its own. Ironically, though promised high-level military protection in Pakistan, he was tried and sentenced to death for Pearl’s murder, which was commuted to life imprisonment. But even from jail he managed to wreak havoc, making two hoax calls on a smuggled cellphone that almost brought India and Pakistan to war.

Production companies: Swiss Entertainment
Cast: Rajkummar Rao, Rajesh Tailang, Blake Allan, Keval Arora, Nisha Geoege, Asif Gillani, Timothy Ryan Hickernell, Ravi Khanna
Director-screenwriter: Hansal Mehta
Producers: Nahid Khan, Shailesh Singh
Executive producer: Jai Mehta, Shanaab Alam
Director of photography: Anuj Rakesh Dhawan
Production designers: Indranil Chowdhury, Payal Ghose
Editor: Aditya Warrior
Music: Ishaan Chhabra
Casting: Rachita Kapoor
Venue: Mumbai Film Festival (closing film)

World sales: Filmkaravan

96 minutes