Just like every Bengali film-maker wishing to do a film on the literature of Rabindranath Tagore, quite a handful of reputed international film-makers wish to film Shakespeare’s plays. It’s not an easy task by any means. Primarily because the language of the text seem remote and N-number of comparisons with international projects – be it film or theatre is inevitable. Vishal Bhardwaj first showed signs of commitment and authorship in his version of Shakespearean Macbeth – Maqbool (2004). In two years he followed it up with Omkara (2006) which is based on William Shakespeare’s epic lore of tragedy and betrayal – Othello. It will probably be unwise to compare in detail, the two pieces of art created in different media and separated by four centuries. We can however briefly look into the character of Langda Tyagi in Omkara and try to find parallel with Iago in Othello.
Before looking into Iago or Langda, there are few notable differences between the play and the film which I think needs a mention at-least once – these differences are due to the difference of interpretation between the two authors as well as one imposed due to the differences in the art form. e.g. the play is spatially staged in Venice and Cyprus. The two different locales having different geographical and social relevance make the mood of the play so gripping. More importantly the play effectively uses soliloquies. The use of soliloquies is particularly important since there is a lot of debate round the motive of Iago for perpetuating a web of deceit, jealousy and eventual crime – the soliloquies which are supposed to mirror Iago’s inner wish and motive but which were often different from his actions. For this reason many critics consider Iago as a compulsive villain – the compulsion being his psychotic mind rather than more particular reasons for his behavior. Also, Othello is black against a fair skinned Iago, Desdemona or Roderigo. There are references of Iago’s hatred towards the dark skin (“Even now, now, very now, an old black ram Is tupping your white ewe” – Act 1 Scene 1). There are also a number of eavesdropping sequences in the play wherein most of them in the film intelligently used cell-phones which actually accelerate the jealousy of Omkara for Dolly and Billo for Kesu. No one can forget the handkerchief that caused the climax in the play which was replaced by a waistband in the film probably due to a particular item number song sequence. The differences in the adaptation prove beyond doubt that the director Vishal Bhardwaj had an eye for ‘adaptation’ and not ‘translation’. The characteristic of change is most apparent however in the character of Langa as opposed to Iago.
Iago is one of Shakespeare’s most prominent villains. Many critics have opined that Iago is a classical Machiavellian villain – he is shrewd (worked for a master plan) and finds wicked enjoyment in evil for evil’s sake. He is paranoid, uses weakness/strengths of victims and appears good to other people/characters. Most importantly Iago is unrepentant. The play begins with Iago and Roderigo’s dialogues when we first come to know that Othello, the Moor of Venice has chosen Cassio as his successor ahead of Iago. Right from the beginning in the play we come to know of Iago’s hatred towards Othello. And that Iago will plan revenge – “I follow him to serve my turn upon him” (Act 1 Scene 1) and then – “ Though I do hate him as I do hell-pains. Yet, for necessity of present life, I must show out a flag and sign of love, Which is indeed but sign.” But Langda’s disappointment was built up. As audience we also feel that he has been betrayed since his character was portrayed as capable as opposed to Kesu’s frivolous one. Also the reason Omkara gives to BhaiSab was that Kesu’s popularity among college students will help in the elections – justice denied for Langda justifiably. Throughout the film we see a Langda who is always ill-planning but is not probably as cold-blooded as Iago. Langda is more human and rawer unlike the silken Iago who was a master of speech and revered by Othello and all as ‘Honest Iago’. Langda is also not as conniving as Iago – there are situations where Langda capitalised on an incident afterwards instead of planning that – e.g. using Dolly’s waistband (stolen by Langda’s wife Indu) to plot Kesu against Billo and Omkara. In the original play Iago only persuaded Emilia to steal the handkerchief!
The final act proves that Langda is conscious of his acts and that he is only responsible for all the wrong-doing. Though in the end he admits that he has nothing more to say, that is when he feels he is unsure of the distinction between good and evil any further. Iago in contrast was unrepentant as he remained silent when demanded explanation – “Demand me nothing: what you know, you know: From this time forth I never will speak word.” (Final Act)
For a Bollywood mainstream hero (Saif Ali Khan) acting in a mainstream film like Omkara the concept of villainy gets muted. He is seldom shown as remorseless, calculative and devastating. The muted villain can at-most be a tragic anti-hero molded on the cast of the epic character of Mahabharat’s Karna. There have been instances of the popular star playing a negative character as the central character. However with Ajay Devgan playing Omkara, the central character in the film, the director in pursuit of making the film commercially viable, elevated the role of Langda as almost a parallel of Omkara (and not as a subservient as in the original) – an anti-hero pitted against a hero. The anti-hero is deprived by fate (he being lame), then by his leader (Omkara) and finally dies in the hands of his wife (remember, Iago was never killed by Emilia) – a perfect setting for drawing immense audience sympathy and support. Even the ranks of Vishal Bhardwaj cannot save Langda from falling into the familiar trope that restrict Bollywood commercial cinema from being adventurous in its exploration of truth.
[This edited article is prepared on an original paper presented by the author in a One-Day International Seminar on 13th March, 2011 at the Department of English & Other Modern European Languages, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan in collaboration with United States –India Educational Foundation, Kolkata. The topic of the seminar was LITERATURE AND CINEMA: BOLLYWOOD CONNECTIONS]