Charting the path of a real-life terrorist as they execute some of the most horrifying acts of treason against humanity can be an exercise in terror and thrills; or, it can be a layered approach, building up the motivations and stressors that irreversibly transmogrify their psyche into factories of fanaticism and blood-curdling crimes.
In bringing a phase of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh’s terror career to the screen – played by Rajkummar Rao – director Hansal Mehta bewilderingly, chooses neither path. Instead, he comes up with what can be best described as a diluted mix of both, having decided that tossing a coin between the two options broke all possible rules of probabilities and didn’t yield any clear way forward. I’m not privy to the discussions between him and writer Mukul Dev, but the images onscreen lead me to believe that having compiled all the events that led Omar to strategize, plan, and go through the heinous acts that he did, they decided to focus on what glowed on the papers with highlighter ink.
The pace is staccato at best, dawdling at worst, an exercise in ticking off what Omar did in his tenebrous trajectory. Kidnapping of foreign tourists in Delhi. Check. Getting arrested for this crime. Check. (How the police zoned into his lair remains a mystery in this movie, a nagging detail that Mehta can’t be bothered with.) Released in a quid pro quo with the Indian establishment after the Kandahar hijacking. Check. Flashback to training in a terrorist camp. Check. The Pakistan intelligence agency’s complicity. Check. The Daniel Pearl kidnapping and killing. Check. His mysterious calls during the Mumbai 26/11 terror attacks. Check.
And it’s a wrap, folks. What ought to have been a terrifying look into the machinations of the mind of a man who could cold-bloodedly insulate his ensiform actions with the sheath of everyday-man aloofness becomes a LinkedIn profile for him. The director skims through Omar’s persona and comes up with a movie that’s disquietingly unsatisfactory. The title is equally baffling. What code of silence did Omar stick to, given that, per the movie, he was assured by the Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency that he’d be taken care, as would his family? The director doesn’t bother to explore claims that Omar was actually a double agent and had originally been recruited by MI6; nor does he care to take a shot at Omar’s life in a Karachi prison – where he’s been incarcerated since 2002 – or on reports of his attempted suicide circa 2014.
With this approach, Omertà boasts of no scenes that come up as highlights, except perhaps where Omar and his father, Saeed Sheikh (wonderfully played by a light-touch of dignity by Keval Arora) are seated on a sofa in their London home, the father sipping tea and persuading his slowly transforming son to not drop off his final year’s course at the London School of Economics. It’s a uniquely tender moment, especially in the silence where Arora places his tea cup on the table in front of him and pleads gently with his son; and actor Rajkummar Rao equally gently, much like a spoilt brat, pushes back, having found his true calling.
With the background score by Ishaan Chhabra offering pretty much what’s de rigueur in such jihad-based projects, you turn to Rajkummar Rao – and you’re transfixed by his outstanding performance in a movie that sadly isn’t. The actor effortlessly switches between a cool, smooth-talking dude with a velvety, part-faux part-imbibed English accent to a merciless killer in the beat of a moment. In an act that’s definingly chilling, Rajkummar Rao is icily detached. Unfortunately, so are you.
Omertà is rated A (Restricted to adults) There’s violence and a beheading scene that’s more horrifying sound than sight.
Director Hansal Mehta Running Time 1h 36 min
Writers Mukul Dev, Hansal Mehta
Stars Rajkummar Rao, Rajesh Tailang, Keval Arora, Timothy Ryan Hickernell
Genres Action, Biography, Crime, Drama
Watch the trailer of Omertà here: