At the viewing of Omerta, I had the opportunity to meet writer-director Hansal Mehta, who openly admitted to be drawing most of his inspiration from his lead actor, Rajkummar Rao. He went as far as to confess that Rao is his muse, which was unexpected to hear, but which after seeing both Omerta and Amit Masurkar’s Newton, not only makes absolute sense, but it might even sound like an understatement, for this is not just a very talented and skilled actor, but an artist that can transform entirely, with absolutely no use of makeup or effects. His face somehow alters, in an inexplicable way, and he can go from being a likeable nerd to a ruthless terrorist in no time – one minute he’s awkwardly trying to flirt at the office, the next he is decapitating journalist Daniel Pearl.
It’s a scary ride, to say the least. I have now grown to know his face, yet know nothing about what to expect. The terror that this actor can stir is unmatched, but so is the sense of duty and justice. In Newton, he is a nerdy government clerk conducting a free and fair election in the Indian jungle, and opposing the security forces with every word that comes out of his mouth. A man standing against apathy and indifference, fighting for justice and performing his duty even under the most disappointing circumstances. The impending risk of a guerilla attack, communist rebels possibly lurking behind every tree, a police force that is laughing at his every effort to do the right thing, and a group of colleagues at work that consider him a joke.
This is Newton‘s world, but he keeps going. He remains true to his principles, refuses to give up or to resort to violence. This is not quite the story of Omar Sheikh, on the other hand. In Omerta, Rao becomes a cold-blooded religious fanatic who kidnaps, carries out terrorist attacks and murders. At times, he likes to go further – engaging in unnecessary intimidation while the victims are alive, and butchering once they’re dead. He’s not human – he’s a killing machine. His underlying principles are mad and only serve to justify his evil tendencies. His ideologies have been inspired by others of his kind, and his crimes are validated in his mind by his absurd take on a religion and a cause that he passionately supports.
Newton is a fun and inspiring film to watch, very much because Newton is an interesting and amusing protagonist that carries the story so well. Rajkummar Rao takes on a persona that is awkward, and makes it loveable, even though not very relatable. Rao plays Newton in a way that keeps us at a bit of a distance – he doesn’t allow us to warm up to him, as though to say that doing the right thing is not something that gets you friends. Newton is not flexible, he’s stiff and unbending. He embodies justice and thus, forces his audience to stand on his side. Rao gives Newton no sweetness, but makes him impossible not to respect and applaud. Everything he does is righteous and honest – leaving no room for misbehaving, discrimination or corruption.
He keeps all that for his interpretation of Omar Sheikh. Rao plays Sheikh in a way that makes us despise him from the first moment we lay eyes on him. Hansal Mehta starts us off with a sex scene that is so telling of who this man is, that even if we were to never find out anything more, we would still loathe him. Obviously, it’s all downhill from there, where every different sequence entails a different crime, always escalating in brutality and delusion. Always selling a cause and a god’s will, he binges on wrongdoings that would make any true religious soul shudder and any normal Muslim unable to believe his eyes. Rao is terrifying to such an extent, that I would just look away even when he wasn’t doing anything. Just his way of responding to his wife while reading his newspaper, or his fake smile when luring oblivious tourists into captivity, was enough to make me shiver with terror. When the decapitating started, I was with one foot out of the door.
I’ll grab the opportunity to complain about what an unthinkable shame it is that he had a “point” for doing what he did. It is such a crime that people like him are given immoral examples from us and vice versa. When governments recruit fanatics to embark on killing sprees and then sadistic media feasts over spreading these images around, then the biggest injustices start masquerading as faith, honour or love for one’s country. They are god’s will, payback or honouring the flag. And this goes on, with these images becoming more and more graphic, until the rest of us have turned completely numb to them. Until this ongoing slaughtering camouflaged as retaliation has extinguished any memory of what the problem originally was – if there ever was one, besides whose god is prettier.
Watch Rakjummar Rao in the trailers of Newton and Omerta.