If this were Venice there might have been an arched bridge of sculpted marble over a romantic canal, ornate balconies, and drifting gondolas.
Instead, we are somewhere in rural India, three hours’ drive southeast of Mumbai, near a small village called Takave. According to the script it’s supposed to be another place altogether, the badlands of Uttar Pradesh (U.P.), in a different part of the country, more than a thousand kilometers to the north of here. Despite a dislocation of geography, the arid countryside is close enough to match—hard, dry soil cracked by winter drought, yellow thistles and congress weed, sparse fields of maize withering under a fierce sun. Cattle egrets wade in the shallows of a stagnant river spanned by a narrow footbridge built on pillars of crumbling cement.
First day of shooting—Friday, January 13, 2006.
The film is Omkara, Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello, the Moor of Venice. The Bard goes Bollywood.
Seated on the concrete bridge, Iago and Roderigo get drunk in the afternoon.
act i, scene iii
roderigo: I will incontinently drown myself.
iago: If thou dost, I shall never love thee after. Why, thou silly gentleman!
roderigo: It is silliness to live, when to live is torment: and then have we a prescription to die, when death is our physician.
Instead of speaking Elizabethan English the two actors deliver their lines in colloquial Hindi. Roderigo is Rajju and Iago is Langda Tyagi, two small-town gangsters mixing bile with whiskey.
scene 37, shot 1, take 1
Dolly key liye hum apni jaan bhi dey sakhtey hain . . . such hai . . . nadi mein kudh jayenge . . .
(I’ll give my life for Dolly . . . It’s true . . . I’ll jump in the river . . .)
To mainey gotiyan pakad rakhi hai kya teri . . .kudh ja.
(Have I got hold of your balls? . . . Go ahead, jump.)
rajju braces himself and jumps into the river, shouting out.
Dolly . . . !!
Desdemona . . . !!
The names have been changed but most of the initials remain the same. Othello is Omkara. Omi. O. The gang leader, a killer, he is ruthless in crime and ruthless in love—a man whose motives are as dark as his complexion. This is his tragedy, fueled by sex and violence, two of the most combustible ingredients in any culture of cinema.
Langda and Rajju are supposed to be alone on the bridge, though more than three hundred people are watching them perform. Aside from the director and his crew, camera and sound technicians, grips and tea boys, the producer and financiers have come to witness the first shot of the film. Months have been spent in preparation—writing, casting, composing songs, raising money, scouting locations—but this is the moment that everyone has been waiting for, when the clapper comes down and the production is under way.
Though the film is being made in Hindi, at least five languages are operating on the set. English is used for most of the direction, along with Hindi. The dialogue is all in Hindi dialect. The financiers converse in Gujarati, while most of the crew speaks Marathi and jokes are told in Punjabi.
Technically, the first shot is relatively simple, a minor scene that occurs thirty pages into the script. The sequence will eventually be edited down to a couple of minutes in the final print but it takes an entire day to film.
Vishal Bhardwaj stands on the bridge as he discusses the shot with associate director Abhishek Chaubey and cinematographer Tassaduq Hussain. Vishal positions the actors, Saif Ali Khan and Deepak Dobriyal. Saif is a star, with two Bollywood hits in 2005—Parineeta (A Married Woman) and Salaam Namaste (Greetings Hello). In this film, though, he takes on the negative role of Langda Tyagi—Iago. Shakespeare’s greatest villain is transformed into an embittered thug with a clubfoot. Playing opposite Saif, Deepak is an unknown actor, a new face. His character, Rajju, is a pathetic fool hopelessly in love with Dolly. Langda uses him to get his revenge for having been passed over as Omkara’s lieutenant—his bahubali.
. . .
“Silence, please, going for take.”
. . .
On a low hill overlooking the river, a crowd of villagers have gathered to watch the shooting. The women squat in a line, their colorful clothes forming a bright hem along the top of the ridge. The men are dressed mostly in white, many of them wearing turbans. From a distance they can barely see the action or hear the lines. But it is the spectacle of filmmaking that attracts them, as much as the presence of a star like Saif. There are no songs or music today, not even a fight scene. The villagers are audience to the slow, deliberate process of creating cinema. They sit patiently for hours in the burning sun as the scene plays out, the camera moving from one angle to another. Later, some of them may watch Omkara in an air-conditioned picture hall, but today they witness a film that is just beginning, the first shot taking place in their own backyard.
The making of a Bollywood movie follows the conventions of cinema around the world. As anywhere, it is a process that combines creativity with technology, an essentially modern idiom and industry. At the same time, filmmakers in India possess their own aesthetics, their own expectations, their own language and artistic mannerisms. They also depend on an audience as diverse as it is demanding. The villagers of Takave, in their colorful saris and turbans, may fit a stereotype of rural rusticity but when it comes to motion pictures they have sophisticated tastes. Just like audiences in seventeenth-century England, who flocked to Shakespeare’s plays, Indian filmgoers pay to enter a theater to watch their own desires, fears, and guilts projected in front of them. They want stories that move and amuse them. For the most part, they know what is false and what is true, even if a writer or director attempts to deceive them. The villagers of Takave, as well as metro audiences in big cities like Mumbai or Delhi, are not naive viewers. They understand that a film is constructed, somewhat like a bridge or a road. It is an artifice of imagination, conceived, planned, surveyed, and built over time, out of many different materials, by hundreds of different hands. That is part of the fascination of watching a film shooting, to observe a production in process. Instead of suspending their disbelief, as the cliché suggests, the audience willingly embraces a conceit.
Copyright © 2007 by Stephen Alter
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retri...