When was the last time you watched an action thriller, Hollywood or Bollywood, without a Muslim terrorist in it? In the post-9/11 Hollywood action thrillers, especially, good white men representing civil society fight dark, dehumanized, bearded men representing a repressed other, appearing to be the source of all large-scale violence unleashed on the world.
Audiences worldwide who can pay for multiplex tickets or to have “content” streamed on their smartphones, have gotten used to this terror on screen. Life has given writers and directors enough fodder, but even with all the freedom of imagination at their disposal, film writers don’t yet have another Joker who challenged the Batman, especially not when the real-life events they source stories from have Muslim terrorists. Screen villainy is more unidimensional than ever before. Most movies don’t explain or develop the otherness; it is an unblinking gaze.
Omertà, the new film by director Hansal Mehta, presents this binary view of the world in a sophisticated, amoral way. Presented as a smartly-edited crime thriller, Omertà tracks the violent path of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the ingenious career assassin involved with Osama Bin Laden and the 9/11 attacks, convicted for killing the American journalist Daniel Pearl and currently serving a lifetime prison sentence in Pakistan.
As the Central Board of Film Certification reviewed it for theatrical release in India, Mehta, in an interview in his suburban Mumbai office, said, “It is a film about remorseless villainy. I was not as interested in what led to his remorselessness about the violence he unleashes, as about his path itself. There is certainly no sympathy for him in the film.”
It is a companion piece to Mehta’s earlier film Shahid (2013) about Shahid Azmi, a Mumbai lawyer known for defending Muslims accused of terrorist acts. “Shahid is a hero because he has a moral response to injustice, and there is a gentleness to him. But he is killed. Omar, on the other hand, is the villain who is still alive. The third missing piece is possibly the victim,” Mehta says.
Both Omertà and Shahid are attempts to understand, in Mehta’s words, “how youth can be radicalized”.
Shahid is one of the best Hindi films to have depicted this social reality. It is also one of the few Hindi films which effectively portray the complexities of being a Muslim in India after the destruction of the Babri Masjid and the 1992 communal riots.
Actor Rajkummar Rao, who plays both Shahid and Omar, has an unmitigated legal bristle as Shahid and that, combined with the character’s gentle moral weight and the interest of the writers in his psychological journey, makes the film unforgettable.
Shahid is also Mehta’s best film so far, with Aligarh (2016) a close second. In Omertà (the title referring to the Italian word for an unspoken agreement not to cooperate with authorities), Rao plays Omar as an icy sociopath with an awkward Birmingham accent.
His personal history doesn’t matter much to Mehta and his co-writer Mukul Dev, except for a strained relationship with his father. The writers use what’s known of the character through journalism, and speculations about his role in various acts of terror, and nothing more.
Hindi cinema has produced many Muslim socials (Nikaah, Mammo, Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro, Garam Hava, among others)—films in which all characters and their milieu are Muslim. Muslim ordinariness is hardly a subject of Hindi films now unless it is a film about gangsters (a recent example of this is Raees, with Shah Rukh Khan in the lead role). Shahid is a Muslim social in a contemporary, politically urgent sense.
Writing a character like Omar has many challenges, and one of them is moral: How does a writer establish the mental make-up and psychological impulses of a character so relentlessly driven by violence and yet not come across as justifying what he does? (In the film, a trip to Bosnia is supposed to have inspired Omar to turn to the violence he orchestrated for the sake of his Muslim brothers.) How can a hateful character, a merciless zealot driven by his own idea of Muslim brotherhood, not be unequivocally hated in cinema?
Mainstream cinema about terrorism turned a new leaf with Steven Spielberg’s Munich, a film that released in theatres four years after 9/11. He tried something different. In part, Munich depicts the aftermath of the killing of 11 Israeli hostages by members of a Palestinian terrorist group in Munich in September 1972.
Inspired by George Jonas’s disputed book Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli counter-terrorist team, the film pivots on five Israeli agents, who, recruited to exact revenge of this Black September, zigzag Europe as they hunt the suspects down over the years. Australian actor Eric Bana as the head of this group of agents is a character who Spielberg and his writers use to repeatedly project a shaky bravura, which, in turn, poses moral questions about the nature of terrorism. Every revenge and every act of terror leads to more terror, Spielberg says, in a film memorable for masterful editing.
Films about terrorism have not crossed this line of moral argument. At best, terror on screen has the same message that war on screen has for over a century—that violence is futile. Most are still simplistic tales of a politically correct good pitted against an evil steeped in Muslim anger.
Omerta releases in theatres on 20 April.
Sanjukta Sharma is a Mumbai-based writer and critic.