Omkara - Shakespeare Without Those Words

Last Sunday night I watched Felicity Kendal's documentary about Shakespeare in India on BBC i-player (unfortunately it has now expired). In her documentary the lovely Felicity Kendall explains how Shakespeare, once a tool of colonial oppression, has been reformed and integrated into India's culture. Many Shakespearean plots pop up in Bollywood films, but the film that really caught my eye in Kendal's discussion was Omkara, an adaptation of Othello, by Vishal Bhardwaj, set in a rural, Indian village. I nipped over to the library as soon as I could and borrowed a copy. I really recommend it!

Omkara is possibly the most successful modern-day adaptation of a Shakespeare play that I have seen. Often a modern setting, on stage or on the screen, renders huge tranches of plot nonsensical, especially concerning themes of marriage, chastity and shame. In the remote, rural village where Omkara is set, Dolly (the Desdemona character) really does place herself in a precarious position when she runs away with Omi (Othello). When Omi asks her whether she has given the waist band (the film's alternative to the handkerchief) away as a gift, Dolly asks him to whom she might have given it. She has left her family and her friends, and he is all she has. Desdemona's plight is brought into the modern day in a painfully real situation. The strict caste system still at work in some areas of India also comes in to play. Omi is depicted as a half-caste, although his father was a Brahmin, his mother was from a much lower caste. As such, he experiences the unusual mixture of respect and mockery to which Othello is subject. The songs of Shakespeare's play, which are very important, but are often swept aside in modern productions, become part of the Bollywood tradition to which this film belongs.

However, what Omkara doesn't have is Shakespeare's language. Neither does the film attempt to invent florid language of its own; rather the script remains quite spare. The story of the manipulated, jealous husband is not particular to Shakespeare; it's a tale told by countless cultures. So, one could argue that it is only the language that Shakespeare uses which makes a play or a film "Shakespeare". This year with the RSC's World Shakespeare Festival ( and Globe to Globe ( in full swing, many people will be asking the same question. Blogging Shakespeare ( has some interesting reviews which discuss this point. In the case of Omkara, can it be Othello without speaking of "One that loved not wisely but too well"? It is Othello's language and his stories that we fall in love with, and that Desdemona falls in love with; in return for a story she gives him "a world of kisses". It is also language and stories, Iago's, which poison their love.

However, Omkara is true to the spirit of Othello; what Shakespeare does verbally, Bhardwaj does visually. The film is full of highly symbolic gestures. The waist band, which I have already mentioned as replacing the handkerchief, is a perfect example. As an expensive piece of jewellery passed down by Omi's family it represents the expectations of family and culture, but like most jewellery it is also a signifier of the erotic and a mark of ownership. When Langda (Iago) get's hold of the waist band he places it on his forehead, like a bridal maang-tikka. At the same time however, it is a disturbingly prurient gesture as Langda's face is now in the same place as the private parts of the women who have worn and will wear this piece of jewellery. Langda's desire to subvert, and become involved in, the marriage, status and sexual life of Omi is evoked in this one image, in the same way that Shakespeare uses language  to suggest a plethora of similar motives for Iago.

One of the actors interviewed by Kendal in her documentary suggested that some Indian actors and directors deal with the problem of Shakespeare's colonial past in India by changing the plots of his plays in adaptation. Thus the plays are owned by their culture, not dictating it. At the end of Omkara the Emilia figure, instead of quietly dying, butchers Landga with a machete and disposes of the body down a well. A well can often poison entire communities; perhaps this, plus the machete, is a fitting end for a figure who has tried to manipulate and control a community through language and play-acting?


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