We live in a time when news is entertainment and even brief notoriety or minor exposure to a controlled media can turn an individual into a celebrity of sorts. Writing an original story, or creating an interesting character from imagination, needs hard work by a writer/director. Unfortunately, even good film makers appear to have become bone lazy, and prefer easy pickings from the news.
It needs no effort to select some criminal or saviour from newspaper headlines, do research on his or her background, and turn the material into a movie. It has to be asked if the jihadi zeal of a British citizen of Pakistani origin, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, is worth a film. Sure, he was from a cultured and educated family in London, got admitted to the London School of Economics and was deeply affected by the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims in the early 1990s; enough for him to get radicalised into militant Islam. But is his psychology any different from the hundreds of educated young people who decide that armed conflict is the only solution to what they perceive as political injustice?
‘Omerta’ is a wafer thin character study of Omar (Rajkummar Rao), and the only thing that holds you in the film is the man’s unpredictability and his skill in disguising his persona in a cloak of soft spoken affability. His fluency in English and his stance of being an awkward expatriate himself, beguiles young foreigners in Delhi, and they befriend him. This is how he conducts his first terrorist operation in Delhi by abducting four Western tourists in 1994.
The Delhi Police are able to foil the kidnapping and he is incarcerated, only to be released five years later, in 1999, as part of the ignominious deal that was struck to end the hijacking of Indian Airlines Flight 814 in Afghanistan. What comes through in the movie is that the process of thinking by which he is identified as a leader and a dangerous antagonist by Afghans, Pakistanis and Indians, alike, indicates a unique and common class structure in South Asia.
They are all impressed by his upper class upbringing in London, his ease at talking to foreigners, his air of studious indifference to worldly comforts, and his elitist personal tastes. Captivated by his social standing, they accept without question that these are sure signs of leadership and strategic thinking. Not once do they look behind the screen of his distorted persona to see a dysfunctional individual who flies off the handle frequently and makes poor decisions, like the one he made in Pakistan to kidnap and kill the South Asian Bureau Chief of ‘The Wall Street Journal’, Daniel Pearl. It was a brutal terrorist act that was of no value whatsoever to the ISI, the Taliban, or to the Pakistan Government. Intended to be used as part of negotiations to release Pakistani prisoners from Guantanamo, it backfired horribly.
Yet, when Omar meets Daniel Pearl (Timothy Ryan Hickernell), each describes the other as charming and intelligent. Pearl is the American equivalent of the social and cultural elite of an aspirational society. He is a graduate of Stanford and a star journalist at a young age. He desperately needs a scoop to justify his ranking and status. When he meets Omar, he willingly lets his guard down and is taken in by a string of convincing lies, articulated in good English, by an individual who he perceives as ‘one of us’.
But is this observation of how class structures operate in most societies good enough to sustain a feature film? And is Omar a significant enough figure in contemporary history to merit turning into a psychotic anti-hero, worthy of a film by Hansal Mehta? One thinks not. And is the role of a slick talking British muslim and his radicalisation, challenging enough for an actor of Rajkummar Rao’s calibre? One thinks not.
‘Omerta’ is a docu-drama that does hold your attention for brief periods of time, but fails to impress overall.