Shahid, Citylights, Aligarh and now Omerta, Hansal Mehta’s love for complex stories in no secret and his frequent collaborator in this journey is versatile actor Rajkummar Rao. The National Award-winning director-actor duo are back with their latest collaboration Omerta. The film, which will hit screens on April 20, touches upon incidents in the life of terrorist Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who is responsible for the 1994 kidnapping of four foreign tourists in Delhi and the 2002 kidnapping and murder of journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan among others. In fact, he is considered to have a hand in the 9/11 attacks in the US in 2001 and the 26/11 Mumbai attacks in 2008 too.
When asked what about Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh led to Hansal Mehta making the film? In an exclusive conversation with indianexpress.com, the director answered, “I wanted to explore evil as a human characteristic and I found an actor (referring to Rajkummar Rao) who was ready to explore the same. To hawk on an evil character. That attracted me to the subject. The challenge of bringing out. He (Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh) is the animal of terrorism.”
He then goes on to tell us how the idea was not something that struck him recently. In fact, the story was suggested by actor Mukul Dev in 2005 and since then, the director was ‘obsessing’ over it.
“The seed of the idea was given to me by actor Mukul Dev. He has been credited for the story and as a co-writer. He gave me this idea back in 2005 much before Rajkummar Rao had even made his entry in Bollywood. That was the beginning. I found the story very interesting. At that time, nobody thought of making biopics. So, it was an interesting idea that I wanted to develop. It soon became an obsession so much so that when I took a sabbatical in between even then I was constantly thinking about this project. I was developing the script, it was in process, and Shahid happened,” said the Aligarh director.
He credited Rajkummar Rao for the project finally taking flight, “I think every film has its own destiny. I had to meet Rajkummar and because I met him, he became an enabler and because of him, I could make this film.”
Hansal Mehta also mentioned the kind of research that went into the project. He said, “At the time when Mukul told me the story, the internet was really slow. I had to buy a lot of books, lots of material from archives, different magazines and what not. What happens with scripts is that you eventually start writing. Working or beginning to work on the project is important otherwise research can go on forever. This (Omerta) could have gone for five more years.”
Omerta, which received immense love and acclaim at its premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival under Special Presentations section, has been the talking point around the world for more than a year now. Hansal recalls an instance when the film was featured at a festival in Florence and how Italian women were attracted to Rajkummar’s portrayal of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh.
“You should have seen the reaction to the film in Florence. We had a premiere there at a festival. After the premiere, a lot of women came up to me asking about Rajkummar. The Italian women found him hot and sexy. There is this thing about an evil personality that is attractive in a weird way,” recalled the director. In the same breath, Hansal credited the success of the film in these festivals to Rajkummar Rao who owned the character in every possible manner. “You know the exploration of evil as characteristic with an actor like Rajkummar, he made it so real and palpable, like it’s happening just in front of us and immediate. I think that makes the film really special,” said Hansal.
He revealed that Rajkummar had become Omar to a level that it scared everyone around him. He says the film’s highlight scene is the killing of Daniel Pearl.
“Rajkummar pushes me and himself to the core. For example, the killing of Daniel Pearl is one of the brutal moments in the film. It just happened. Raj got so much violence within himself. The violence in that sequence is incredible, even without any graphics. It scares you. The sound, look and Raj, it scares you. I was not scared but this was a different person and I was happy he was not the Raj I would want to spend the time in the evening,” quipped Hansal.
In an interview with us, Rajkummar had spoken about how the prepping up was taxing for him as he had to imbibe the negativity and psyche of his character. And since we know the kind of bond Hansal and Rajkummar shares, we were keen to know if the director had helped him through the process in his own way.
When asked how he helped Rajkummar become Omar, Hansal answered, “By giving him space. The idea is to allow the actor to explore and blossom. The director is a parent. You have to allow the actors to blossom and channelise their energy. If Manoj has a process, my job is to help him with that. Same is the case with Rajkummar. I have to aid that process because work gets better this way. We mix and match our interpretation and bring something new together.”
Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh is the personification of evil. However, before turning into a terrorist, Omar was an impressive student who eventually dropped out of the London School of Economics. It is interesting and horrifying how an intelligent and well-educated person chose to be a terrorist. While Omerta revisits Omar’s deeds, Hansal revealed that the film does not show the backstory of how this person became what he is but would raise a lot of questions in people’s mind.
“Not really (the film would not touch upon the backstory of Omar). It (Omerta) is a recounting of events. A film which will raise a lot of questions but would not offer any answers. It is an uncomfortable film which will raise uncomfortable questions and answers that we have to compel our establishment to find,” said the Citylights director.
Many do not know that Hansal’s film Shahid had a reference to Omar. There is a scene where Shahid Azmi aka Rajkummar Rao has a conversation with Omar (played by Prabal Panjabi). When we mentioned it to Hansal, he claimed, “Shahid and Omar are two sides of the same coin. You have to see this body of work in conjunction.”
As the conversation came to an end, the one thing that we were keen to know was why does Rajkummar Rao and Hansal Mehta end up dealing with subjects which are serious in nature. We asked the director if there is a possibility of a film with a lighter tone, and the director responded, “Hopefully.”
He continued, “There is a subject we are working on. Both of us are absurdly funny. We keep telling each other that our humour should make it to the silver screen one day. But you see, humour and comedy are tough. They are genres which are tough to write. It needs a lot of discipline, and I need to find that.”