Othello may be the protagonist of Shakespeare's celebrated drama but in Vishal Bhardwaj's 2006 Bollywood adaptation, it is the antagonist that shines the darkest.
With his unmistakable limp, shaved head, rotting teeth, an overgrown painted fingernail, and rustic, rugged heartland mannerisms, Saif Ali Khan as the wronged, scheming, and revengeful Ishwar 'Langda' Tyagi is unrecognisable. In him, Hindi cinema got one of its most unforgettable bad boys.
The brilliance of Saif's nuanced performance as Langda Tyagi may not be as surprising for the Netflix audience of today who love him for his portrayal of the complex, conflicted police officer Sartaj Singh in Sacred Games. We have now come to expect him to be experimental. In fact, Saif's filmography since Omkara has been so diverse and genre-bending, it is almost subversive. He has played them all " from a dog in an animated film (Roadside Romeo), to a terrorist ruined in love (Kurbaan), a bloodthirsty bounty hunter (Laal Kaptaan), Aurangzeb's royal guard (Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior), and a blonde-haired zombie slayer (Go Goa Gone).
But 15 years ago, Bhardwaj was shouldering a massive risk in casting Saif as Langda Tyagi. Though Saif had freshly stepped into the grey with Ek Haseena Thi and Being Cyrus, he was still the charming big-ticket multiplex hero known for playing suave and cute in glossy love stories like Hum Tum, Kal Ho Naa Ho, and Dil Chahta Hai. However, with the success Hum Tum and Parineeta, he was finally coming into his own after years of cushioning the performances of lead heroes in quintessential box-office potboilers.
So when Bhardwaj offered him Iago's part in his Hindi film adaptation, Saif was ready " he had found enough ground to want to break it. And break free he did.
Omkara was his plunge; it was his way of declaring that since he could not be a star, he would now focus on being an actor instead.
The result? Bollywood got a leading man unlike any other. You may like his work or not, but you cannot pigeonhole Saif Ali Khan under any label. Through his every new project, he shows what actors, when not bogged down by stardom or stigma, can achieve.
When Film Companion asked him about his favorite scene in Omkara, Saif said it was the opening shot of the film in which he is philosophising about life with Deepak Dobriyal moments before abducing his bride. It is a brilliant scene indeed, featuring a dialogue that is arguably among the most memorable in Hindi cinema. However, Saif has so many stand-out moments through the film that it is unfair to stop at just one.
My personal favourite is the one in which all the men are assembled in a temple atop a hill for the anointment ceremony of the next baahubali. Langda is expecting to be anointed but the crown lands on the head of another. The camera closes onto Saif's face, which changes from being expectant to shocked, then heartbroken, and finally vengeful, all in a few seconds. No words, just plain old-school brilliance. This scene is a masterclass in acting. It marks the beginning of Langda's villainy and yet does not dehumanise him, aptly depicting how villains are not born but created.
It is a testimony of Saif's acting prowess that all his scenes that stand out in Omkara have no dialogues. Be it the one in which he breaks the mirror to anoint himself with his own blood or where he pushes Dobriyal's Rajju off the bridge and walks away leaving him to drown in the river, or the one in which he ties the kamarbandh to his head and laughs like a man unhinged, Saif makes expert use of his face and physicality to portray his raw, unfiltered, naked rage and mad malevolence.
Omkara is remembered and will continue to be for several reasons. At the time it was made, it was one of its kind, among the first to seamlessly blend the elements of arthouse and mainstream cinema to create a movie-watching experience unlike any other. It did what Maqbool could not"make a non-Shakespearean audience enjoy a Shakespearean story set in their own milieu, with people that looked like them and songs they could dance to even 15 years later.
However, despite it all, the biggest contribution of Omkara is allowing Saif the centerstage, and giving him the chance to be the actor that he is today. At a time when the other Khans are struggling with the ghosts of their past successes, Saif is busy cementing his path with every new film. No matter where this road leads him, Omkara will continue to be its most important milestone.