Filmmaker Hansal Mehta and actor Rajkummar Rao are teaming up for their fourth film together, Omerta. Mehta sees the movie—on the life of terrorist Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh—as a “companion piece” to Shahid (2012), for which both Hansal and Rajkummar won national awards. About his preparation for Sheikh’s role, Rajkummar says, “I started watching disturbing videos just to feel angry towards the world.”
Hansal, why a film on the life of Omar Sheikh? This is the terrorist who beheaded [journalist] Daniel Pearl. India was forced to release him when IC 814 was hijacked [to Kandahar] in 1999. We know his story. Did you feel you had something new to say about him?
Hansal: I believe some of us knew his story. I think the story needed to be told, and as a personal story—as the journey of this boy. For me, what was most important is the way the state is complicit in creating and harbouring individuals like Omar Sheikh.
Which state? Because, in the movie it clearly refers to Pakistan. Omar is of Pakistani origin from Britain.
Hansal: Yes, I refer to the Pakistani establishment. The ‘deep state’ as you say—the ISI and their patronising of individuals like Omar Sheikh.
What is the ‘omerta’—the silence—that you are trying to break? There are several layers of silence. Silence could be about Islamism, about religious fundamentalism or state-backed terrorism as in the case of Pakistan and Omar Sheikh.
Hansal: Films are not about spoon-feeding. I believe it is about state-sponsored terrorism. But, there are people who will watch the film and find many more codes broken. There is very little known about how these young men are recruited. Omar Sheikh came from a privileged background. He lived in London. He had studied briefly at the London School of Economics. His recruitment through the local priest and the whole network that recruited him and eventually led to the ISI—that is again an omerta.
Rajkummar, you have called this one among the toughest roles you had to play. Why was this tougher? Was it because there is actually nothing redeeming—you are just an out-and-out deplorable character whose mind has been indoctrinated?
Rajkummar: Well, because I was playing him, I had to see it from his perspective. And, I, as an actor playing him, believed that whatever I am doing is for a cause. Of course, as Raj, when I would go back home, and then the same thoughts would still occur, that was very disturbing.
So, that is kind of disorientation between the character you are playing and who you are.
Rajkummar: Yes, because during my research I got really involved. I started watching disturbing videos just to feel angry towards the world, towards society, and towards other people and other communities.
So, to get into this character of a terrorist, you had to find an inner rage and hatred inside you?
Did you identify with anything in his character in life?
Rajkummar: No. As Raj I could not identify with anything. But, it was my duty, my responsibility as an actor, to portray him with full sincerity and honesty.
Hansal, the usual questions will come from both sides: some will see this movie and say that every time you want to portray a terrorist, you take this set-piece Muslim image of someone doing namaz, skull-cap and a beard; some others may argue that the film is not judgmental enough.
Hansal: For me, this was always a companion piece to Shahid. Shahid was again about a young man with angst about injustice. The truth is, our minorities are either appeased or completely marginalised. Shahid somehow managed to channelise that anger into something more constructive. He became a lawyer. Omar and Shahid had similar journeys. Both of them, angered by injustice, took to radicalism. They were both in Tihar [Jail] at the same time and they were friends. But, post Kandahar, Omar became this monster and Shahid became this gentle person.
So, Shahid found redemption.
Hansal: Shahid found redemption. But, the irony, when you see them as companions, is that Shahid was assassinated. He was killed at 32. And, Omar is [still] alive and he is Pakistan’s adopted son-in-law.
What is this character to you Raj? Who is Omar Sheikh to you?
Rajkummar: For me, actually, this was a man living with a lot of hatred and anger.
And, how did you generate that hatred?
Rajkummar: As I said, by watching disturbing videos available online. There are very disturbing images…
Rajkummar: Of Bosnia, Syria.... And, that is the reason young boys are going to Syria from all around the world and joining ISIS. I think it is a major problem for the world. We are just portraying the reality.
So Hansal, that’s where critics may say there is an underlying rationalisation of terrorism; looking for cause and effect is a kind of rationalisation.
Hansal: I believe that there is injustice. We have to address the injustice, and we have to address the individual. The angst of the individual is not being addressed. Instead, we—governments—spend all our energy throwing bombs on an entire community, destroying townships and killing innocent people. And, that has a domino effect. It keeps creating more and more Omar Sheikhs.
Who is responsible for creating Omar Sheikhs? Because the moment we get into that conversation, the danger is it sounds like a kind of justification.
Hansal: No. There is no justification. What I am saying is, this conversation needs to happen. This conversation about why so many young men are doing this.
Raj, there is this huge liberal divide. Do you take a look at it in the face and say there is islamist radicalisation or do you take religion out of the mix totally?
Rajkummar: For me this is the story of a human being with an evil mind, actually. We don’t see the religion. Anybody can be evil.
There is this moment in the movie—the lawyer defending Sheikh when he is in jail is an Indian Muslim. Sheikh asks his lawyer, ‘Are you happy in India as a Muslim?’, and he says, ‘bahuth khush [very happy]’. It is just one sentence. But, it is making a big statement I thought.
It is a very big statement. With all our frailties, with all the feelings of polarisation within our country and the threat to democracy that we feel, we are still a very free country. We still live in a very vibrant democracy. If I [had] lived in an autocracy like Pakistan, I would have been suffocated.