What makes this actor-director pair one of the best collaborations ever?
“My life and career changed the day he walked into my office and wouldn’t leave…”
Following the World Premiere of Omertà at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival last week, veteran director Hansal Mehta told enamored audiences the story of how his long lasting collaboration with talented actor Rajkummar Rao first began. It turns out Mehta’s casting director, the famous Mukesh Chhabra, suggested he pay attention to the novice Rao who was not “going away”… As Mehta admits he was preoccupied at the time and not interested, but eventually agreed to meet him.
Presumably 5+ years after that fateful introduction, Indian cinema fans continue to reap the rewards of one of the most iconic pairings of director and actor of our generation, who are daring to push past the boundaries of conventional Hindi films, making truly human stories commercially successful again. Mehta, one of India’s most articulate and intrepid filmmakers of the last two decades, had already cemented a space within world cinema long before anyone had even heard of Rao; and yet, is quick to praise the actor with whom he has earned so much critical acclaim over the past few years, beginning with 2012’s National Award winning Shahid. Their comradery and appreciation of one another is the icing on the cake of their model definition of the “artist & muse” relationship – a phrase often misused in Indian cinema.
When examining years’ worth of mainstream Hindi cinema many are likely to note the pairings of directors & actors such as Karan Johar and Shah Rukh Khan as the ultimate artist & muse, given their long lasting relationship and sheer number of films shared together. Sanjay Leela Bhansali has also been very forthcoming in his affinity for select actors such as Aishwarya Rai, Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh, choosing them as his leads in at least 3 films each.  But many may be misunderstanding that it’s not the quantity that matters – but the quality. The number of pairings doth not maketh the muse relationship. Instead, it is the inspiration a filmmaker derives from a fellow artist, such that together the same team can bring entirely different stories and personas to life each time – just like Mehta and Rao.
For instance, Omertà is a bold and remorseless look at the true life of Omar Sheikh, a convicted terrorist who is most known as the man responsible for the kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002. Written 12 years ago (and set aside as Mehta felt the need to build up his filmography before he could find producers daring enough to fund the project) this harsh look at the progressive radicalization and advancement of a bright young man from London within the ranks of Al-Qaeda, is haunting and uncomfortable at times to watch, but ultimately pivots entirely on the captivating performance of Rao.
The fourth in their line of collaborations Omertà demonstrates the depth of their director/muse relationship more so than any of their previous films together. When it comes to what Mehta has extracted from Rao in terms of acting, Omertà is a far cry from Shahid (2012) where Rao first acted under Mehta playing real life lawyer and human rights activist Shahid Azmi, who was assassinated in 2010; or City Lights (2014) which had Rao playing a struggling farmer taken advantage of in the metropolis of Mumbai; and the poignant drama Aligarh (2016) that cast him as a fast-talking journalist with good intentions. Unlike any of their previous films together Omertà stands apart in that, with an extremely small supporting cast, Mehta hinges extremely complex subject matter almost entirely on Rao’s ability to demonstrate the progressive intensity of Sheikh. While watching it, one cannot help but sense the immense faith Mehta has in Rao to bring any character to life on screen, no matter how endearing or disturbing.
In fact, Rajkummar, who I suspect is now in the running for a world record of most number of real life persons/stories portrayed on screen, told audiences that he couldn’t wait to be done with this character. “It did shake me up completely… It was not an easy world…my thought process had to completely change. You start to look at things and people differently. There was so much of anger, so much hatred that I was going through. I just wanted to get done with this as soon as possible”. And in that admission of the anguish it seems Rajkummar underwent, in order to authentically portray Sheikh, lies the indication of how much confidence Rao has placed in his guru and most frequent collaborator, Mehta, in return.
When asked what the theatrical release plans are for a film of such a sensitive nature, that is bound to evoke much commentary for its portrayal of Pakistani radicals, Mehta said he refused to “let this film be mutilated” (presumably in reference to the censor board). So while audiences await the impending release of Omertà we have only to look forward to what else this outstanding director/actor pairing of Indian cinema has more to offer.
Thank gosh Rajkummar Rao didn’t leave Mehta’s office all those years ago. I shudder to think of the great loss Hindi films would be in today without the discovery of their bond. Apparently director Gautham Menon once said that he lost his interest to make movies for a while, when leading lady Jyothika, the star in a few of his films, exited the industry in the early 2000’s. That mentality is what I believe defines a muse relationship – as well as a duo’s ability to grow as a team, and surpass their own previously established limits, exactly as Mehta and Rao do, especially with Omertà.
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