Biopic on global terrorist Omar Sheikh premieres at Toronto film fest

Time & Us
Last Updated: September 13, 2017 at 1:24 am

new delhi: It may have been a coincidence that Indian director Hansal Mehta’s film Omerta had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on 9/11, but it was certainly fitting.

After all, the film is a biopic of Pakistani-origin terrorist Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who was among those involved in the planning of that attack 16 years ago.

That this is that rare subject, a biopic of a global jihadi is almost certain to attract criticism, but the director said, “I don’t care. I had t tell a story and it’s there.”

Mehta started planning the film several years ago, producers changed during those years, before it finally came together. Mehta made it clear the film was not about making people comfortable: “Global audiences need to be provoked, need to respond to the film.”

Much of Omar Sheikh’s career is well-documented, starting with a kidnapping of four foreigners in New Delhi, his capture, and his subsequent release in exchange for the passengers aboard the Air India flight hijacked to Kandahar.

His fingerprints are there in major terror strike including 9/11 and 26/11 (though he was in a Pakistani jail at the time of the Mumbai attacks). He was the man behind the brutal beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, for which he was arrested and imprisoned in Pakistan.

Mehta tries to fill in the blanks, his relationship with his father, a liberal, for instance, or his wife, how this milk-drinking, chess-playing middle-class person who grew up in London self-radicalised after watching clips of the Bosnian massacre, and then was recruited for other causes, including Kashmir.

“A lot of it was imagination,” Mehta said, as he tries to answer the question: “What would have transpired between those walls?” Or even between his ears, as Mehta pointed out, “It’s a difficult film to make. The guy, everything is running inside his head.”

 The film is not judgemental, and Indian actor Rajkummar Rao, who plays Omar Sheikh, locates the human facet of the terrorist, but also delivers the psychopath lurking within, one with mood swings that go from geniality to outbursts and violence within seconds.

Rao spent a fortnight in London for accent training and also getting a feel for places like the London School of Economics where Omar studied or East London, where he lived.

“It was not as an easy process, hard space for me to explore. For me it was very important to get into the mental space of a guy like Omar,” Rao said.

TIFF’s Artistic Director Cameron Bailey described Omerta as a “powerful story”. He said, “It’s a story that references very recent history, very contentious history. But it’s told with great sensitivity, with great depth and complexity.”

Mehta is also direct in showing Pakistani intelligence agencies conspiring with him in planning terror attacks.

Mehta doesn’t shy away from showing the Pakistani establishment was complicit in Omar’s reign of terror: “It’s important to name them. It’s important to stop b*******ing about it,” the director said. He pointed out Omar is considered “an adopted son” in Pakistan.

In fact, while Omar was first sentenced to death, that punishment was commuted to life in prison. And given the length of such terms in Pakistan currently, this could mean he may be released from prison some time next year, just around the time the movie on his life so far hits theatres.