Hansal Mehta talks to Suranjana Biswas about his just-released project Omerta, not glorifying the central character of the film and the need to tell certain stories to the world
What is the significance of the title Omerta? How does it connect to the story?
Omerta means ‘code of silence’. The film talks about a person who is responsible for the events that have occurred at a certain period of time. We know about the protagonist and that his actions are empowered and sponsored by established organisations in Pakistan or India but we choose not to talk about it. Hence the ‘code of silence’… there is silence around the activities that take place and also around the people who carry them out.
What attracted you to the story and why did you believe it needed to be told?
It was a very interesting story. For me, the initial kick came from the genre. I spotted an opportunity to make a thriller. I had always wanted to make a thriller but I also wanted my film to be a thriller rooted in a true story. This is what made it more exciting.
What kind of research did you do to make a film based on a subject like this?
I had to undertake a lot of research to make a film like this. In fact, I had researched the subject of this film for many years. The thing about research is you have to finally decide how much to use, how much to apply in the scenes or the film, and how much to leave out from the final narrative or the final product. I mostly need to do the research because it helps build the narrative of the story. It also helps build the character. One does not necessarily use every detail that one discovers during research in the actual film.
Since it is a sensitive subject, how challenging was it to decide what elements you would use for the narrative?
It was challenging both as a director and as a writer. You have to decide what to keep and how to structure the film with the information you dig out about the incidents that take place. Just structuring the film yet maintaining its genre, which is a thriller, was an interesting journey for me.
In the past, dark films or those based on terrorism have often ended up glorifying the central character. How is Omerta different?
In Omerta, the central character is not glorified at all. It just intrigues you. When you watch Omerta, you look straight into the eyes of the central character. I wanted the audience to see the evil in his eyes and realise that evil does exist.
While you were conceiving the idea of the film, were there any apprehensions about how people would react to the story?
We have travelled around the world with the film and audiences across the board have liked the film. The shows were packed to capacity everywhere. So, as the makers of this film, we are very confident about telling a story like this to the world. It is a very unusual film considering its subject. I haven’t watched a single film where the protagonist is the antagonist.
A lot of film critics have also praised the film here, after it was screened. Does this help the film gain exposure on a commercial platform?
It definitely does help a film when it travels the world. Right now, we are gearing up for release. We are coming across a lot of keenness, especially from distributors, exhibitors and the audience around us. The response to both trailers has been phenomenal. We realise that there is an audience for this genre and that people want to watch this film.
The protagonist is a ruthless character. How do you think the audience will relate to the character? What will they take back from the film?
The audience usually relates to the character’s sense of empathy and romance. In this film, people will relate to the character’s hatred and anger, which is what this film is all about. The audience will learn about a story that will make them angry.
Can you tell us a little about shooting at the locations shown in the film?
It was a bit of a challenge as we had to recreate portions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Also, the ISI training camps had to be recreated. It was also quite a challenge to shoot in old Delhi, in Mumbai and London. The locations were spread over a vast area. That was huge a challenge for us.
Did you always have Rajkummar Rao in mind to play this role?
I had been talking about this film to him since I made Shahid and Citylights. After Citylights, I approached him for this role. Finally, we got the opportunity to meet the producer of the film and seized the reins. That’s how we made the film.
What was his reaction when you offered him the character?
He relished playing a character like this on the big screen. He looked forward to the challenge of playing a completely negative character.
Having known each other for such a long time, do you share a certain comfort level?
Of course, there is a certain level of comfort. We understand each other’s working styles; we also understand each other’s approach. We are constantly challenging ourselves because we tell new stories every time. There is a lot of trust between us. I trust him to interpret the story, while he trusts me to present it in the right way. There is a sense of mutual trust and confidence in each other’s abilities.
Talking about your association, how much do you feel he has evolved as an actor?
In Shahid, he was this young, impressionable boy and since then I feel he has grown a lot as an actor. I am also proud that he has become a very popular actor. I believe he is on his way to becoming a star and getting to the top. It gives me a lot of pride to say that he has built a mass audience for his films.
Earlier, films based on subjects like terrorism faced a backlash from the Central Board of Film Certification. Do you think things are better today? Were there any censorship hurdles for this film?
The examining committee did ask for cuts. Not all the cuts were justified; some were quite ridiculous. We took it to the revising committee, and they were far more reasonable. They asked for two cuts, which I agreed to because approaching the tribunal would have been a long process and I had to consider the producers. Still, a filmmaker does feel his/her work has been mutilated with even the slightest cut. But, we had no other option.
What has prompted you to choose characters like the ones in Shahid, Aligarh, Simran and now Omerta?
Each of them has come from my observation of day-to-day life around me and in the world. The characters are born out of my consciousness. They are extraordinary stories about ordinary people. I keep looking for them but I also feel that these stories find me. I draw my inspiration from real life.
What are your expectations from the film?
I had mentioned earlier that the trailers have received a tremendous response. Everybody has reacted pretty well after watching the trailers. The film is a thriller and people like watching thrillers. The costs are moderate and we kept things in control.
Do you follow box office numbers? What is your take on this?
I don’t. For me, it is important that I have made a film that I set out to make. Yes, box office numbers are important but what is more important is the recovery of the costs. Recovering your investment is possible only when the budget is controlled, in terms of making the film and marketing, etc. If you can do that, you don’t have to aim for the `100-crore club. You can tell stories by marketing them correctly and releasing them in the correct way. For example, Newton was marketed, released and produced in the right manner.
What is next on your slate?
There are a lot of films being developed. There is a web series on Harshad Mehta, penned by Sucheta Dalal, called The Scam.