Be it Shahid, CityLights or Aligarh, Hansal Mehta has found himself drawn to real struggles, where the common man is urged to fight his own battles, both within and with the outside world. His understanding of complex human emotions in scenarios, which are relevant and more importantly urgent, makes his stories real and relatable. It drives home the filmmaker’s belief that cinema is more a tool to raise questions than provide answers.

His latest film is an explosive political thriller around British radical of Pakistani descent Omar Sheikh, the man involved in the kidnapping and horrifying murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002. Mehta’s muse Rajkummar Rao steps into the shoes of this deeply layered character. The film will soon have its World Premiere at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival.

We had the pleasure of chatting with the National award-winning director where he talks about the complexity of Omerta, his long-standing association with Rajkummar Rao and how he wishes to leave behind a legacy that will serve as an honest chronicle of our time for future generations.

Hansal Mehta, Director

Hansal Mehta

Omerta is inspired by real incidents. What made it an ideal story to be told via the medium of cinema? Having made films based on real stories, has the process of staying true to the facts yet making them cinematic become easier?

Omerta is the story of Omar Sheikh – a story that was given to me by my actor friend Mukul Dev in early 2005. I found the character intriguing and the idea of making a film based on this character seemed very exciting. The story seemed like an exciting thriller then, but today it has become an important, cautionary tale. This story has assumed even more relevance considering the turbulent times we find ourselves in. Omar Sheikh (Rajkummar Rao) has a chilling journey through the film traversing various landscapes and violent times – from 1992 to today, from London to Afghanistan to Pakistan to Delhi and back to Pakistan, Omerta is a film of complexity in terms of narrative structure, geography and scale. The challenge was to maintain the complexity, yet to keep the canvas very real.

Omar had an eventful life. Through his story, we trace some of the most tumultuous events in our recent past – events that are condemned to repeat themselves (with even greater magnitude) if forgotten. As a writer (and director) I found that the most difficult part of my process was structuring and compressing an enormous amount of factual drama within the parameters of a cinematic narrative. The film must be engaging, the characters must communicate with you and their journeys must feel real. Hence, certain facts are condensed, a few events are eliminated and a few are dramatized to ensure the film is a cinematic experience and not a boring history lesson. True stories have their own challenges and the crucial challenge is to ensure that you make an engaging film – one that is neither didactic nor esoteric. Omerta is a political thriller and while it bares some horrifying truths about our times, it keeps a tight grip on how it engages with the audience through its cinematic language.

I see myself as somebody chronicling our times through the stories and characters depicted in my films

You’ve been drawn to real characters and real struggles. How important is it for you to raise questions through the cinema you make?

I’ve always been drawn to real characters and their journeys – though at times, I did not get the opportunity to convert my attraction to these stories into films. I think films must raise more questions than offer answers. Our world is complex and cinema can only play the role of catalyzing debate, fuelling thought or provoking us emotionally. My films represent a constant urgency to bring out stories that we tend to ignore while chasing the bigger picture painted by our establishment. In stories of ordinary men are truths that we the people must confront in our everyday life. It is my attempt to engage with audiences through these stories and to disrupt the thought processes that are thrust upon us, which condition us to accept many myths about the world we inhabit. We are fed propaganda in the name of history. I live in the hope that much after I’m gone, my films will serve future generations as truthful chronicles of the times they have inherited.


Rajkummar Rao as Omar Sheikh

What makes Rajkummar Rao a perfect fit for most of your films?

Rajkummar is my muse. As an actor, collaborator, human being and dear friend he has helped me find myself. Through his interpretation, I have learned so much more about my own characters. I will forever be indebted to Anurag Kashyap and Mukesh Chhabra for that first meeting I had with him while casting for Shahid. As collaborators, we constantly feed off each other and challenge each other to explore our stories more deeply. Omerta is perhaps one of his most difficult performances where unlike his previous characters, we have somebody who is cold yet passionate, somebody who can be gentle at one instant and brutally violent at the other.  His character is a fascinating paradox – Omar on the surface is a family man like most of us – a student, a son, a husband and a father. But, Omar is an unlikely radical – someone who need not have traversed this path because he had a seemingly comfortable life. I’m glad I made this film now and not way back then (around 2005-2006) because without Rajkummar, Omerta would never have been the film it is today.

I’m extremely proud of what Raj has achieved in his relatively short career. His body of work and range of performances are unmatched by most actors of his generation.

My films represent a constant urgency to bring out stories that we tend to ignore while chasing the bigger picture painted by our establishment

Omerta is touted to be one of your most explosive films. What was the key thought / message that the film is centered around?

As I said, I see myself as somebody chronicling our times through the stories and characters depicted in my films. Films affect different people in different ways and my intention is to simply ensure that people are provoked enough to raise their own questions, formulate their own thoughts and deduce a message (if any). Yes, Omerta is an explosive film – because the subject matter and its principal character are explosive material. I am thrilled that Omerta is getting its world premiere at TIFF before a very passionate audience that engages with the filmmaker after the screening. I am looking forward to some volatile discussions after the TIFF screenings!