This essay reads two Othellos together – Shakespeare’s seventeenth-century play and Vishal Bhardwaj’s 21st-century film – to attend to the caste- and gender-based confessions that drive the plot of Omkara. Through close attention to selected scenes from the film, this work demonstrates that casteism, a phenomenon cemented by India’s colonial past and thus reflecting the subcontinent’s neo-colonial (instead of post-colonial) reality, along with entrenched misogyny and ableism, work together to precipitate the tragedy of Dolly and Omkara. In bringing these apparently distant texts together, and in its commitment to intersectional exploration of embodiment, this work is a deliberate exercise in such transtemporal and transcultural thinking that literary criticism should enable.
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All translations from the film’s Hindi are the author’s.
The National Crime Records Bureau of India records that crimes against the Scheduled Castes rose from 38,670 in 2015 to 40,801 in 2016 (i.e., by 5.5%). Those against Scheduled Tribes rose by 4.7%. As of my writing in 2019, cases of caste-related violence continue to rise (Parth, 2018).
I follow Kancha Ilaiah in my use of the term Dalitbahujan (Ilaiah, 1996).
Dolly’s letter to Omkara (shown in a flashback) states unambiguously: ‘Is janam mein toh tumhari himmat hogi nahin, so hum hi keh dete hain ji baas, hum sirf tumhare hain, aur tumhare hi rahenge’ [‘In this lifetime, you won’t have the courage to, so I might as well say it myself, that I am only yours and will always remain yours’].
The surnames of all the principal characters spell out their privileged castes: Omkara Shukla; Raghunath and Dolly Mishra; Ishwar and Indu Tyagi; Keshav ‘Kesu’ Upadhyay. Bhaisaab's Brahmin status is indicated by his shaved head and wearing of the ‘sacred thread.’
The word ‘daitwa,’ close to the word ‘asura,’ is frequently used in many Sanskritic languages to refer to lower-caste men, who are simultaneously seen to be morally and physically ugly and undesirable, yet hypersexualised. With Omkara’s repeated references to the epic Ramayana, this word also sets up associations of Omkara’s figure with Ravana, the asura (literally, a being opposed to the suras or the gods), who abducted Sita, Rama’s wife.
‘Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see./ She has deceived her father, and may thee’ (Othello I.3.294–5). It is possible, in the play, that Desdemona hears her father say this to her husband. In Bhardwaj’s film, Dolly sees her father stop to talk to Omkara, but does not know what Raghunath says to his prospective son-in-law.
Notably, the male entitlement over Dolly is also manifested in Rajju’s resentment over the loss of his bride. It is not simply stupidity, although there is that, that makes him follow Langda around; Rajju is also lured by Langda’s promise that he, Rajju, will eventually enjoy Dolly. Echoes of such patriarchal and misogynist entitlement are similarly seen in the sequence with Captaan, in which Captaan hints that Omkara will use Dolly and move on. Omkara’s ‘defense’ of the honourable intentions of himself and Dolly erupts into violence, itself tied into the political plot of the film.
The swing famously reappears in the final shot. Dolly lies dead on it, Omkara on the ground beneath.
Such interactions have historically included touch, sharing a meal, sharing a well for water, and certainly, sexual intercourse. Subliminally, therefore, it also becomes clear to viewers that the older Shukla may have fathered Omkara outside marriage.
In a later sequence, and at the moment when Langda begins to weave his tale of Dolly’s attachment to Kesu, Omkara actually expresses to Dolly his wonder that she, ‘being as beautiful as she is, nevertheless chose to give her heart to one like me’ [‘kyunke itni khoobsoorat ho ke mujh jaise pe dil laga baithi’].
Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste connects the historical dots between the subcontinent’s colonial reality of cementing the caste system and its ‘post’-colonial reality of perfecting systems of marginalisation in which caste-discrimination stays alive and well (Ambedkar,  2014).
Shakespeare’s other Venetian play, The Merchant of Venice, explicitly uses the opposed terminologies of ‘alien’ and ‘citizen’ to establish who is in fact protected by the city’s laws: ‘If it be proved against an alien/ That by direct, or indirect, attempts/ He seek the life of any citizen […]’ (IV.1.345–7).
For an explanation of able-bodied-ness as a default position that we inhabit in the world, see Siebers (2008).
For a discussion of disability as narrative plot device and prosthesis, see Mitchell and Snyder (2000).
This is a reference to the Ramayana’s agnipariksha, the ceremonial trial by fire, to which Rama repeatedly subjected Sita purportedly to have her prove her sexual – and therefore moral – purity.
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Dhar, A. Confessions of the half-caste, or wheeling strangers of here and everywhere. Postmedieval 11, 212–219 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41280-020-00171-y