Why Omerta should be remembered as a classic example of film editing

Aditya Warrior weaves the highlights of Saeed's deadly career with personal vignettes from his life.

 |  4-minute read |   13-05-2018
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“The notion of directing a film is the invention of critics. The whole eloquence of cinema is achieved in the editing room” said Walter Murch, the legendary editor of films like Apocalypse Now, The Godfather, The English Patient, Cold Mountain and many others.

I was reminded of the quote when I recently went to see Hansal Mehta’s Omerta which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival a few months ago. The film, a biopic of dreaded British-born, Pakistani terrorist Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, is a master class in film editing. The editor, Aditya Warrior, has elevated the script beyond its original scope and helped transform a run-of-the-mill thriller into a lean and gripping journey through the inner life of one of the world’s deadliest terrorist masterminds, played to chilling effect by Raj Kumar Rao. 

Apart from being implicated in the 9/11 twin tower attacks in New York City, Saeed was pronounced guilty for the brutal murder of journalist Daniel Pearl and sentenced to death on July 15, 2002 by a special prosecutor in the anti-terrorism court.

rajkumar_inside_051318123149.jpgThe film unfolds in real time even as the past, present and future come together in a seamless whole

While in jail, at the height of the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai, he pretended to be Pranab Mukherjee, then India’s external affairs minister, secretly using his mobile phone in prison, to make a hoax call to then Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and chief of army staff, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, nearly escalating the situation to a full-blown war. 

Saeed was flung into the spotlight when he was arrested and served time in prison for the 1994 kidnappings of Western tourists in India. He was released from captivity in 1999 and provided safe passage into Afghanistan with the support of the Taliban in exchange for passengers aboard hijacked Indian Airlines Flight 814.

Aditya Warrior, the film’s editor, expertly weaves the highlights of his deadly career with personal vignettes from his life: his wedding in Pakistan, his days as a neophyte at the London School of Economics, poignant moments with his distraught father who tries his best to stop his son’s descent into radicalism, the initial training at a camp in Afghanistan, time spent in an Indian prison, and later in Pakistan, when he is arrested for Daniel Pearl’s murder.

omerta_051318123224.jpegA less talented editor would have perhaps told the story in a more conventional style 

While at LSE he joins the London Islamic Society and is radicalised during a Bosnia Week, organised by the society when he is shown grisly documentary footage of atrocities inflicted on Bosnian Muslims. After a short stint in Bosnia, as a volunteer with a relief operation, Saeed drops out of LSE and heads to Afghanistan where he enrolls for a 40-day course at the Khalid bin Waleed camp.

“The schedule included morning prayers in the mosque followed by physical exercise till 0800 hours,” Saeed wrote in his journal. “After breakfast, we were imparted classes in handling of small and medium firearms, Kalashnikov and Seminov, till lunch followed by a rest of two hours and then prayers.”

In the Afghan camp, he reportedly meets Maulana Masood Azhar, the head of the terrorist group, Jaish-e-Mohammed. Azhar is said to have urged Omar to return to the UK to strengthen his networks in preparation for major operations. Omar returns to Afghanistan where he begins work as an instructor in the summer of 1994.

The film unfolds in real time even as the past, present and future come together in a seamless whole without compromising on either tension or the narrative integrity. The scourge of radical Islam is laid bare through the eyes of one of its most dangerous proponents, Omar Saeed: a man whose guileless demeanor earned him the epithet “the boy next door”.

A less talented editor would have perhaps told the story in a more conventional style without deploying the temporal dissonance and parallel timelines used by Warrier, thereby flattening the overall effect.

rajkummar-rao_051318124511.jpgA man whose guileless demeanor earned him the epithet “the boy next door”.

“Editing is where movies are made or broken” said noted director Joe Dante. “Many a film has been saved and many a film has been ruined in the editing room”. This is certainly true for many overwrought, meandering Hindi films where lackluster writing and stodgy editing have ruined the chances of many films from the get go. Warrier currently owns Bombay-based visual promotions company Warrior’s Touch and has created promotional campaigns for several mainstream and indie feature films.

What Omerta does not tell us is that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the September 11 attacks in NYC, later admitted to beheading Daniel Pearl himself. His testimony was confirmed by doctors who cross-referenced the veins on his hands with the video footage of the decapitation. Meanwhile, Saeed remains incarcerated in Karachi prison. Some members of the intelligence community have speculated that Saeed continues to supervise operations from his prison cell, with the authorities turning a blind eye. His attorneys have appealed his death sentence based on Khalid Sheikh’s testimony and are waiting for the case to go to trial.

Also read: Why Rajkummar Rao 'could not relate' to his character in Omerta


Vikram Zutshi Vikram Zutshi @getafix2012

The writer is a filmmaker, columnist and scholar. He divides his time between the United States, Asia and Latin America

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