October 2, 2014
Shahid Kapoor, Tabu, Kay Kay Menon, Narendra Jha, Shraddha Kapoor, Irrfan Khan, Lalit Parimoo, Aamir Bashir, Ashish Vidyarthi, Kulbhushan Kharbanda
“Inteqaam se sirf inteqaam paida hota hai. Jab tak hum apne inteqaam se azaad nahin honge, koi azaadi humey azaad nahin kar sakti.”
These words from writer-director Vishal Bhardwaj’s film Haider are as relevant to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The thing about strong adaptations is that while they are at one level inseparable from the original, they also determinedly stand on their own. Something was rotten in the state of Denmark in which The Bard set his play. Four centuries later, Vishal finds that rot in the festering wounds of militancy-and-Army-ridden Kashmir where a young man returns home from Aligarh to find his father missing and his beautiful mother apparently being courted by his uncle.
From the template provided by Shakespeare’s play, Vishal and co-writer Basharat Peer have carved out Haider (played by Shahid Kapoor), his father Dr Hilaal Meer (Narendra Jha), Haider’s mother Ghazala (Tabu), Dr Meer’s brother Khurram (Kay Kay Menon), Haider’s girlfriend Arshia Lone (Shraddha Kapoor) and a whole range of other characters completely rooted in the snow and soil and political turmoil of Kashmir.
Haider is not about state politics though. It is about individuals using political scenarios to further petty personal goals, while appearing to support a larger cause.
And with that, Vishal Bhardwaj is back in form, people! There’s been a steady decline in the quality of his work, from Kaminey (2009), a nice film that somewhere along the way overwhelmed its soul with its stylised storytelling; to the mixed bag that was Saat Khoon Maaf (2011), where once again it seemed in places that he was trying to be someone he was not; and last year’s disappointing Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola. Haider is not utterly, unquestionably brilliant like the other two films in his Shakespeare trilogy, Maqbool and Omkara, but it is certainly a worthy companion to them.
The beauty of that quote (marginally edited) posted at the start of this review is that when Ghazala utters those words to her son she is referring to his self-destructive quest for revenge in his personal life, but the reference could well have been to the bitterness of Kashmiri Muslims towards the Indian state. As layered as Vishal and Basharat’s screenplay is Tabu’s performance as Ghazala. She is brooding in places, playful elsewhere, and it’s impossible to tell until the final scene whether she was truly duplicitous or a victim of a mentally disturbed Haider’s imagination; whether she was indeed a willing participant in the intrigues against her husband or a pawn in a wily relative’s game or a little bit of both.
The film is less judgemental towards Ghazala/Gertrude and Arshia/Ophelia than the play was, and Haider/Hamlet’s animosity towards Khurram/Claudius is shown to be not entirely innocent. Many literary critics have read an Oedipal desire into Hamlet’s relationship with Gertrude. Here it is more pronounced, driven home through Haider’s physical interactions with Ghazala and some clever casting. Tabu is merely 10 years older than Shahid. This does not, however, come across as just another instance of the sexism that prompts Bollywood to routinely give women roles they are too young for and men roles they are too old for. Tabu as Ghazala looks less like Haider’s mother and more like a hot older girlfriend. Theirs is an intriguing, disquieting bond.
Through this awkward personal relationship playing out in the foreground, Vishal delivers a politically brave film in which AFSPA is derided in verse and stone throwers are metaphorically referenced with deathly rocks. Haider is also that rare Hindi film (like YRF’s Fanaa) which risks bringing up the promised plebiscite that never took place.
It needs to be said though that notwithstanding a passing mention of how Kashmiri Pandits were driven out of their homes, Haider is told entirely through the Muslim gaze. Well, that too is a point of view we need to hear, especially since the film does not seek to appease the community. It not only portrays Army torture of Muslims civilians and the desolation of the real life Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons; it also shows the repeated betrayal of Muslims by fellow Muslims. What’s missing – disappointingly – is an equal sensitivity towards the betrayal of Pandits, which we got in Aamir Bashir’s achingly desolate Harud (2012) even though that was a film about the misery of Muslims in the state today; and Onir’s brilliant I Am (2011), which was about the strained bond between a Pandit girl and her Muslim childhood friend.
In this context one of the text plates at the end of the film is clumsy in its effort to pander to right-wing nationalists outside the state. Why else was it deemed necessary to salute the Army’s role in the recent Kashmir floods in black-and-white, when it had no relevance to this particular story? If Vishal and his co-producers panicked or were bullied into posting that salaam, they should have been less gauche about it.
Just as poorly conceived is the plot point that finally explains the treachery towards Dr Hilaal. Without revealing anything, I ask this: Could someone be so stupid as to not even worry about a possible phone tap in a state where suspicion hangs thick in the air? Haider and Arshia’s lovemaking is also exasperating – old-fashioned Hindi filmi copulation hesitating to be as modern as it wants to be. C’mon, when you intend to plant lips on lips, why dawdle before getting to that point? The scene and the accompanying song pointlessly slow down Haider.
It’s interesting that the voices raised against the non-Manipuri Priyanka Chopra being cast as Mary Kom have been silent on the casting of a bunch of non-Kashmiris – not counting Lalit Parimoo and Aamir Bashir – to play Kashmiris in a film set in Kashmir. Seriously, that shouldn’t be an overriding problem in any film unless the filmmaker is intentionally racist or the cast ends up caricaturing accents and using excessive makeup or prosthetics to look different from what they are in reality. No one does that in Haider. In such a scenario, if actors want to give the local accent a shot, they should either go all the way (without making a mockery of it) or not try it at all. The hazards of half measures are evident in Kay Kay’s elongated “ghaaar” which pops up like a sore thumb, and Shraddha who is compelled by the screenplay to emphasise her Kashmiri English in one scene, which does not blend with the way she speaks in the rest of the film.
Barring these reservations, there is much that is poignant, profound and poetic in Haider. The transposing of a European Christian story to an Indian Muslim (rather than Hindu) community facilitates the use of some legendary motifs from the original play such as the gravediggers’ scene. In fact the shovelling of the snow here yields one of the most memorable uses we’ve seen in a Hindi film of a throbbing, crunching natural sound flowing into music.
That goosebump-inducing scene is preceded by others and gives way to many more. There are moments during the stunningly sung, photographed and choreographed song Bismil, as Haider leaps in the air, stomps about making staccato moves uncharacteristic of Bollywood, thrusts and parries with Gulzar’s words set to Vishal’s eerily pulsating melody in Sukhwinder’s booming voice, when it’s hard to tell whether you are listening to your own raised heartbeat or the song.
Shahid is one of the Hindi film industry’s best dancers, but in Bismil – Vishal’s interpretation of the play-within-a-play scene in Hamlet – he has outdone himself by stepping out of his skin and into the spirit of his character. Except for fleeting moments when the actor Shahid Kapoor becomes visible on screen, this is what he achieves with his rendition of Haider as a whole. In fact, with the exception of the accent trip-ups, most of the actors in the film hit the bull’s eye, with the towering Tabu being matched scene for scene by Kay Kay. The wonderful Narendra Jha stays etched in the memory despite his limited screen time. In terms of both writing and acting, the disappointment of the lot is the usually impeccable Irrfan. His Roohdhaar is given a grand entrance befitting a mainstream masala star, but then remains curiously impactless.
Partnering Vishal in this celluloid elegy is DoP Pankaj Kumar. It takes a special kind of talent to visit a place famed for its magnificence and sock us between the eyes as he does with its visuals, as if we’re seeing it for the first time. His canvas extends from the splendid scenery to Tabu’s splendid face and gruesome, bloody scenes in which the camera refuses to be exploitative.
As any adaptation of Hamlet would be, Haider is grim. It bears repeating that this is not a film about Kashmir; it’s about the man Haider/Hamlet and the opportunities provided to the characters in his story when the setting happens to be Kashmir. With its constant theatricality and melodrama, Haider is a continuous bow to the medium Hamlet was written for. The result is a stirring, unsettling tale that needs not just to be watched, but to be experienced.
Rating (out of five stars): ****
CBFC Rating (India):
Photograph courtesy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haider_(film)