Something is rotten in the state two countries call their own.
Not that we’ve really let that show on screen. Hindi cinema hasn’t looked into Kashmir, preferring to gaze at it instead. Haider changes all that, with filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj probing into the valley nimbly and incisively — we may, at this point, picture the director as a particularly poetic insurgent, wearing Shakespeare for a cloak.
This is not a simple adaptation, this takes not a simplistic stance; Haider is a remarkable achievement and one of the most powerful political films we’ve ever made, a bonafide masterpiece that throbs with intensity and purpose. It is a staggeringly clever take on Hamlet, one whose departures from the Bard’s original are as thrilling as its closely-hewn loyalty. The film is set in 1995, with Kashmir in the murkiest of limbos, at a time when it’s anybody’s guess whether any man wearing a long, all-shrouding phiran is hiding either a pot of hot coals or a hand-grenade. Haider — in case you haven’t guessed — is the kind of film that carries both.
The Hamlet here is Haider, a poetry student returning to Kashmir, summoned by the destruction of the family house and the disappearance of his father. He finds his ‘half-widowed’ mother, Ghazala, laughing dazzlingly by the sunlight and his uncle, Khurram, dancing. He is disgusted, depressed, and desperate for an answer, for a way forward. And, on one not-so farfetched afternoon given the state he’s in, a mysterious man appears to replace his loathing with fury — to arm a clueless, restless young man with murderous intent. The allegories are elegantly drawn and exquisitely sharp, like bejewelled daggers. The film is written by Bhardwaj and acclaimed journalist (and former Rediff writer) Basharrat Peer, and it is bold for many reasons.
The two stunning Shakespeare adaptations Bhardwaj made before this stayed close to the structure of the originals: Maqbool whimsically played fast-and-loose with characterisations but managed to wrap a crime-boss film neatly around the Scottish play; Omkara stayed so ingenuously loyal to Othello that it even translated lines of dialogue and had pacing similar to the play, but left out the monologues. Haider, while leaving in the crucial monologues, makes audacious changes to the film — for example, the play’s plot only kicks in when the ghost (or the man with the ghost IDs, more accurately) appears, around the midway mark — and several key moments deviate dramatically from the original. These are not subtle changes but these shifts are what make Haider a truly ambitious film. It bludgeons away from the original because, just like the world it is set in, harsh changes are called for. A young man finds himself fatherless — de-fathered by the machinery of the state, in fact — and tormented by local demons, terrorists and politicians. In Kashmir, this saga of disappearance and drama, of uncertainty and unrest, cannot be the tale of one prince or one exalted family; in Kashmir, where mothers know the name ‘Kalashnikov’ all too well, there are too many Hamlets.
The detailing is a marvel. Characters speak with, as Robert Plant would say “tongues of lilting grace,” in that delightful, characteristically Kashmiri way of hardboiled consonants and fluid vowels. A doctor’s coat is chequered, just like the local phirans and jackets, chairs and beds are ornately whittled into works of art we can sit on, and the bedsheets are beautiful, chain-stitched wonders. The authenticity is constant, and cinematographer Pankaj Kumar captures detail without lingering gratuitously on it, preferring instead to shoot from the characters’ un-touristy eyes or — better still — to eavesdrop close to them, hovering too-close with brilliant, hand-held unpredictability. We see the distractingly attractive world around them, sure, but the narrative stays grim and, thus hand-in-hand, Kumar’s composition centres on things so close you can touch — the smoke rising from a cup of kahwa in the cold, an accusingly large dot of mehndi on the back of a hand, letters handed out by the postman in plastic packets as if he were delivering cold cuts. This is a film you could watch with the sound muted.
But you shouldn’t. Oh no. The music is gorgeous, underscoring the narrative perfectly. (The gravedigger song is my favourite.) Yet while we’re used to Bhardwaj the director making way for Bhardwaj the composer (and, when we’re luckiest, Bhardwaj the singer), the Haider soundtrack knows its place and is allowed no room to showboat. The grim narrative carries strong political heft, and so assured is Bhardwaj of what he’s saying and the way it needs to be said that he doesn’t seem to feel the temptation to sugarcoat, to entertain with either song or wink. The film stays intense throughout, almost breathlessly so. Like a chokehold from someone you love.
The performances are uniformly stunning. Shahid Kapoor, dealing with one of Shakespeare’s most challenging heroes, does so with impressive sincerity. He manages the many shifts of mood skilfully but always appears like an actor performing a role gamely instead of an actor who has become the character: he’s very good, just not as unaffected as the actors around him. An actor called Narendra Jha who plays a doctor is an absolute find, Lalit Parimoo is excellent, Shraddha Kapoor is very believable in the Ophelia part, two Salman Khan fans (Sumit Kaul and Rajat Bhagat) are a lot of fun, and it’s good to see Kulbhushan Kharbanda get well-forged lines of dialogue.
At the heart of the film stands Tabu. Her Ghazala is a heartbreaking character, all passion and preening and perpetually inappropriate relationships. She looks luminous the first time we see her, but the great actress can amazingly adjust that candle-wick lighting up her face, so not just does she shine and simmer, but she can flicker. The way she looks into the mirror while her son kisses her… It’s haunting. Old Bhardwaj alumnus and former Macbeth Irrfan Khan, meanwhile, is striking in a very clever role that both shows off his screen-presence and kicks the film into a different gear.
The best performance comes from Kay Kay Menon in the Claudius role. His Khurram is a slimeball aching to be accepted as a success, an unctuous man and yet one who likes to strut, who likes to revel in his victories — but who, at the singular point of triumph — can only find a fellow conspirator to embrace. This is a traditionally meaty part, immortalised by Derek Jacobi in the 1996 Hamlet, but Kay Kay gives the character his own terrific edge, twitchy and tentative and surprisingly warm.
One particularly unforgettable moment in the film features Peer himself in a cameo as a man afraid to cross the threshold into his own house. That particular scene, and its subsequent, immediate resolution, comes from a short-story by Kashmiri writer Akhtar Mohiuddin. It is a great story of such frightening clarity that most filmmakers would have milked it into a longer scene, if not a short-film. Bhardwaj, now more than ever, seems assured of the power of his content, and knows when to pull his punches and doesn’t fall for obvious temptations. The result is a knockout, a film that makes you smell corpses, that makes you shudder with melancholia, and a film that points accusing fingers. A film that doesn’t flinch.
Is Haider Vishal Bhardwaj’s best film? That is the question. (The answer, naturally, lies behind the fact that we can even ask.)
Rating: 5 stars
First published Rediff, October 1, 2014