Language : Hindi | Running Time : 162 Minutes | Director : Vishal Bhardwaj
Irrfan Khan as Roohdhar, making a special appearance, dressed in white and sporting black goggles, walks onto the screen, mist clearing and I was reminded of a heroine walking into a hero’s life in our movies from the 80s. If not the same, the scene surely brings a similar effect on us. We are left gasping at the majestic beauty of the shot, the exhilarating bass and electric guitars of “Aao Na” announcing his presence. It is right there with some of the best intros I’ve seen in Indian cinema, because it elevates a simple intro into one filled with mystery and a desire to follow the man ourselves. It is something that draws whistles, claps and heightens our frenzy and Vishal Bhardwaj’s “Haider” will ask you the question, “To be or not to be” in every scene it throws at you.
Vishal Bhardwaj’s “Haider”, a faithful adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, revolves primarily on Haider’s Oedipus Complex and his quest to find his dad, take revenge against the people who’ve wronged him. Haider(Shahid) returns home on learning his dad, a doctor, has been taken away by the Indian Army for harboring and treating a terrorist. Vishal Bhardwaj, insists on establishing the political conflict of Kashmir before treating us to Haider’s personal crisis, which is in this case very much linked to the demography’s politics, much like Hansal Mehta’s “Shahid” where Shahid’s life changes after being arrested under TADA.
The militarisation of Kashmir and the after effects of it, the ever present doubt and deceit is brought out in a series of episodes. One particular impressive scene is when a man is found staring at the door of his house and enters inside only once he is body searched and questioned the way the Army personnel do in the area. It is funny but also very much a telling state of affairs. Bhardwaj understands the demography and for a time we are lost in how detailed and well thought out this adaptation of political conflict is. But also, there is a point where it is overpowering, where it takes our mind off the Oedipus Complex and Haider’s thirst for revenge and in that moment I wondered how different the film would be if it had the same setting as Shahid and focussed more on the intricacies of the relationships of the characters and confrontation between Khurram Meer(Kay Kay Menon), Claudius of Hamlet, and Haider. It would have been a more enriching personal tale but it wouldn’t have possibly had the same grave tension and bleakness. It is in this stroke, that Bhardwaj establishes his genius. By placing the struggle in Kashmir, he elevates the films grimness, making Haider’s quest more demanding and death more easily viable.
“Haider” follows Hamlet’s story dutifully. It follows the general outline for the characters where-in Claudius dethrones King Hamlet and marries his wife Gertrude. Prince Hamlet, suffering from Oedipus complex struggles to come to terms with this and also suspecting foul play, questions the castle ghost to learn the truth. He then plots his revenge, with the dilemma of “to be or not to be” plaguing him. Haider, to this extent is the same. Basharat Peer and Bhardwaj have molded this moral dilemma poetically. There is a a scene in the public square where Haider “performs” in front of the public, seeking an independent Kashmir but largely struggling to come to terms with “hum hain ki nahi”. Shahid Kapoor excels in this histrionic passage, working the demons that plague Haider and seeking resolution. Like in a street play, the stage is set and the mono act conforms to establish the masterful adaptation of the predicament. The intermixing of Kashmir’s conflict with its statehood and his own quandary is highlighted in great fashion. With Gulzar’s poetry as songs and the writing in general, the marriage of personal and political conflict is powerfully affecting. The primary reason why “Haider” works so well is that it understands the sticky struggle and we are drawn to both like how fear is ever pervading in the region.
“Haider” is filled with some intriguingly staged scenes. The scene where Haider drops down on his chacha’s place and finds him courting his mother is so lovely that it had me in a trance, much like how Haider’s stunned expression. Khurram sings off tune, making Ghazala laugh like a woman in love and the festive nature of their behaviour, instead of mourning the loss of a brother and husband is brought to us through a screen, shrouding the truth both literally and metaphorically. It is like a veil being lifted off after years and the truth both difficult to digest or ignore. The “Bismil” song is another example where Bhardwaj stages to perfection. It is the reenactment of the farce that takes his father away from him, the stage play in Hamlet. Here, he brings on the theatrics of a performing troupe and steals glances at Khurram and Ghazala, establishing an eerie and scary relationship, confirming the act. The moments of this nature are aplenty and if you find people gushing about other scenes, don’t be surprised. Haider is such a film, which makes you hold your breath, gasp and think twice before releasing it. It is nothing less than what is expected of Bhardwaj. He doesn’t want you to see the Dal lake or the winter snow and get lost in its beauty. He shows you the harrowing places, the streets that are always patrolled, the houses that are decapitated and the people who have hopeless eyes. Pankaj Kumar brings a sad beauty to how this is captured, reminding of Kawabata’s “Snow Country” when the white snow further established the melancholy of this tragedy.
I am a bit reserved in calling the showcasing of the Oedipus Complex a triumph. The dialogues where Ghazala tells about the things Haider used to say establish the Oedipus Complex, much like in Hamlet but I found myself thinking that there was also a hint of the Jocasta complex the way Tabu and Shahid were acting. Either way, the strange, implicit incestuous attachment of the two is entirely convincing. It’s a return of the actor in Tabu. Her love for Haider, dissatisfaction with her husband and the immorality of her romance with her brother-in-law is all so convincingly brought out by her. There’s a point in the film where she tells that whatever happens in life, she will always be the loser and she towers above everything else here.
Shahid Kapoor staring with eyes that hold the loss of father and a mother, the inability to understand the reasons behind them or convince him of the treachery is phenomenal. When he stands in the crowd holding a placard that reads “My father, where is he?”, you realise the gravity of the situation. Being a poet, Haider’s confusion and conundrums take different forms that his girlfriend Arshia(Shraddha Kapoor) is unable to comprehend. In black and white, when specks of colour grow one either embraces or doubts sanity at seeing colour. Her life revolves around him and her father, Parvez(Lalit Parimoo). She is like most people, chained by the people she holds dear with little else otherwise to keep her alive.
Despite the prevalent bleakness, a Vishal Bhardwaj film cannot be without his brand of humor. Here, he has two men Salman & Salman, fans of Bhai, dressing like him, trying to talk like him, one even managing to mimic him quite well. They watch his movies, walk like him, speak like him and enact the scenes and dance routines of Bhai from his early movies, before the shirt baring muscled hunk era started to occupy the screen. Informers and video cassette traders when they aren’t imitating Bhai, they bring the lighter moments of the film but there’s no inconsistency in tone or a departure from the strife at hand. If other filmmakers could realise the potential of what Bhardwaj has offered with this, we could definitely have sleeker films in the future.
There’s no mistaking that Haider is a very powerful film that hardly makes any mistakes but even then, it misses by a stretch. The climax though is unsavory. The talking up of freedom as a possibility only when the thirst for revenge is dropped is a valid enough idea but it could have been executed better. Here, the guns start blazing and the conflict ends like an afterthought. The whole point of “to be or not to be” on a personal level for Haider is somehow no longer valid. Like a ghost, he exists and will continue. In an otherwise perfect film, this is disturbing. If I had to paraphrase something from the film, I’d say that the climax is “chutzpah”, a word which gets new meaning in this film, another example of Bhardwaj’s sense of humor, something he took from the Osho Talks. Especially after following the excellently staged “So Jao”, this is a lovely state of the tiredness of everything around him, the perfectness of the need to become a ghost.
“Haider” is understandably a great film. It is a beautiful adaptation of the bard’s epic and Bhardwaj made me fall in love with it, making me experience what it is “to be and not to be”. He has directed a film which is both shocking and moving but more than anything else, it is something that will make you want to walk with it on a winter night, supporting its tragic bearings. This might just be his greatest work in an extremely compelling filmography.