Rating: 4 stars
Director: Vishal Bharadwaj
Cast: Shahid Kapur, Tabu, Kay Kay Menon, Shraddha Kapur, Irrfan Khan
Music: Vishal Bharadwaj
For years now our filmmakers have let their cameras romance Kashmir. Even when they have tried to capture the violence in the valley, they didn’t stop themselves from highlighting her beauty. But Haider’s Kashmir is not seen from touristy eyes. Set in the mid-90s insurgency, where hand-grenades were easier to get than a loaf of bread, this world is unflinchingly brutal and morally barren, like the sea of snow the land is shrouded in.
This is the world Haider (Shahid Kapur), a student of poetry from Aligarh, comes home to, only to realise there is no home left. After his father, a well-established surgeon, gets arrested for his alleged connections with militants, their home is blown to bits. His father eventually ‘disappears’, becoming one of the 8,000 arrested locals who went missing during the Kashmir insurgency in 1995. It was only apt that Vishal Bharadwaj set his adaptation of Shakespeare’sHamlet in Kashmir of the 90s, where the backdrop effortlessly lends itself to the violence that unfolds in the story.
Bharadwaj strikes a fine balance between staying loyal to the Bard — in the monologues and the key dramatic elements, such as the ghosts, the play, the gravediggers and the Oedipal relationship between Hamlet and his mother Gertrude — and then making a clever, audacious departure towards the end. The story supports itself on a strong political backbone, there are sexual and incestuous undertones, romance, revenge, passion — all of which blends into a breed of violence that nobody understands.
Haider seeks revenge from his uncle Khurram (Kay Kay Menon) who he thinks has killed his father to be with his mother Ghazala (Tabu). He is caught in a vortex of emotions — he feels a passionate love for his mother and a burning vengeance towards Khurram who his mother loves. He is also in a relationship with Arshiya (Shraddha Kapoor), which seems half-hearted for the most part. The whirlpool of emotions eventually descends into lunacy. Shahid breathes life into every layer of emotion Haider goes through. The empty stare when he sees his mother and Khurram humming a tune together, their smiling faces bathed in sunlight, soon after his father goes missing, the senile revolutionary on the street mouthing a monologue, the vulnerable surrender when Ghazala emotionally blackmails him, the bloodshot glare of vengeance, and the possessive, passionate love he feels for his mother. The scene where he plants a soft kiss on her neck when she’s getting ready for her nikaah to Khurram, and both of them stare into the mirror is disturbingly memorable. And the Bismil dance of course, Shahid simply owns it.
“Zehreeli khoobsurat hai aap” Haider says to Ghazala and she is indeed. Tabu’s Ghazala, with a beauty so heartbreaking and a soul so complex, is the pulse of the film. Her subtle and not so subtle physical gestures of love towards her son are foiled by her constant struggle to keep him from joining militant forces sarhad par (Pakistan), and from killing her lover Khurram. Only a seasoned actress like Tabu could have played Ghazala with such finesse. Perhaps that’s the thing about Bharadwaj’s characterisation. He makes it impossible to even consider other possibilities. As he does with Kay Kay’s Khurram. This is not the predictable Menon with his gritting teeth and everlasting frown. He brings an edge to the slimy character, adding many moods and layers.
Another masterstroke of the film is the ghost of Haider’s father. He in this case is not exactly a ghost, but is a man named Roohdaar who is a ghost identity, who happened to share a prison cell with Haider’s father. Roohdaar is played by the inimitable Irrfan Khan, who eventually incites Haider to avenge his father’s death.
After a few spells of overacting in her previous films, Shraddha Kapoor delivers a surprisingly composed performance as Arshiya who is helplessly in love with Haider. It’s not a flat character of a girl in love, and Shraddha makes an honest effort to capture the nuances. The result is not perfect, but certainly believable.
Sumit Kaul and Rajat Bhagat, the Salman fans, who are Vishal’s interpretation of the bumbling courtiers in Hamlet, add some wicked humour to the grim plot. Their hammy mimicry of Salman even as they become cogs in the wheel of a political conspiracy, is Vishal’s genius all the way.
Yet again Haider shows us why Bharadwaj doesn’t trust anyone with the music for the films he makes. The score is as intense as it is gorgeous, underplayed when needed, deftly supporting the story and its characters all the way. Our own Bollywood’s Bard even sings Jhelum, one of the most haunting tracks in the film. Another standout is Bismil for just the way it narrates the story of treachery in neat and crisp verses.
Pankaj Kumar’s cinematography is sensitive and brilliant and deftly expresses the good, bad and ugly. The camera is handheld at times, the mild shake making the scenes throb with intensity. Vishal and Basharrat Peer’s chaste Urdu-laced dialogues lend a distinct gravitas to the story.
The pace slumps a little in the second half, but the slack is short-lived. By then the director’s craft has hypnotised you enough to overlook the slips. Considering Hamlet, with all its complexity, is certainly not an easy adaptation to venture into — that alone could well make this Vishal’s finest film yet.
Haider is devastatingly beautiful, just like Kashmir itself....