This film makes a strong political statement, and it would’ve been easy for it to tip over into controversial territory, but the restraint shown is remarkable. This is also true of other aspects of filmmaking…If we get a movie better than ’Haider’ in the remainder of 2014, let’s count this as a really good year. At this point, the chances of that happening don’t seem likely…
Vishal Bhardwaj’s brand of cinema is possibly the furthest thing from Salman Khan in the commercial Indian filmscape, but the superstar is a recurring element in Bharadwaj’s latest film, ’Haider’. Set in Kashmir, in 1995, a pre-steroid Khan is the inspiration here for two characters – both named Salman – who are introduced to us in a hilarious, almost surreal sequence where they’re attempting to copy the star’s mannerisms as a song from one of his movies plays on a VCR. One of them even nails Khan’s tendency to blow at unruly strands of his long hair, back when the actor had long hair.
As is common knowledge, ’Haider’ is Bhardwaj’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet… ‘Haider’ is ‘Hamlet’, which means that the two Salmans, shown to be ’Haider’’s good-for-nothing friends, are obviously Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. However, what Bhardwaj does, with co-writer Basharat Peer, is more than simply translate and adapt the Bard’s works to an Indianised setting – he adds colour, texture, and context to them…
In this ability to tell a new story from a familiar and old one lies Bhardwaj’s genius.’Haider’ isn’t just the best film in his trilogy; it’s the finest film of his career.
Bharadwaj’s ’Haider’ (Shahid Kapoor, delivering a career-best knockout) is a poet, who returns from university at Aligarh on learning that his father, Dr Hilaal Meer (Narendra Jha) was found guilty of harbouring a militant and has since disappeared. Initial flashbacks show ’Haider’ as a loving, respectful teenager who thinks the world of his father. He returns to find a house in ruins, destroyed by an army officer who wouldn’t let any of his men “die for a bloody militant.”
Something is definitely rotten in the state of Kashmir, and ‘Haider’ is determined to find out what it is. His mother, Ghazala (Tabu, essaying Gertrude), and uncle Khurram (Kay Kay Menon, playing Claudius) have started living together, and ’Haider’ is disgusted by them. His lover is Arshia (Shraddha Kapoor, a wonderful Ophelia), a wide-eyed journalist whose father is Polonious (Lalit Parimoo), only as a high ranking army officer. Slowly but steadily, we come to know these characters as flesh-and-blood people.
‘Haider’ is adapted much more skilfully than the trilogy’s previous instalments. It stays faithful to the overall structure of the original, but gleefully plays around with chronology and characterisation – for example, the famous ghost of King Hamlet appears in the film at a different point and in a different manner, which makes perfect sense in the context of the story.
This film makes a strong political statement, and it would’ve been easy for it to tip over into controversial territory, but the restraint shown is remarkable. This is also true of other aspects of filmmaking – from the outstanding cinematography by Pankaj Kumar ( ‘Ship Of Theseus’), whose work is particularly effective in one bravura hand-held sequence shot in Srinagar’s town square; to Bhardwaj’s own background score, that fuses traditional Kashmiri instruments with elements of electro-rock, but somehow still eschews the temptation to break into a Paanch-like rock anthem when the bullets fly during its surprisingly bloody climax.
supporting cast – which also includes Amir Bashir, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, and Ashish Vidharthi – is a dream. However, aside from a seeti-inducing cameo by Irrfan Khan as the mysterious Roohdar, it is Tabu’s Ghazala who steals much of the film and lingers in one’s memory long after the film is over.
If we get a movie better than ’Haider’ in the remainder of 2014, let’s count this as a really good year. At this point, the chances of that happening don’t seem likely.