(Images via Google Images) What happens when you superimpose an intense and complicated story onto a volatile backdrop like insurgency-hit Kashmir? It could well turn out to be explosively beautiful or excruciatingly disastrous. Haider, Vishal Bhardwaj’s telling of the Shakespearean tragedy Hamlet, is more inclined towards the former, albeit with a few flaws.
Set in the Kashmir of the mid-1990s, Haider is the story of a disillusioned young man (Shahid Kapoor) out to avenge his father’s death. Haider, a poet and a history student, is summoned from Aligarh, after tragedy strikes his family. His house had burned down, his father is missing and his mother, Ghazala, seems to have, without much of a fuss, moved on with his power-hungry uncle (Kay Kay Menon). From then on, Haider‘s journey is not one of self-discovery, but of discovering those around him and losing himself while he gets to the bottom of it. At one point, Haider accuses his mother of being double-faced. But, every character in Haider, which is co-written by Bhardwaj and Kashmiri journalist and author Basharat Peer, seems to have more than one face. They have their own agendas; they are plotting in their heads, ready to strike when hit. Ghazala, for instance, based on Shakespeare’s Gertrude and played beautifully by Tabu, remains an enigma to the viewers even as the credits roll. We never find out where her loyalties lay; or whether she was manipulative or just vulnerable. Or take Khurram Meer, the Claudius figure in Haider, the smooth-talking, yet calculative politician. While we assume that his love for Ghazala is just another ploy to attain glory and respectability, he shocks us by putting his life on the line to save hers. The two Salmans, ardent fans of their namesake superstar, stand in for the many directionless young men stuck in a violent land. Then, there is Arshia (Shradha Kapoor), who tries to remain truthful to her lover, but ends up betraying him while trying to protect him. And then, there is her father, the policeman Pervez, who comes across as a softer version of Polonius, weakened by the love for his daughter, yet a slave to power. The many faces of Kashmir shown in Haider make us realise that the land, often hailed as a heaven on earth, is far from it. We see that a generation raised amidst bloodshed finds it hard to distinguish between right and wrong. In such times, you feel love will heal and let them live again, and love is what blinds Haider, but love is what betrays him and finally drives him insane. The extraordinary line-up of talent works in Bhardwaj’s favour. Starting from Tabu to Menon and Irrfan Khan (who appears in a cameo and takes the cake with the most stylish introduction scene of recent times), the performances are top-notch. Shradha is on home turf doing what she does best—opening up her eyes and acting innocent. Shahid, portraying his toughest character yet, is convincing as the brooding Haider, but falters as the film moves forward, and, by the end, gives away that he is just an actor playing the part. It is probably the only film of 2014 that truly invests so much effort on the woman’s character, making Ghazala the most enchanting and mysterious of the many women who have graced the screen this year. Haider is breathtakingly beautiful, carefully detailed with outstanding music and stunningly real performances. But what makes it short of being perfect is its inability to be rooted in the Indian backdrop that Bhardwaj sets it in. While Maqbool and Omkara (the filmmaker’s earlier adaptations of Macbeth and Othello) blended in as sons of the very soil they were moulded out of, Haidersticks out as if caught midway between the source material and the setting. And, despite taking an apparent political stand against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and the Indian Army throughout the film, Bhardwaj’s final message that congratulates the Army’s efforts during the Kashmir floods is confusing.Haider, however, is a brave and beautiful attempt by Bhardwaj, with a lot going in its stride. It would have been much better and fulfilling, if Bhardwaj had struck a balance between the Bard’s and his own vision, like he successfully did earlier.
Director: Vishal Bhardwaj
Cast: Shahid Kapoor, Tabu, Irrfan Khan, Kay Kay Menon