Vishal Bharadwaj directs Shahid Kapoor and Tabu in Haider an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This is Bharadwaj’s third attempt at adapting the noted English playwright’s material after Maqbool (Macbeth) and Omkara (Othello). Bharadwaj has a knack for contemporizing Victorian stories in the Indian context and doing so very effectively. With Maqbool he set the story in the Mumbai underworld and with Omkara he exploited the criminal-political nexus of the heartland by setting the story in Uttar Pradesh. With Haider he takes the troubled prince’s story and sets it in the strife ridden state of Kashmir and the words that begin Hamlet “there is something rotten in the state of Denmark” couldn’t ring truer.
Kay Kay Menon plays Khurrum (Claudius) who marries Ghazala (Gertrude) played by Tabu after the “disappearance” of Haider’s (Hamlet) Father Dr. Hilal (king Hamlet). Shraddha Kapoor plays Arshee (Ophelia and also Horatio as Hamlet’s friend). Irrfan Khan plays Roohdar (the ghost of Hamlet’s father) delivering a message from his father about the deceit of Khurrum.
The story mostly plays around the themes of Hamlet and tries to be as faithful an adaption as possible under the constraints of the geo-political hotpot of Kashmir. Any movie based on Kashmir is sure to be divisive as you cannot take a neutral stance over the militant insurgency and the mistrust the people of Kashmir feel towards the militarization of what is essentially heaven on earth. Bharadwaj tries to tackle the AFSPA issue and that is where the movie stumbles. Bharadwaj tries to rely on AFSPA as a plot device allowing Khurrum to get his brother captured by the military and eventually killed. By trying to rely too much on AFSPA and to almost demonizing it is where the movie’s narrative pace fails. It becomes cumbersome and does not yield the results Bharadwaj might have wanted it to, however kudos to him and script writer Bashrat Peer for trying.
Shraddha Kapoor is a revelation as Arshee and playing Kashmiri comes naturally to her. Kay Kay Menon who has phenomenal talents to play the bad guy fails to excite me with this outing. He plays Khurrum with a degree of menace that is so on the nose that it becomes parody of the Claudius as intended by Shakespeare. The prayer scene where he is supposed to appear contrite ends up being even more contrived. Irrfan Khan is slowly become more unbearable with every outing and seems to have lost the earthiness that made him great in Paan Singh Tomar. There is nothing worse than an actor who thinks he knows he is better than everyone else and that is the vibe I am getting from Khan ever since his Hollywood foray. His Roohdar is unconvincing and for reasons best known to Bharadwaj or the editing team the whole plot with militancy is rendered under developed. Tabu does what she does best. She lights up the screen every time she is on it. Her physical presence is so commanding on screen that everything else shrinks in comparison. Her earnest Ghazala is another addition to an already overly impressive resume. She crafts her character so beautifully that every time she calls out to Haider as “Jana” it makes you think of your own mother (albeit less deceitful). Everything except Shahid Kapoor shrinks in Tabu’s presence. Shahid Kapoor delivers what is arguably the best performance of his career. This is the Shahid that we all know and love and was lost somewhere in the 100 cr race. The first time I ever took notice of Shahid was also in a Bharadwaj caper – Kaminey (also the first ever review I wrote so the partnership is special for a personal reason). His Haider is restrained and insane at the same time. The vulnerability and intensity in his eyes as he searches for his father and then avows to avenge his death is electric. My favorite Shahid moment is during the song Jhelum when he exchanges photos with a woman looking for her missing son, it gave me chills and made me tear up for him.
Bharadwaj, as legend has it learnt to be a music composer during college days to woo Rekha Bharadwaj. Here he provides the background score for Haider and it couldn’t have been done any better. His reliance on single instruments, be it the cello, the violin or even the stray strings of Sitar to underscore the uneasy silence that enfolds the valley is fantastic. There are places where the music rises with the rise in tension but then at the climax the strings fade from the concerto and the emotions alone drive home the point and this is the restraint that only a very self-assured story teller is capable of. Pankaj Kumar’s cinematography is beautiful as it captures the beauty of the Kashmir valley in all its snowy glory. The only misstep is the inclusion of unnecessary songs; the only songs that deserve any place in the screenplay are the Jhelum re Jhelum and the acapella song by Shraddha Kapoor as she mourns the loss of her father. The song with Haider and Arshee frolicking in the snow and the gravedigger’s song are jarringly out of place and seem to be paying mere lip service to Hamlet. The song bismil bulbul is the strongest argument in favor of giving a personal flavor to an adaptation, the famous play in a play from hamlet is adapted to a dance performance commemorating the marriage of Ghazala and Khurrum and is written, sung and shot so beautifully that it defies comparisons.
Hamlet and other work of art are always open to interpretations and I believe that Bharadwaj has also tried to add a layer a subtext to his adaptation that leaves the audience to interpret the story based on their own prejudices. How I see it is as an allegory to the contentious Kashmir issue. If one were to supplant Hilal (Haider’s father) as King Hari Singh Bahadur and Ghazala as Kashmir itself then based on your point of view you could argue for either Haider as India or Pakistan and khurrum as the other . I know I could be way off but to me it is essentially why this movie is more than just a mere adaptation and the reason why Vishal Bharadwaj is regarded as one of India’s best and most original directors.
Haider in many ways seems incomplete or entirely too slow and meandering and by the end it seems to have gone nowhere, but that is the nature of Shakespeare’s Hamlet which unfolds as a tragedy with many time lapses and moments of insanity and introspection. Haider is a beautiful made film which unfortunately isn’t without a few flaws, but these flaws are easily overlooked when Tabu and Shahid Kapoor set the screen on fire with their brilliant acting.