Haraamkhor 94 min (UA)

Cast: Nawazuddin Siddique, Shweta Tripathi, Mohd Samad, Irfan Khan

Direction: Shlok Sharma

Rating: ***1/2

Suparna Sharma

THREE YEARS after it was made, Haraamkhor has finally arrived in a theatre near you, carrying several cuts and bruises inflicted by the moralistic censor board.

The board, under Pahlaj sarkailo-khatiya Nihalani, has taken it upon its sanctimonious self to turn us into a nation of shuturmurgs (ostriches). And the Supreme Court has joined the satsang.

As long as we stand for the national anthem every time we visit the theatre, and as long as we neither show nor see on screen what may be going on all around us, we can all lay claim to swelling, sanskari 56-inch chests.

Thus, there are several seriously significant reasons to watch Haraamkhor.

Haraamkhor, by debutant writer-director Shlok Sharma, is a disturbing film that tells a lurid tale without being lewd. We don’t do subtle often, and when we do, we don’t do it well. So it’s a rare treat.

Haraamkhor is packed with sharp, exact performances. The entire cast is exceptionally talented, and yet no one overreaches. Another rarity.

HARAAMKHOR’S STORY is already well known. So I’ll be brief.

Shyam (Nawazuddin Siddique), a schoolteacher, has an affair with his underage, minor student Sandhya (Shweta Tripathi), and every time they are in any sort of intimacy, the text at the bottom of the screen warns us that it’s an offence punishable under the Indian Penal Code.

The film’s beginning is jumpy, slightly confusing. I couldn’t really tell what was happening except that a boy — Kamal (Master Irfan Khan) — falls off a cliff and fractures both his arms. The cast that follows runs from his wrists to biceps.

But Kamal is neither disheartened nor is he helpless. His cute buddy Mintu (Mohd Samad) takes charge of pursuing his love interest, cradling his emotions, all the while adding his entertaining commentary to things as they are, and things as they ought to be, with bizarre plans of how Kamal can get there.

Kamal, Mintu, Sandhya and one Shaktimaan — always in the superhero’s orange-gold costume — take after-school tuitions from Shyam. Sandhya is also his student in school.

Sandhya, with her green-heart hairpin and glittering hair band, stands out from the others in this sleepy, dusty town.

Her father is the local thana in-charge, and she is fair. She also seems mature, forward.

Circumstances conspire and one night she lands up all bruised and bleeding in Shyam’s house. His wife Sunita (Trimala Adhikari) tends to her and, at night, Sandhya watches them have sex. Later, Shyam very casually tries to touch Sandhya inappropriately.

She brushes him off, rudely.

Till this point we don’t really know what their relationship is. We think this is criminal, disgusting behaviour, and that she’s scared.

SHYAM’S CHARACTER is written, directed and acted to deceive. It’s layered, complex, and a bundle of paradoxes.

Shyam is a pitiable character himself. He’s a tutor who gets paid by a student in coins, yet he talks of his job, his calling as a respectable service to society, and so for a long time we don’t see what’s so obvious, what little Kamal and Mintu see so clearly.

We often doubt his culpability, and Sandhya’s privileged status complicates matters for us, making us cast an inquiring eye on her intentions, behaviour, when there really shouldn’t be any confusion.

It’s the genius of crafty filmmaking.

Haraamkhor casts us in the role of adults around a child who is being sexually abused. All the signs are there, but so good is Shyam at pretence, so good is the film at keeping us guessing, that we don’t believe it for the longest time.

We wait for concrete proof, we wait to see it with our own eyes, thus allowing the abuse to continue.

And once we realise, we cringe, at our own culpability, and at how sordid he is.

Casually and heartlessly he puts the entire blame, onus on her. It’s chilling watching Shyam, a master at deception, play this game.

He feels entitled to do as he pleases and doesn’t exhibit even a tinge of remorse, self-reflection. Sexual and physical abuse seem par for the course to him.

HARAAMKHOR IS made brilliant by its intelligent writing and direction. It tells a scary tale, but passes no judgment, offers no catharsis.

Though Shyam and Sandhya’s relationship is the film’s centrepiece, there’s a lot going on in this distant town with wind turbines and constant power cuts. 

Sandhya lives in a small whirlpool of events which keep throwing her in harm’s way. Her mother left, and her father has a relationship with Neelu that he’s kept a secret. The casting for Neelu’s character is so dazzling that I wish I was around when she was cast.

Mintu, the little boy chasing small intrigues and Kamal’s love despite his foot problem, is always carrying a blue plastic oil can, broken and empty, on his arm.

Nawazuddin as the pathological pretender makes you feel there’s grit in your teeth — grit from the dusty town — and he makes you feel sick in the guts.

Shweta Tripathi has insanely expressive eyes and she uses stillness to great impact. It’s difficult to shake her face off long after the film is over.

Trimala Adhikari, Mohd Samad and Irfan Khan are exceptionally talented and natural.

For a film this packed with stories and memorable characters to be shot in 16 days is a marvel. That it boasts of so many stellar performances is a feat deserving your time and money.