Oct 04, 2014
Vishal Bhardwaj is no longer just a director. First with Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola, and now conclusively with Haider, he’s turned into a sniper leading a team of insurgents, this time in a rebellion against Bollywood and Shakespeare.
He dares not to deify Shakespeare and his Hamlet, challenges and changes his focus, while firing sharp, deadly bullets of contemporary politics into it.
The cocky cinematic insurgent has taken a play about a procrastinating, traumatised individual, a prince, a son, and turned it into a stinging political comment.
Haider takes on the extremely complicated and yet profoundly simple story of Kashmir — a tapestry of insurgency, terrorism, security forces, double agents, politicians and people, some who are profiting from it all and others who have gone numb and mum — and tells it using the story of Hamlet. Oh, the sacrilege!
Messrs Vishal Bhardwaj and Basharat Peer are co-conspirators. They’ve written the film together and should have been arrested under AFSPA, if it weren’t for their chutzpah.
If Shakespeare could, he would have sat up in his grave on October 2, when Bhardwaj’s Haider opened in theaters, and shouted, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”
Because aah! What a joyous, heart-rendering, exhilarating, shocking, disquieting journey it is, their Haider.
Set in Kashmir in 1995, Haider tells two stories: the story of Kashmir, with significant inputs from journalist-author Basharat Peer, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, with significant twists courtesy Vishal Bhardwaj.
Dr Hilaal Meer (Narendra Jha) is a surgeon who takes risks. He offers to operate upon Kashmiri militants in his house.
His wife, Ghazala (Tabu), is a teacher, and she talks to school kids about “gar”, as ghar, home, is pronounced in Kashmir.
When Dr Meer brings home a militant in pain, she asks, “Kis taraf hain aap?”
“Zindagi ke,” he replies.
She knows it’s not the zindagi she dreams of and wants. She knows Kashmir is being held at gunpoint — in school premises, on the streets, in buses, while going in and coming out of homes, and their gar is not safe, not with the choices he is making.
He’s risking their lives, and their son Haider’s.
But Dr Meer believes otherwise. Says, “Khuda hai uska hafiz.”
Dr Meer is taken away by the Army, and Ghazala’s gar is destroyed. The scene where he’s picked up from a crowd of people holding up their identity-cards is stunning.
Haider, who is studying the “revolutionary poets of British India” in an Aligarh college, comes to Srinagar following his abbu-ji’s arrest. He’s deliberately provocative with the armymen at the check-post. But Arshia (Shraddha Kapoor), his friend and lover, is a journalist and is able to take him out and away without damage. She jokes about the “masala dosa” officer, but Haider is quiet. “Mujhe gar jana hai,” he says.
“Tumhare gar mein gar jaisa kuch bacha nahin hai,” she tells him.
Yet he goes, to a gaping, charred showpiece of wreckage that’s the inevitable result of defiance.
His mother is obviously not there. She’s with Khurram Meer (Kay Kay Menon), Haider’s chacha, father’s brother.
When Haider enters Khurram’s mansion, he hears singing, and then sees Khurram serenading his moaji (mother). His father and mother together made his gar. But now abbu-ji is gone, and moaji is smiling at another.
Khurram explains, teary-eyed, that he’s trying to lighten his “babi jaan’s” mood, and that he’s desperately looking for his “bai-jaan”.
The basic story progresses like it does in the play, but it courses through the land-mined politics of Jammu and Kashmir with delightful asides, surprising twists and some suspense.
When outside, we see almost every character interrupted and frisked by armed officers of the Government of India, and we see how a psychological disorder called “new disease” is afflicting the young.
We see people waiting for news of “disappeared persons”, and see instructive boards for uniformed men: “Catch them by the b***s, their hearts and minds will follow”. We hear about Kashmiri Pandits, and visit torture camps.
There’s talk of going sarhad paar, and the creation of Ikhawan-ul-Mukhbareen, the Army’s counter-insurgency force recruited with the lure of jobs, and financial and political favours.
There’s talk of Nehru’s promise, plebiscite, demilitarisation, and there’s the hoax of elections where Khurram wins by 100 votes.
There’s talk of how the Indian government saved Kashmir from the Kabali invasion of October 1947. Kashmiris are in debt, they should shut up. Yet, there’s azadi graffiti on walls.
This bitter conversation moves on a circular track, in a perpetual cycle of old promises and grudges, claims and counterclaims, rhetoric and ricochet, ensuring, above all, status quo.
But inside warm homes embroidered with seductive aesthetics, another story is coiling.
Haider’s story unravels with one major change. Bhardwaj enhances and enlarges one character and abbreviates another. He adds more than a hint of Oedipus to Haider and adds guile to gorgeous Ghazala.
And then, an out-of-focus apparition limps into focus. Roohdaar (Irrfan Khan) is carrying “abbu-ji ka paigam” for Haider. There’s a spring in the film’s step and the music that accompanies Roohdar tells us that the film is delighted to have him. So are we.
Khurram and his moaji tell Haider that his father is alive and they’ll find him soon. He’s dead, betrayed by his own, a stranger tells him. Haider goes looking for answers and returns with proof for his moaji. But…
Arshia tries to heal him, she can’t. Haider, insane with grief and rage at the betrayal, takes centre-stage for a matinee and a soliloquy. To a captive audience, he says, “hum hain ke hum nahin”, prattles on about the UN Security Council’s Resolution 47 of 1948, and then, when he spots uniformed men, shifts gear to Saare jahan se achcha… It’s a sharp slap, deadlier than all the violence in the film. And there’s lots of it.
Though I could see what Vishal Bhadwaj was doing on the screen, something kept bothering me. Why had he given such prominence to Ghazala and given short shrift to his main character, Haider, apart from the fact that Tabu is a far superior actor who can, at once, send out conflicting messages. She can seduce and scare, exude cunning and so much sensuality that it’s plain insane. But I knew I was missing something, something crucial. So while watching the film I started counting Hamlet’s characters and matching them — Claudius (Hilaal Meer), Gertrude (Ghazala), Polonius (Pervez Lone, played by Lalit Parimoo), Ophelia (Arshia), Laertes (Liyaqat, played by Aamir Bashir), ghost, courtiers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Salman 1 & 2 played by Sumit Kaul and Rajat Bhagat)…
Sure, he’s taken liberties with the characters, but something wasn’t quite fitting. There was a layer I wasn’t getting. I agonised over it, thought hard and then, after four long hours, it struck me.
In Vishal Bhardwaj’s interpretation of the great playwright’s great tragedy, Hamlet is not Haider. Hamlet here is Kashmir.
Though Haider is bereaved, betrayed, the real Hamlet who screams and seeks revenge is Kashmir. It’s the one isolated, the one consumed by rage and slowly going mad. Haider here is Horatio to Kashmir.
Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider is not without vanity. It’s doing a lot of remarkable things and it’s mighty pleased with itself. A lot happens in the film, and all of it is set to his background score that’s stimulating.
Visually, Haider is astute. Bhardwaj gives us Kashmir that’s both exotic and familiar, breathtaking and heartbreaking, gorgeous but melancholic. He stages Kashmir in a way that upstages the carefully knit Kashmir narratives from all sides. But to this reality he adds his signature curios and enough drama to make Haider not just political, but also uber cool. For these oblique asides that up the film’s tempo, sound and visuals move together to give us cheeky, orchestrated pieces of cinema. It’s showy but masterful.
There are in-jokes about the completion of his trilogy of Shakespeare’s tragedies, mirrors and metaphors, flavour of Kashmiri society, delightful absurdities, and a climatic graveyard scene that you’ll never forget.
All the characters in Haider are cleverly crafted and each one shares the load of taking the story forward while giving us a glimpse of life as it was, and still is, in Kashmir. Everyone has put in a superb performance, and the director’s insistence on pitch-perfect delivery of dialogue is apparent in the effort they’ve put into getting the Kashmiri accent right. But of all the characters, Tabu’s Ghazala shines the brightest. This morally unconventional character, often placed in front of mirrors, is laced with treachery, but not filled with it. Tabu projects this duality beautifully, making Ghazala crackle even when she’s doing nothing, just looking.
Faiz Ahmed Faiz makes two appearances in Haider. Crucial ones. And the message Vishal Bhardwaj’s film carries from Kashmir is best conveyed by his verse from another poem: “Mujh se pehli si mohabbat mere mahboob na maang…”
Many will beg to differ. But it’s what Kashmir, the real bereaved, betrayed Hamlet feels.