Hindi cinema hasn’t looked into Kashmir the way Vishal Bharadwaj’s Haider has. Haider looks at the grim reality of the valley through a Shakespearean prism. The film is set in 1995 when insurgency was at its peak in the valley, but the play’s core emotions — deceit, betrayal and jealousy remain integral to the film. Adapting Shakespeare’s plays with elan and making them his own has been the maverick filmmaker’s strength. But while the previous two adaptations (Maqbooland Omkara) stayed close to the structure of the originals, Haider, while leaving in the crucial monologues, makes daring changes to the film, laying the grounds for a revenge tragedy.The film is written by Bharadwaj and acclaimed Kashmiri journalist Basharat Peer.
It opens on a fateful night in Srinagar when a doctor treating on terrorists disappears. His wife shares a discernibly sexual relationship with her brother-in-law (revealed to us once the husband goes missing.) And the son, who was forced to leave Kashmir by his militancy-paranoid mother, returns from Aligarh Muslim University as an educated young poet to find out about his mother and uncle. But the plot only kicks in halfway into the film when Irrfan Khan’s character, a mysterious figure with a dubious identity (the ghost from the original play), shows up and sets the ball rolling.
Haider’s success rests heavily on its authenticity which is unwavering throughout the film. Cinematographer Pankaj Kumar who earlier shot Ship Of Theseus, captures detail almost with an irreverent furor; he chooses to shoot from the characters’ un-touristy eyes. The stunning landscapes aside, we get a real, lived-in sense of Kashmir as inhabited by the characters themselves.
Bharadwaj’s intuitive direction calls forth camera, music, and tasteful production design to deliver a dark and moody drama. There is flamboyance(the play-within-a-play sequence, and the graveyard song) and subtlety, both at once in the treatment. Towards the end, three grave-diggers (straight out of Shakespeare) sing and dance in and around the graves, while Bharadwaj’s background score fills the ears with haunting melodies of loss and pain.
The film however belongs to Tabu, who infuses a steely confidence of a betrayer and an aching vulnerability of a lover to the character of Ghazala. The scenes brimming with Oedipal undertones can send a thrill down your spine. Shahid Kapoor, dealing with one of Shakespeare’s most complex heroes, just bagged the best role of his career, which was much needed and much deserved. He got better through the different shades his character underwent. Irrfan Khan, despite limited scenes, shows off his screen-presence and struts with a cool charisma. Kay Kay Menon as Claudius is stellar and brings his own edginess to the role.
Haider wanders at times. While the first half is dense and busy introducing multiple narrative strands, second half takes longer to unfold.But this is a minor quibble given the things this film has managed to achieve. Haider will make you shudder with melancholia. A film that is devastatingly beautiful, achingly poetic, hauntingly sublime and unapologetically political will seduce you into attentive submission. Let’s not waste time thinking to see or not to…this one deserves your unflinching attention.