Director Vishal Bhardwaj made a name for himself in the Indian film industry with his critically acclaimed adaptations of Macbeth (Maqbool) and Othello (Omkara) back in the early 2000s. Eleven years after Maqbool, he finally completes his Shakespearean trilogy with an adaption of Hamlet that has opened to much fanfare around the world. Little does Haider disappoint, with some stunning performances from the leads set to the backdrop of one of the world’s most militarised regions, the Kashmir Valley.
The film takes us back to Indian-administered Kashmir in 1995, a period that witnessed increased insurgency and militarisation due to prolonged tensions between India and Pakistan. During the late 1990s, there had been several instances of reported mass killings, sexual abuse and forced disappearances, mounting to some serious human rights violations. Haider is set in the midst of an ongoing battle, with the militants and separatists on one side, and the Indian Armed Forces on the other.
This political situation takes its toll on Haider (Hamlet), who returns back to the valley from university on learning the news about his father’s disappearance after being picked up by the army. His grief is compounded when he sees his mother Ghazala (Gertrude) romancing with his father’s brother Khurram (Claudius). When he learns of his father’s death and the truth behind it, he is left conflicted in his mind, not knowing how to feel about the situation. Haider’s precarious emotional balance makes him unstable, yet hungry for revenge from his father’s murderers.
Producing a film based off a 400-year-old script by Shakespeare might not be a breakthrough for cinema, but Bhardwaj’s novelty is in his near-flawless adaptation of the ‘Hamlet Conflict’ to the ‘Kashmir Conflict’. He accommodates the complexities of two very delicate issues with such brilliance, that it makes the screenplay a delight to experience. Likewise, the cinematography and locations for the shots wonderfully fit the narrative of the play. The director of photography does justice to the raw beauty of the Kashmir valley, portraying it like never before on the big screen.
An incredible score at times is good enough to carry a mediocre film, and so its importance must not be underestimated. Haider manages to pull off a soundtrack worthy of its cinematic greatness, giving the film character and a sense of totality. The lyrics for ‘Bismil’ and ‘Aao Na’ are wonderfully composed in the context of the film by Oscar winning lyricist Gulzar, whose camaraderie with the director has in the past yielded some very soulful music.
Shahid Kapoor’s journey from being a struggling actor in mainstream Hindi cinema, to portraying one of English literature’s most complex characters in Hamlet, is a remarkable one. Many would agree that Haider is by far his best performance yet; artistically shifting from the conflicted to the grievous to the revengeful. Playing the role of his mother, Tabu does a remarkable job infusing vulnerability and fragility to the relationship, which has deep-rooted Oedipal undertones. And finally, Kay Kay Menon delivers a performance he can be truly proud of. He has mastered the art of assuming the negative role within a story very well, but his depiction of the ill-meaning Claudius is surely one of his best. The rest of the cast supports the film very well, but none stand out as much as the three main characters, in mere presence.
At 2 hours 41 minutes, Haider’s deliberate pacing might put some viewers off, but the story is dealt and developed with care, opening one leaf at a time. While the unfolding of events in the first half is structurally perfect, the second half isn’t as gripping or exciting, until the last few scenes. It’s a story of two halves, united by the element of suspense.
Days before the release of the film, #BanHaider was one of the top trends on Twitter India, as the film received severe criticism for its ‘negative’ portrayal of the Indian Army as human rights violators in the valley. Kashmir is a subject that draws fairly extreme emotions amongst Indians, yet not many are privy to the truth, as the world knows it. Moviemakers in India often draw flak when they venture out to showcase bold political films, just as Madras Café did in late 2013 for its focus on the Sri Lankan civil war, but that shouldn’t stop them from doing so, as it does bring out the best in them. Haider cuts through the clutter of what is considered mainstream in Indian cinema and is worth a watch for its quality of acting and direction as much as its political undertone.