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‘Haider’ – brave, artful but not for the squeamish

‘Haider’ – brave, artful but not for the squeamish

October 3 2014

Director Vishal Bhardwaj’s latest film, Haider, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ with Bollywood hunk Shahid Kapoor, has flinched some raw nerves because the backdrop is Kashmir, but it very much deserves to be seen…

THIS film is generating a huge amount of heat right now.

Released yesterday and screening across the world, it has already spawned the twitter hashtag #BoycottHaider in India (and countering, #HaiderTrueCinema).

That it would spark such a reaction (in India) is no surprise really.

But it is not an apologia for violence or the cause of Kashmir, however you want to define it.

Set during the height of militancy in 1995, it is far more subtle in tone and could be argued is, at a human level (shorn of all politics), ‘pro-Kashmiri’ and that is one of the defining aspects of this long, absorbing, and hugely imaginative reworking of Shakespeare’s greatest play, “Hamlet” by Indian director Vishal Bhardwaj. The screenplay credit is shared with Basharat Peer.

It is the last film in Bhardwaj’s heavy trilogy of Indian remakes of Shakespeare classics: “Maqbool” (2003 from “Macbeth”), “Omkara” (2006 from “Othello”).

He intends now to turn his attentions to Shakespeare’s lighter fare, but back to “Haider”.

There is sympathy and some element of understanding of the plight of the ordinary people in Kashmir, often caught perilously and dangerously between the power of the Indian Army and the cause of violent and hardline separatists – who charge the conflict with religious ideology.

It is a complicated issue and there are no easy solutions and Bhardwaj’s film is definitely no black and white affair.

In many ways, Bhardwaj respects the complexity of the original text and the conflicts that rage within Haider (Hamlet), played by Bollywood heartthrob Shahid Kapoor, in what is probably the performance of his life.

He is mesmerising – none more so than in the “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t” episode and there is a very fine ensemble cast, with Tabu, a former Bollywood siren, almost emitting as much heat and sizzle, as Haider’s bewitching and equally conflicted mother.

Bhardwaj plays up the Oedipal element and this will delight students who want to rationalise Hamlet’s motivations in the belief that he has an unsettling and unusual attraction to his own mother. It is certainly there in the original.

Generally, Bhardwaj has been faithful to Shakespeare’s own story arc, and has adapted some of its most famous dialogues to the particular context of this film.

Beautifully shot to showcase the natural beauty of the region, it also reminds viewers that it was (until the troubles) very much a place of culture and art and that Islam is at the heart of much, if not all, of that.

The film is split into two sections – with an interval (a common practice for longish films in India).

It is with the emergence of a shadowy character, played rather mercurially, as always by Irrfan Khan, that the film begins to gather a galloping momentum.

Bhardwaj sometimes lets the pace and tension drop, when he should have been subtly ratcheting it up – the dips and troughs let the audience off the hook.

The ending is stunning and unexpected – it is also as you might expect (from the original), violent and gory.

Overall, Bhardwaj has made a terrific film, and anyone who loves Shakespeare should enjoy this.

In time, it should travel beyond its immediate and obvious constituency (ie, India and the diaspora).

This is world-class cinema, by and large, (though occasionally there are lapses and those of a particular cinematic sensibility will find them grating). The music occasionally doesn’t fit, which is strange as Bhardwaj started out as musician and composer, and scored films, before becoming a director.

Bhardwaj may be, at least figuratively, buying himself a ticket out of India and to Hollywood, much in the same way as Shekhar Kapur did, with “Bandit Queen” (1995), and then going on to make the internationally renowned, “Elizabeth” (1998).

The political controversy about “Haider” will continue to rage, especially in India, where much of the political establishment remains very wary and very sensitive about issues connected to the region.

It may be easy for us to say that – (yes, it is) and critics would raise the plight of Hindus, who were displaced from the region because of the troubles and the violence of some opposed to Indian rule.

India is a mature democracy and should be able to cope with the cacophony of anger and countervailing sympathy this film has provoked.

To be frank, the Indian censors must have taken this position because the depiction of the Indian Army (in Kashmir) and the political situation – ‘Kashmir is like a prison’, represent a direct affront to New Delhi.

But look, it’s a film, not a political tract and in the end, it goes beyond any of that, just as “Hamlet” does.

It’s about the closest of human relations and how we manage or fail them – against a very powerful backdrop and does suggest, intriguingly, that base motivations sometimes lie behind even principle and ideology.

A few years ago, London-based novelist Mirza Waheed, whose novel, “The Collaborator” (2010) about Kashmir, was widely acclaimed, said the only hope he saw in a political solution to the troubles, was in Indian civil society (its ‘outraged from South Delhi’, like ‘the disgusted from Tunbridge Wells’), beginning to ask questions, via the media.

Bhardwaj has contributed to this debate, just as Indian playwright Abhishek Majumdar did in his play, “The Djinns of Eidgah”, performed at the Royal Court in London last year. In a similar vein but rather more modestly, because it is so obviously a low budget feature, is Kashmiri first-time feature director Rahat Kazmi’s “Identity Card” which has Bollywood name Saurabh Shukla in it and got a limited theatrical release this autumn in India.

You feel like that ‘conversation’ Waheed wants and the world should desire really – (because Kashmir’s beauty, charm, elegance and culture should not be obscured by army tanks or extremists waging what they term a holy war) – is beginning to happen.

The closing credits compliment the Indian Army in its rescue operations during the recent floods and says that tourists are returning to the region in greater numbers, but this film shows that there is still probably some healing to do.

ACV rating:****(out of five)

Haider” (15) on general release worldwide now

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture

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