Vishal Bhardwaj gives a different spin to the hum rahein ki hum nahin conundrum in his take on the Bard’s tragic play that is very much Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider as much as it is Shakespeare’s Hamlet. He sets the stage in Kashmir, rampant with insurgents, inexplicable disappearances and curfews with the innocent often intermingled with the militant. This makes Hamlet’s eternal existential question a cry of the masses. Bhardwaj extracts the solipsism from the original text and gives it a profound flavor retaining a literal meaning for the mob and the philosophical one for the individual character arcs.
Haider, written by Bhardwaj and Basharat Peer also has the Kashmir moments possibly from the latter’s life. When Haider (Shahid Kapoor) is stopped for frisking he claims he is going to Islamabad. Arshia (Shraddha Kapoor) is quick to point that Anantnag (Peer’s hometown) is sometimes referred to as Islamabad. Almost two acts of the film go in establishing the atmosphere in Haider, setting up of 1995 Kashmir and the problems within. Unlike Bhardwaj’s earlier Shakespeare adaptations there aren’t well defined positions of power his primary characters are after. There is no don to replace or a general to betray. There is no throne. But there is home and land to fight for and this becomes the larger theme in Bhardwaj and Peer’s Haider. Like the play, problems here are more psychological and existential. Because of the larger canvas of Haider, we aren’t even sure who is who initially. Only when you see a familiar scene enacted behind the blinds between Haider, Ghazala (Tabu) and Khurram (Kay Kay Menon) does the plot set in.
In Haider, the individual politics and that of the state are constantly intertwined. Often one informs the other. This is one of the greatest accomplishments of Haider as a film. Bhardwaj with the help of Peer has keen eye in detailing both and this is not the simplified and mostly misunderstood politics of Roja though there is a minor similarity as a one line plot. A minor character refuses to enter the confines of his own house unless frisked thoroughly. That’s the sort of inertia that sets in within the larger scheme of politics of Kashmir and also within the mind of Haider as he plots to exact revenge on his uncle. The extended third act becomes an allegory within the allegory. Like Haider, it has a mind of its own and this capricious mindset of a large part of the second half becomes more of a feature than a bug. The film dillies and dallies as Haider dillies and dallies in pulling the trigger. It also comments, not so convincingly, on revenge as a habit without end in sight and this itself becoming the only constant. It sits on the fence with its portrayal of the Indian Army and there is some larger point Bhardwaj attempts by making both the high officials in the army as South Indians. One even ends up being referred to to as masala dosa. What’s up with that.
Haider is a beautifully shot work, every frame a love letter to Kashmir. And at times blood spattered. The introduction of the ghost is one of the best “winter is coming” shots in recent times, in more ways than one. The soundtrack is a marvel and the interpretation of the grave digging sequence followed by Aao Na is one of the best moments in the film. It doesn’t feel organic in the screenplay thread but encapsulates the spirit of the film and its politics. Bhardwaj literally and figuratively holds a mirror against the characters and the Kashmir situation. There are several scenes with mirrors and the characters reflected on mirrors. Vishal Bhardwaj tries to project the bigger Kashmir story on the three principal characters of Hamlet. It is intense, emotional, tragic. And most of it works.
(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)