(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)
Haraamkhor begins with a disclaimer, presumably mandated by the censor board, on creating awareness about women’s rights and that sex with a minor is a punishable offense (also inserted during some scenes in the film). The disclaimer unfortunately puts the film on a pedestal. Suddenly it feels like Shlok Sharma’s Haraamkhor is now delivering a social message. A quality that rarely reaps rewards for any film. It also gives the film a cloak of responsibility – it has now taken a moral stand and the film will not jilt away from it. If it does, you can call it out. As if we needed any more of that in this country. A government and a censor board that will do anything to keep up the undefinable chameleon called culture, and a critical discourse where every film and its every character is judged from an ideological and social justice standpoint.
But Sharma has made a film that doesn’t need those disclaimers. Haraamkhor is about the relationship between a school teacher Shyam (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and his 15 year old student, Sandhya (Shweta Tripathi). It is in their names – he is dark and twisted while she wallows in that period just before darkness. Sharma plunges us right into the middle of the tale – we don’t see how it happened or why it happened. We see that it is happening and slowly learn about Shyam and Sandhya in their respective backdrops (he’s married to a woman who was once his student. She is growing up with a single parent, a father who is alcoholic and has his own secrets). In the process we learn their modus operandi – how and where they meet, how they convincingly put on the teacher-student relationship at school and tuition, how the most perceptive around them begin to have doubts.
The most perceptive are Sandhya’s schoolmates Kamal (Irfan Khan) – who also nurses a crush on her – and Mintu (a rollicking Mohammad Samad), precocious and like Sandhya, has signed up for things way beyond his age but mostly harmless. They are not just the only likable characters in the film but they also play the role of the sutradhars (h/t Jai Arjun Singh). They are the angle around whom the film is brought to us – sort of like the three witches of Macbeth but more in the form of the Naseeruddin Shah/Om Puri pair in Maqbool. It is a curious device to tell a dark, dangerous story involving children but not for children through the eyes of children. A large part of it works because of Samad’s arresting charm coupled with his free flowing language, even if you really want to hold Sharma by the collars and ask him why, by the end, he contrived such an arc for them.
Haraamkhor, even in its modest 93 minutes run, feels long. It is good that Haraamkhor is not exactly plot driven but after a point nothing much happens and I felt like maybe if Sharma had given us the genesis of this relationship, we would have seen some real unconscionable events. What we get are hints at the kind of person Shyam is. His anger usually turns to violence. He can pretend very easily and is disarmed only by the presence of Sandhya. He flirts with his fellow school teachers. At least what he considers as flirting. He attempts to invite himself into their homes for dinner and asks whether the husband would mind. And boy, can Nawazuddin Siddiqui act! Watch him trying to start a worn down Luna scooter just as he hears gunshots from police training field nearby. This happens in front of Sandhya and he tries not to betray the absolute dread he feels (her father is a police officer) even as Sandhya begins to laugh uncontrollably. Siddiqui’s face is a panorama of emotions, neatly shifting from one form to another in intervals of less than a second. Shweta Tripathi is a casting masterstroke. Wikipedia says she is double the age she’s playing here but she’s also double convincing as a school student. Curiously, her twitter handle is battatawada, the kind of warmth in a rainy afternoon that you want to protect, be careful and gentle with. But Haraamkhor is Siddiqui’s film. We watch it for him. We watch it for what he can do and what more he is capable of. A half a decade or more of this consistency and the number of Indian actors – from the beginning of time – he can topple can be counted with a single hand. Or maybe even that won’t be required.