Picture this. The day is coming to an end. Three old men are digging through a frozen ground covered with snow with much difficulty. A wide angle shot reveals the space to be a graveyard. The haggard men are signing a song requesting darkness to descend, wondering why death hasn’t accepted their invitation yet. Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider is marked with such countless harrowing imagery. Haider is Bhardwaj’s comeback film. After Saath Khoon Maaf and Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola, many doubted his mettle as a director. For these two films showed signs of an artist under stress trying desperately to prove his genius. But with Haider, Bhardwaj affirms his position once again as a master storyteller.
Shahid Kapoor’s Haider is just as complex as his textual counterpart. He is ruminative, protean, profound and shrewd and equally, in parts, tragic and comical. Haider is Kashmir itself, a butchered land and orphaned/betrayed individual, coexisting as one. Shradha Kapoor’s Arshia is the innocent victim, trapped between the power play of the State (the Indian Army/Kay Kay Menon) and Kashmir (Haider). She can only haplessly witness the events unfold in complete silence. Though her performance is commendable she is not the heroine of the film.
Our heroine is Tabu! As Ghazala, she embodies all that is a woman (not limited to being just a mother and wife): powerful, emotional, willful, insecure and loving. She suffers greatly throughout the film for her denials when confronted with the state of things. But her lies are not lies, they are only her desperate measures to shield herself and her loved ones and here lies her fatal flaw. By the time she takes things in her hands, there is no turning back. Haider also has some great performances from it’s co-actors. Kulbhushan Kharbanda’s cameo as Haider’s grandfather is indeed memorable. Irffan Khan and Narendra Jha shines in the little screen time that they have, sadly Aamir Bashir remains underused. Kay Kay Menon delivers a brilliant performance, but his is a character whose shades are vastly left unexplored.
One of the strongest points of the film is its music. Bhardwaj brings to light some of the most disturbingly beautiful Kashmiri folk songs and musical motifs, which are a revelation to people vastly unfamiliar with Kashmiri culture. So when Dr.Meer suggests that his son Haider must get a taste of the other India it is as if he is mocking us for knowing so little about the valley. Songs like Jhelum, Bismil, Gulon Mein Raang Bhare and So Jao invoke the spirit of Kashmir and will stay with you long after you leave the theatre. Shradha, who has sung Do Jahaan for the film, surprisingly has a deeply moving voice. Apart from the songs the film also has one of the most riveting soundtracks of recent times. Ghazala’s theme deserves a special mention here.
Bhardwaj doesn’t waste time in showing panoramic views of Kashmir; the little scenery that we see is only used for establishment. The frames are mostly populated with the deserted, curfew-ridden streets, ruins of houses and graveyards carpeted with snow. The narrative is driven by the point of view of the characters, continuously shifting between the past and the present thus; forming one single unit. Like the play, the film takes it’s time to tackle the issues at hand, of both Shakespearean and Kashmiri origin. William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is not an easy play to adapt to screen. The text itself is dense and problematic. And as if there wasn’t enough complexity of its own, Bhardwaj adds to it the most turbulent times in the history of Kashmir. Here lies the strength of the film as well as its weakness.
In the last decade, we have had countless documentaries on atrocities on the people of Kashmir by elements in the Indian Army but very few mainstream films depicting the same, Haider being among the few exceptions. But even Haider’s depiction of Kashmir is problematic.
The film begins promisingly with the Indian Army conducting a surprise crack down on villagers and then massacring and imprisoning them as they please. Having just impeached elements in the army in the first sequence, one expects to see more of such scenes. But after Shahid’s entrance, the army completely vanishes from the scene resurfacing once or twice only in flashbacks. However, Bhardwaj does boldly mock the scope of misuse under the AFSPA, questions the state’s role and its hypocritical electoral system and depicts the military torture.
At a certain point, it seems that Bhardwaj has bitten off more than he can chew. Bhardwaj is known for his brand of music, specially his love songs. However by the time he explores the relationship between Haider and Arshia, it’s too late for the romance to bloom. The song fits nowhere in the film and breaks the overall pacing and makes the film less political. There is also the problem of the language and accents. The actors do a very bad job of speaking the Kashmiri tongue. It is for these reasons that the film falls short of becoming a masterpiece!
Before the release of the film, I was immensely worried about Bhardwaj’s treatment of the oedipal element present in the original text. I had almost convinced myself that Bhardwaj will sacrifice it keeping in mind the conservative Indian audience. But Shakespeare-lovers will be happy to know that he doesn’t. What he does with the mother-son duo is extremely significant to Indian cinema, and thus should be left unsaid! The screen crackles and is rife with sexual undertones every time Shahid and Tabu share screen space. Interestingly, it is Haider who brings out the sexual nature of his mother. The sexual tension between the two translates into an inevitable power play for supremacy between the characters, as well as the actors.
Haider marks the completion of Bhardwaj’s Shakespeare trilogy of Macbeth, Othello and Hamlet. The director tries too hard to make it more than just a Bollywood film. It is too ambitious a project but what he achieves while being subservient to the industry conventions is definitely commendable. It is no doubt an important film, albeit a flawed one. However, Maqbool remains the best of the three while Haider takes a close second and occupies Omkara’s place. Like Ghazala was Haider’s antithesis, Tabu overshadows Shahid. She dominates over everyone with her screen presence. By being just the way she is, she owns the film, makes it her own (I wonder why we don’t see more of her). Thus, like Maqbool, Haider too, in the end, is Tabu’s film!