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Film review: Haider

Film: Haider
Cast: Shahid Kapoor, Shraddha Kapoor, Kay Kay Menon, Irrfan Khan, Tabu
Direction: Vishal Bhardwaj
Rating: ***

Most of William Shakespeare’s work is based in a world plagued with constant conflict and strife, a carnal sphere where, ultimately, everything burns.

Vishal Bhardwaj’s most substantial victory with Haider-an adaptation of Hamlet-lies in his ability to identify such an environment (Kashmir, 1995) in a relatively civilized new world, and retain its relevance as the troubled foreground of the playwright’s most complex yet flawed tragedy. These loyal film adaptations (Macbeth as Maqbool, Othello as Omkara) depend primarily on a sliver of disloyalty-in geography, culture and personalities-to give the story its voice and authenticity. Co-writer Basharat Peer (author of Curfewed Night) seamlessly incorporates this region’s volatility into a tale driven by internal struggle, a psychological dispute that sounds peculiarly poetic (Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s verses, Gulzar’s lyrics) in the director’s hands.

Hamlet, PhD student Haider (Shahid), returns to Srinagar to find that his surgeon father (“I choose life, not sides”) has been banished for treating a militant. Much to his chagrin, his fiercely protective mother (Tabu) remarries his father’s brother (Kay Kay Menon), a two-faced lawyer he has never trusted.

This setup is deliberately slow-paced, allowing Pankaj Kumar’s camera to lurk behind the repressed local souls of Haider’s torn paradise. There is a sinister undercurrent, with our restrained protagonist gradually losing his balance as he discovers the inescapable truth behind his father’s death.

Bhardwaj creates an atmosphere that is difficult to escape. His use of background music is exemplary; there are perfect ‘in’ and ‘out’ moments for each scene. He doesn’t shy away from a brazen portrayal of Oedipal tension between mother and son, which adds a bizarre sense of duality to every character-defined action. Moreover, his interpretation of the father’s ghost is a fascinating real-world subplot that fits well in the separatist scheme of affairs.

But, with great risks come great responsibilities. It is his adherence to each of Hamlet’s old-world exaggerated plot contrivances-placing of secondary characters, songs, behavioural inconsistencies and the incompatible nature of revenge-that eventually pull down a potential masterpiece. Characters with mental demons often give the script a free license to spiral out of control.

Even in the play, Hamlet’s hesitance to kill his uncle is allegedly because his of intense internal conflict, but is stretched to accommodate further drama and an explosive climax. As strikingly filmed as the song Khul Kabhi is, the romantic track barely fits into Haider’s ongoing mental breakdown. Even Bismil, a lyrical rendition of Hamlet’s evocative play within the play, doesn’t feel right in context of the chaos that follows; confines of a literal adaptation becomes visible within these devices.

Bhardwaj’s actors once again push past their characters’ motivational issues. Shahid Kapoor is fearless, and internalises Haider’s madness against the flow of the screenplay. It is riveting to note how he almost intentionally breaks the fourth wall during the monologues. His reactions radiate confusion and heartbreak simultaneously.

Tabu and Kay Kay Menon are enthralling to watch. And even Shraddha Kapoor personifies the destruction of innocence.

A more loosely based version might have provided a better structure and unpredictability to Haider’s psychological battle. Even though the film’s flaws are largely down to the nature of work it chooses to adapt, the universe it functions in is occasionally at odds with the characters.

While this is far from his weakest effort, and better than most directors’ strongest, Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider is only his third best Shakespeare adaptation.

Update Oct.2014

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