There is much in Haider that deserves a standing ovation. Let’s start with the courage of director Vishal Bhardwaj. Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s most difficult and ambiguous texts. It’s also his longest— it takes over four hours to deliver.
Hamlet in itself is a beast to be tamed. Vishal and his co-writer, the acclaimed Kashmiri journalist Basharat Peer, transplant the play to Kashmir. It plays out against a socio-political tragedy that has been wrought over six decades and that has a Rashomon-like quality to it — the heroes and villains switch places, depending on the narrator.
The result is a film that is problematic and far too long, but also thrillingly ambitious and powerful.
The action takes place in 1995. There is something rotten in paradise. Pura Kashmir quaid khana hai, a character remarks. Haider, played by Shahid Kapoor, returns home from Aligarh.
His father, a doctor who tries to save a militant’s life, has been imprisoned by the army. His house has been razed. His mother Ghazala, played by Tabu, has moved into his uncle’s house. The air is thick with deceit. Haider the poet slowly transforms into Haider the murderer.
Haider was shot almost entirely in Kashmir, but Vishal isn’t interested in presenting the picturesque tourist spots. Instead, we see narrow lanes, unadorned homes and swathes of snow that turn red as the bodies pile up. Vishal doesn’t flinch from brutality — men are murdered and abducted by Indian forces while women weep and a strange madness envelops the land. It’s horrific.
It’s also stretched and structurally disjointed. At one point, a romantic song randomly interrupts the flow. The Kashmiri accents are inconsistent. In places the narrative meanders, and Vishal seems to be losing his grip. At times, I got restless and wondered if perhaps the makers had bitten off more than they could chew.
But the one thing that doesn’t falter is the talent. Kay Kay Menon, whose ability is wasted in films like Raja Natwarlal, returns to form as the conniving advocate who covets his brother’s wife.
Irrfan Khan, playing the militant Roohdaar, brings an unflashy competence to the story. In the beginning, Shahid seems out of his depth; this is, after all, one of the toughest roles in literature.
One that actors like Sir Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh wrestled with. But slowly Shahid comes to inhabit Haider, veering from rage to jealousy to madness in a heartbeat. And towering above them all is Tabu— the mother who aches, loves and ultimately loses.
At the heart of Haider is the love between a passionate, complex woman who seeks a sliver of happiness amidst overwhelming circumstances, and her son, who both loves her with an unnatural intensity and hates her for her betrayal of his father. Vishal handles the Oedipal undertones with exquisite daring and understanding. This relationship powers the film. Haider must be seen for this alone.
Go into the film knowing that it is problematic and unwieldy. And that it is one side of the story — Kashmiri Pundits get a token mention and, after being cast as the villain, the Indian army gets a line of praise for its handling of the floods in Kashmir.
Those are stories that perhaps other filmmakers will choose to tell. But I can guarantee that you will emerge from Haider shell-shocked. And when was the last time a Hindi film did that to you?