Monday, 6 October 2014

Movie Review - Haider

(Warning - plot spoilers ahead)

Vishal Bhardwaj's movie "Haider" that is currently the talk of the town tells two stories at once. It retells Shakespeare's Hamlet using Kashmir as the backdrop. It also tells a tale of Kashmir using Hamlet as plot framework. Which of the two stories leaps out at you depends on whether you're a student of literature or a student of political history. I'm a little bit of both, so to me, this extremely well-made movie was a double treat.

An adaptation of Hamlet, replete with the play's imagery

As an adaptation of Hamlet, the movie is fairly faithful in drawing its parallels (except for a very significant Gandhian twist at the end). As with that more light-hearted movie Bride and Prejudice, which masterfully adapted Jane Austen's work, the characters in Haider provide early hints of their roles with names that resemble those of their literary counterparts (Hamlet/Haider, Claudius/Khurram, Gertrude/Ghazala, Polonius/Pervez, Laertes/Liyaqat, etc.) Major plot milestones in the original play find an echo in the movie's storyline, and the screenplay does not seem contrived to achieve that result. One particularly brilliant parallel that fit smoothly within the film's narrative was the scene of Hamlet's remonstrations with his mother, with Polonius's interruption and his subsequent death at Hamlet's hands. Indeed,  I found myself so caught up in the Haider story that I had to consciously stop and remind myself at critical junctures about the corresponding scene from Hamlet. Not everything was a simple parallel, though. The interpretation of the old king's ghost, carrying its tale of betrayal and exhorting revenge, is particularly innovative. Trust the talented Irrfan Khan to pull that one off.

Hamlet as a play is considered a masterpiece both for what it explicitly says and for what it leaves open to interpretation. As with all of Shakespeare's great tragedies, it is also a portrait of its protagonist and the fateful character traits that define him and take the play where it goes. Haider's character is influenced both by the political environment in which he grows up (such as his friendship with classmates who have links to militants) and by his family, the towering personalities of his father and mother. A lot of what follows is then almost fated to happen.

The acting was uniformly good, and I could not single out any one actor for high praise. The characters of Haider (Hamlet), Khurram (Claudius) and Ghazala (Gertrude) were naturally complex. Shahid Kapoor, Kay Kay Menon and Tabu play those roles extremely well. This is not to say that the others were any less good. The entire cast carried off an ambitious directorial venture, the third in Vishal Bhardwaj's adaptations of Shakespeare after Omkara (Othello) and Maqbool (MacBeth).

The reason why Haider works so well as an adaptation of Hamlet is that there was in truth something rotten in the state of Kashmir in 1995. A shakespearean tragedy is a natural fit in that setting.

The tale of Kashmir told through the plot device of Hamlet is bound to be much more controversial than a mere adaptation of Hamlet to a Kashmiri setting, since Kashmir is a wound that is far from healed even today. 

I'll  write a separate post on why Kashmir provides so much rich material for Indian filmmakers, but let me end this one by saying Haider as a movie is a powerful experience for any viewer, even those unfamiliar with either Hamlet or the history of Kashmir. With its many violent and gruesome scenes, it is not for the faint of heart, but often, the most perceptive commentary on life is art. Haider is a superlative work of art. I give it 4 stars out of 5.

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