Starring: Shahid Kapoor, Shraddha Kapoor, Tabu, Kay Kay Menon, Narendra Jha, Lalit Parimoo, Khulbhooshan Kharbanda, Irrfan Khan
Directed by: Vishal Bharadwaj
I’m beginning this review with a tinge of heaviness in my heart. For in the last few years, I’ve repeatedly tried and fantastically failed to read a single noteworthy Shakespeare. Notwithstanding my general deterioration of attention span, which Young Adult novels have so promptly bagged and used to build readership for their jerkily constructed and loophole-wrought fantasies, I haven’t gotten over my laziness successfully enough to sit with classic, thesaurus, dictionary, guide, pencil and enjoy a Julius Caesar. Also, coffee. So, I switch on my television to a skull-brandishing Shahid Kapoor and click “Play Movie”, with no insight into Hamlet except a layman smattering.
Quarter to three hours later, my mind boasts of an unnerving buzz and my feet have gone cold. I want to get myself a glass of water, but I can’t bring myself to pause a crooning, haunting Rekha Bharadwaj singing about Kashmir and its devastation against the classic curtain of end credits. For Vishal Bharadwaj’s youngest child is also his most-pampered, most-nurtured and consequently most rewarding. That, compared to the delicious Maqbool and Omkara that screamed creativity and took the bard’s works by storm. I’m not the least abashed in saying that Haider is Bharadwaj’s best movie in his career, and in hindsight, the most precious movie of 2014.
“Whose side are you on?” An angst-ridden Tabu asks her husband as he prepares to operate on a critically ill militant, inside his own house. “The side that has life,” he replies. The only character with an unwavering opinion, predictably whisked into security custody soon after. This one preluding scene speaks volumes about the ambiguity that is about to follow.
Shahid almost disappointed me in his first few acts. He entered poetically, emerging from within a tunnel along with the name of the movie (and we learn soon after that Haider is actually a poet, a passion he shares with his late father), but his subsequent reaction to his father’s disappearance seemed out-of-place and weirdly restrained. Shraddha Kapoor, normally several notches below him in acting calibre looked more at home with her Kashmiri environment than her childhood-friend-turned-lover. All of these premature misgivings were banished as soon as Kapoor reunited with his mother Ghazala (Tabu/Gertrude), who was now staying with her brother-in-law Khurram (Kay Kay Menon/Claudius). In an anaesthetic and slow-burning dose of drama, Bharadwaj immediately establishes what this movie is centrally about- the unnatural closeness between Tabu and her relative by marriage.
Haider tramples fresh grass- it goes where too few Bollywood movies dare to go- beyond the eye-candy beauty of Ladakh, the sweet and goofy tourist guides of Srinagar and the lionlike mountains of Anantnag, and into the jarring actuality of a gore-ridden ruin the city had become those days. Even the colourful and aesthetically positive scenes are unmistakeably bordered by a lining of anguish and impending destruction. What Kolkata was for Kahaani, Kashmir is for Haider- a second and much more prominent heroine to our protagonist.
The political overtones are another child of Bharadwaj’s creative exercise; the few shots that show the Kashmir state elections are handled deftly and come off as surprisingly breezy. It is clear that the plot wants to stay away from the political heavy-handedness that usually smothers every Bollywood movie made in a controversial premise. It was this deftness and negligence, perhaps, that let Haider see the light of the day without ruffling any MNS feathers or being censored into a vine.
Of all the things that I expected to see in Haider, a fan-following of Salman Khan definitely wasn’t one. This was before Khan sprayed blood onto the footpath, so all that came into mind from his name was a goofy self-proclaimed actor who is worshipped beyond rhyme and reason by the masses. But Salman and Salman, two namesakes that share the frenzy elicited by the star into the Indian audience, were a reanimation of sorts. They diluted the drama, minimized the stakes, soothed the throbbing temples and incidentally provided one of the biggest laughs of the movie.
They were more than comic reliefs, though. Like everyone else, they weren’t put to waste by the brilliant screenwriters. They served as examples of two dull-headed blokes who never picked a side in the war, and eventually paid for it.
Speaking of binaries, we have Kay Kay Menon, master of the two-faced villain, qualities that, in the movie, are unfairly attributed to Tabu’s Ghazala. But she deserves them more, I guess. I’m reserving her for later, so let’s talk about Kay Kay’s Khurram. Khurram is your proverbial street-smart goon-in-the-making who is madly attracted to Ghazala. When the latter runs to him in times of personal distress, he doesn’t have any scruples in embarrassing her as well as his father (Khulbhooshan Kharbanda in a delightful cameo) with his snide remarks on her sexual attractiveness. It’s not at all one-sided, though, for the movie always teeters between shades of grey. Here too, Khurram finds his passion subtly reciprocated by Ghazala, who gives her ‘Devar’ a hug that is far from platonic.
When Haider comes back from higher studies in Aligarh, we see that Khurram has matured too. He’s made a mask for himself; a mask of a caring uncle and a helpful brother-in-law that can draw nothing but sympathetic smiles from people. We quickly become aware of his underlying perversity, but it is only post-interval that we realise he is actually the villain and the killer of Haider’s father. As the movie escalates and Haider becomes increasingly paranoid, Khurram peels off his façade bit by bit- much to the horror of Ghazala. In the very end, when Haider has a gun to Khurram’s forehead, he returns to the piteous younger brother that he always was and, in a fit of remorse, screams out ‘Bhaijaan!’ into the skies. A beautiful arc that illustrates the futility of trying to be someone other than what nature has made you.
What shall I speak of the magical and haunting Tabu, the veteran actress who, in a role that isn’t the most important one in the book, stands a clear foot above every other actor, junior artist or prop? Her Ghazala is melodramatic and malevolent, vulnerable and scheming, incomplete and full all at once. The Oedipal bond between Haider and Ghazala, a key point in the book, is touched upon with such straightforwardness and yet, delicacy that adult viewers as well as younger moviegoers will harbour no doubt in their minds, the former about its existence and the latter about the lack thereof. Her face when Haider kisses her neck as she’s dressing for the wedding stayed with me for two whole nights. So did the moment in the climax when she fleetingly lets her primacy take over and kisses Haider on the lips. She lights up a scene with her mere presence, and takes every main character’s world by storm. In a movie that delights in bombs and headshots, Tabu brings in deceit and malignance, perhaps even more than Khurram. Her emotional ambiguity personifies the whole movie, definitely making her the primary reason to watch the film.
Shraddha doesn’t get much to do, but she excels in whatever she does. Her Kashmiri accent is a little over-the-top, but permissibly accurate.
Irrfan’s suave Roohdar has an interesting cameo. He plays his part well and gets THE BEST soundtrack in the whole movie. His role, however, is too removed from the core conflict to leave much of an impression. Unless you count the soundtrack, of course. It’s THE BEST. Lol.
Speaking of music, Haider has a mixed bag that nevertheless leans towards stellar. The star of the show, “Aao Na”, a rock song sung by Vishal Dadlani is sadly absent in the movie. A folksy version of it, called “So Jao” nevertheless marks one of the most memorable scenes of the reel- the gravediggers’ song. “Jhelum” is a definite Puriya Dhanashree (sorry, classical babble), that doesn’t really hold up on its own, but when enjoyed with the movie, creates the desired bleakness. “Aaj Ke Naam” is probably the only lullaby that managed to soothe me with its poetic accounts of bloodshed and widowhood. ” Khul Kabhi Toh” is a surprise number sung by- wait for it- Arijit! I did not expect him in a non-mainstream movie for some reason. The placement of this song is a little inappropriate, injecting unnecessary romance in a period of rapidly intensifying drama. But the song itself makes up for it.
Hamlet allusions lie all over the place like Kashmiri snow. The ‘to be or not to be’ reference is spoofed and sieved and translated and ground and scattered throughout, and it is euphoric to spot its various insinuations at different points in the film’s length. The essence of Hamlet’s speech is directly lifted and morphed into a breathtaking composition by the evergreen Gulzar, recited passionately by Shahid while lying in bed with his love. The aforementioned gravedigger scene and Shahid’s talk with a skull are also direct lift-ups. It’s not correct to call them rip-offs, because one, Shakespeare has been credited, and two, there is absolutely no dearth of originality in the way his familiar plotline is executed.
Aesthetically memorable, poetically groundbreaking, emotionally inundating and musically satisfying, Haider is a fascinatingly infrequent take on a relevant issue by Indian cinema, political or otherwise. Directed, co-written, scored and even partially sung by the multi-dextrous Vishal Bharadwaj, the classic tale of a depressed young lad in search of his father has never received better consolidation. A complete triumph.