I have a small personal connection with Hamlet.Its character Ophelia and her death is the subject of a sublime painting by Sir John Everett Millais. It is my Mona Lisa and hangs at the Tate in London UK but I had a memorable encounter with it at the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam in 2008. So my first reaction was to see Vishal Bhardwaj’s treatment of Ophelia’s death when I learned that Haider is an adaptation of Hamlet, which has been described as the world’s most filmed story after Cinderella.Mr Bhardwaj does not oblige with that scene but how does it matter if Haider is based on Shakespeare’s play.Well actually it does, there is considerable cachet in having William Shakespeare in your writing credits and it does not cost a dime.This is not a literary adaptation in the vein of Kenneth Branagh but a film that aspires to entertain and intellectually stimulate us the way Maqbool and Omkara did.
Mr Bhardwaj makes an omelette out of Hamlet and a hearty masala omelette at that.After his brilliant last film Matru Ki Bijli Ka Mandola failed to get the mainstream audience excited (it was a political satire which few bothered to decode, my review is here: https://mostlycinema.com/2013/01/13/matru-ki-bijlee-ka-mandola2013/), he dumbs down his content to give us a film that is surely one of the lesser work in his repertoire. Themes of existentialism and a Oedipus complex are the defining motifs of Shakespeare’s text and Mr Bhardwaj tries to play with both with mixed results.
Haider(Shahid Kapoor) toys with the word “chutzpah” throughout the film, and it is exactly this chutzpah which is lacking in the first half of the film.The second half is considerably more faithful to the text of Hamlet which makes for riveting drama, while it spends most of the first half easing us into the unfamiliar territory of Kashmir and introducing us to the characters in a rather unimaginative way. Let me illustrate this unevenness with an example. When Haider returns home to find that it has been bombed and reduced to a charred wooden shell, he rummages in the ashes to fish out some personal objects which are conveniently placed for him to discover.This scene is highly melodramatic and contrived.We return again to the same burnt house in the second half and this time its a masterfully shot scene which transforms the bombed home into a potent metaphor for Kashmir itself.
How did Kashmir become what it has and what is the solution? It is an almost impossible question for any film to answer especially with the immense constraints of a Bollywood studio production and getting past the censors. The real dilemma and existential angst is not that of Haider but Vishal Bhardwaj himself. He is eminently qualified to make a serious political film, his inclination and aptitude were on full display in his last film.This time Mr Bhardwaj has collaborated on the screenplay with a noted Kashmiri journalist Basharat Peer, who I suspect had a greater role in penning the first half of the screenplay, which provides most of the political context. It even smuggles in a reference to the plebiscite promised by Nehru but became another broken promise in a long chain of mishaps.
The film emphasises the hypothesis that the average Kashmiri just wants to live a normal life and is fed up of being a pawn between Islamabad and Delhi.Any public figure in India who talks about a pragmatic and fair solution to Kashmir is immediately branded unpatriotic.How much better does it make us than the Pakistani generals who keep the valley on boil to feed their hunger for power?
The film has several inspired moments like the Bismillah song which is superbly integrated with the narrative.It is an ingenious stand in for the “play within a play” conceit which Shakespeare uses to allow Hamlet to determine if Claudius indeed murdered his father. It pleasantly reminded me of the films of Julie Taynor who has spectacularly adapted three of Shakespeare’s plays.Haider is a lavishly mounted production with tons of visible hard work and is a feast for the senses.
While Hamlet is the tragedy of a man and his family, Haider strives to be about the tragedy of an entire people.The trouble is, that the protagonist is supposed to be the lens through which we see the Kashmir problem, but a hero who applies perfume on his mothers beautiful neck and kisses it sensuously among many other grave character flaws, fails to arouse the right kind of sympathy. Hopefully it will have the minimal impact of sensitizing stupid journalists who thrust microphones into faces of drowning Kashmiri’s and ask them if they are “finally” grateful to the Indian Army for saving their lives.Tragedies are meant to arouse empathy and provide catharsis, Haider provides entertainment.