How many times do you get to watch a film with mainstream Bollywood actors that shun conventions such as the lavish song-and-dance routines and amplified emotions and still live to tell the tale?
Chances are pretty slim, because most directors succumb to sanitising their stories to suit popular tastes. But not director Vishal Bharadwaj. He has stoically adapted William Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet and transplanted his hero (Shahid Kapoor) from Denmark to the troubled conflict-ridden Kashmir. The era has also been updated to 1995 when insurgency was at its peak, but its core emotions — deceit, betrayal and jealousy — are still intact.
Actor Shahid Kapoor, who is known for his syrupy romances and his physical comedy, almost seems to know that he has landed the role of his lifetime. He revels in the pressure of playing Haider and gives one of his most understated performances.
In the modern Indian version, he isn’t a prince but a regular college student who has grown up watching his native land being torn apart by the India-Pakistan border conflict.
He is shown returning home after he learns of his father’s disappearance. The Indian army whisks his father away, accusing him of supporting militants. He’s on a mission to track down his father, but the haste with which his mother Ghazala (Tabu) moves on with her life and takes refuge in the arms of his uncle Khurram (Kay Kay Menon) disturbs him.
The film triumphs because of the luminous acting by this talented trio. They are all flawed and dictated by human fallacies, but the viewer is torn when it comes to taking sides. The scene in which Haider returns home after his father’s disappearance and finds his mother letting her hair down with his uncle is particularly stirring. The emotions ranging from intense jealousy to sorrow to quiet rage flashing across Kapoor’s face is a treat to watch. There’s no loud acting here, and for those 162 minutes, you forget the star baggage of any actor and enter the world of the characters they are playing. It’s unusual for Bollywood actors not to carry a bit of themselves into their roles, so this comes across as a welcome change.
The director has deftly used the show-but-don’t-tell technique when it comes to delving into the lives of Kashmiris who bore the brunt of the Indo-Pak border conflict. A particularly poignant scene, where a Kashmiri doesn’t enter his own house without being frisked, is laced with sorrow and humour. But the political and violent climate of the region doesn’t dominate the storytelling, and the scenes featuring the camps run by the Indian military to question suspects don’t seem orchestrated to extract sappy emotions.
Menon as the smarmy uncle is a revelation and Tabu, who described herself as the half-widow-turned-half-bride, makes you empathetic to her turbulent personal life. Shraddha Kapoor, who plays Haider’s lover, does her bit to support the film.
Everything about Haider is subtle: including the undertones of the infamous sexual tension between mother and son. Tabu and Kapoor surrender themselves completely to their roles and are endearingly uninhibited. The pace is never hurried, so be a bit patient and give these superbly talented actors a chance. Just like the cinematography that captures Kashmir’s rugged beauty, Haider will wow you with its raw appeal.
This is not a crash course in history or Shakespeare, but a good example of story-telling without the frills. Just go and watch it.
Film: Haider (18+)
Cast: Shahid Kapoor, Tabu, Kay Kay Menon, Shraddha Kapoor and Irrfan Khan
Director: Vishal Bharadwaj
Stars: 4 out of 5