Freedom from revenge is the central theme of Vishal Bhardwaj’s mesmerising new film set in the troubled vale of Kashmir. It completes his Shakespearean trilogy after ‘Macbeth’ (Maqbool) and ‘Othello’ (Omkara) and this time the tragic protagonist is not just ‘Hamlet’ (Haider) but the Valley itself.
This is undoubtedly Bhardwaj’s most political film, which gives a voice to the local folk who seem to have been forgotten in the game of “border-border” between India and Pakistan for decades. The filmmaker brings his inimitable style to this adaptation, which stays true to the Bard but is equally at ease straying away from its confines.
Haider Meer (Shahid Kapoor) is a young boy who is emotionally blackmailed by his mother Ghazala (Tabu) into leaving his small Kashmiri town to study in Aligarh after she finds a gun in his school bag. He returns after years because his doctor father is “taken” by Indian military officials to an unknown location for aiding and abetting a militant.
Haider soon joins countless other local Kashmiris desperate for some news of their loved ones who have disappeared without a trace. His quest reveals uncomfortable truths about his uncle Khurram (Kay Kay Menon), who also seems to be getting inappropriately close to bhabhijaan (sister-in-law) Ghazala.
A conversation with Roohdaar (Irrfan Khan), purportedly his father’s close friend, serves to confuse him even further and Haider sets off on a destructive path of revenge. His only confidante is childhood sweetheart Arshee (Shraddha Kapoor), who inadvertently also gets caught up in the web of lies and deceit.
Haider’s love for his father, the betrayal of his uncle, his obsession with his mother and the pervasive gun culture of the Valley inevitably have disastrous consequences.
Bhardwaj’s genius lies in his ability to immerse himself into the milieu he chooses as the setting for his film. This time he lives and breathes Kashmir in the 1990s at the height of its troubles. It is not simply the Kashmir of breath-taking beauty, snow-capped Himalayas, the glistening river Jhelum or Emperor Jehangir’s “paradise on earth”. This is a more discomfiting Kashmir over-run by Army trucks and gun-totting officials at every corner. It is the Kashmir of constant curfews and crackdowns and half-widows who have no idea if their men folk are dead or alive.
This Kashmir is one wrought with suspicion and unease, where locals suffer from a “New Disease” that prevents them entering their own homes until a full-body search. And in the words of the poetic dialogue of the film itself: “All of Kashmir is a prison”.
As a result, it is the perfect setting for one of Shakespeare’s most tragic tales of suspicion and revenge. By the time Haider gets to his “to be or not to be” moment, we as an audience are feeling every bit of his inner turmoil. Bhardwaj has not shied away from addressing uncomfortable truths, be it the allegations of torture against the Indian Army or terror training across the border. This unflinching approach makes ‘Haider’ by far the most honest film to be made on Kashmir. It chooses not to take any sides but gives the audience a fair glimpse into the yearning for “freedom” in the region.
It is packed with some hard-hitting performances by Shahid Kapoor, Kay Kay Menon and Irrfan Khan. However, it is Tabu who upped the ante with her subdued glares and teary stares. Gertrude is one of Shakespeare’s most complex female characters and Tabu seems to have immersed herself into its darkest depths.
The dialogues are witty and despite the seriousness of the subject, even manage to inject humour thanks to some farcical Salman Khan fans and the clever unravelling of the word “chutzpah”.
The overall result is a haunting melody of a film which rings with earthy folk tunes of the region and transports you to the strife-torn paradise. It is the kind of film that will get under your skin and stay there long after you have walked out of the cinema.
A tip: Hang on through the credits to not miss the heart-warming ‘Aaj Ke Naam’ sung by Rekha Bhardwaj at her soulful best.
‘Haider’ is in UK cinemas October 2.