Few films in India are capable of generating as much excitement as a Vishal Bhardwaj film does. Fewer have the ability to polarize audience reactions as a Vishal Bhardwaj film does. There couldn't be a better example than his 2013 rural rock-and-roll, political satire Matru Ki Bijli Ka Mandola, a brilliant film that left viewers both befuddled and exhilarated.
Haider, his third Shakespeare adaptation (Hamlet) after Maqbool (Macbeth) and Omkara (Othello), is likely to face a very similar fate. This film is the story of love, betrayal, despair, loss, politics and revenge set against the backdrop of Kashmir. It follows Haider, a straight-faced simpleton student who returns to his home in Kashmir, only to discover that his life will be turned around completely.
Picking Kashmir as the canvas for adapting Hamlet requires balls. Kashmir as a topic has remained largely untouched since Vidhu Vinod Chopra's Mission Kashmir. But like that film, Haider isn't really trying to take a stand about the situation there. Instead, it wants to narrate how living in the "heaven on earth" impacts you, how it changes you, how it can turn your life to hell. It is a documentation of how this tragedy has consumed the lives of both the dead and the living. And who better to tell the tale than Vishal Bhardwaj.
Vishal Bhardwaj makes Haider a carnival of criminals, where nobody is innocent. He lines up a bevy of absurd characters and situations, but not to the point of appearing cartoonish. Only he could imagine Hamlet with a pair of video store owners who happen to be the biggest Salman Khan fans and mimics. Only he could think up a scene where gravediggers indulge in a group song while... well, digging graves.
But the absurdity never comes at the cost of the film. He makes the film just as he had intended to: dark, glum, bleak, dreary, morbid, extremely violent and, like everything else he does, poetic. The songs are poetic, the lovemaking is poetic, the explosions are poetic, the deaths are poetic and the climatic justice for the characters is poetic. Nobody explores the dark side of human emotion like Bhardwaj, except maybe Anurag Kashyap (though not as successfully).
But while the film may be dark and dreary, it isn't inaccessible. You feel for the characters, never mind whether they're good or bad. You feel their happiness, their wallowing, their loss, their heartache. And this is what allows Bhardwaj to build tension as thick as frozen yoghurt. He has you shaking your legs, leaning forward in your seat, sitting in rapt attention. He makes a ringing phone as exciting as an IPL match.
On the down side, ambition and indulgence go hand-in-hand. There are parts where you can feel the director's indulgence. The pace lags in portions, and at a running length of almost 3 hours, you're basically testing the patience of viewers who are not the biggest fans of his earlier work.
Shahid Kapoor stuns you with the maturity of his act. Finally not saddled with an obnoxious character, he runs wild across the screen, portraying Haider with the complexity that the character needed. He has probably reserved all his great performances for collaborations with Vishal Bhardwaj (Kaminey in 2009), although who doesn't. Tabu is back on screen after a hiatus and she is an absolute delight. Her outbursts, her protectiveness towards her son and finally her resignation to her fate, everything appears brilliantly authentic. With this kind of talent, you can actually afford to be choosy, I guess.
After a long time, Kay Kay Menon finally gets a character that he deserves and a character that deserves him. He looks fabulously unburdened and is absolutely riveting. His character isn't as obviously villainous as most villains in other films are made out to be, and he plays his part with the perfect amount of subtlety. Shraddha Kapoor doesn't get on your nerves like she did in Ek Villain, so that's a win for her. Irrfan Khan and Ashish Vidyarthi are impressive in extended guest appearances.
Vishal Bhardwaj is that guy in your school who always tops academically, is on the cricket team, the debate team and even the event-organizing team. He's also the guy who likes to do things exactly as he wants to do them, without outside interference. For this film, he's the producer, director, co-writer (with Basharat Peer), dialogue writer and the music composer. He not only has the vision (available in abundance around the world), but the required skill and deftness to execute such tricky material as well (much more scarce). He does everything with the sleight of hand, never trying to hammer home a point or trying to sneak in his own propaganda. He is, undoubtedly, the numero uno director for the thinking audience.
Like I said before, Haider is likely to be met by divisive reactions. It isn't everyone's cup of tea. The body count is extremely high (there are more corpses above ground than there are buried below it) and the film is dark and edgy to the point of excluding people. It is, after all, a Shakespearean tragedy. If this doesn't interest you, you might want to look elsewhere for a "Bang" for your buck. On the other hand, if this is your kind of cinema, you won't find a better way to spend 3 hours of your life.
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