Director: Vishal Bhardwaj
Writers: William Shakespeare (Based on Hamlet), Basharat Peer, Vishal Bhardwaj
Cast: Shahid Kapoor, Tabu, Kay Kay Menon
A young man returns to Kashmir after his father's disappearance. As he seeks answers for his father's disappearance, he ends up being tugged into the politics of his state which is reflected in his family as well with his uncle being on the other side of it. It is a modern day adaptation of William Shakespeare's 'Hamlet', set amidst the insurgency-hit Kashmir conflicts of 1995 and civilian disappearances.
I haven't read Hamlet or, in fact, any other works of William Shakespeare and my only familiarity with his works is through the film adaptations that I have seen. To be honest, I don't remember many of them either because of my unfamiliarity with Shakespeare's work and the only one I can say for sure is Akira Kurosawa's 'Ran', which is supposed to be an adaptation of 'King Lear'. Haider is supposed to be the third one in Vishal Bhardwaj's Shakespearean trilogy with the other two being 'Maqbool' and 'Omkara', both of which I have not seen. In fact I haven't seen any of the films from the director prior to this.
The film doesn't shy away from showing what happened/is happening in Kashmir and doesn't try to portray Indian state and its army in a good light. I was pleasantly surprised by the frankness with which it dealt with those issues without having to add caveats everywhere. The only time that it does is during the end credits where it says it has been relative peace there during recent times and Indian Army did great work during the recent Kashmir floods. It is a testament to the democratic credentials of Indian state that we allow such films even though there were some twitter campaign asking for the boycott of this film. I also doubt whether such films will be tolerated in the immediate future under the current right-wing regime as they have installed people from their nationalistic/jingoistic fold into the film certification board since.
Coming back to the film, the first two-thirds of it is just great up till the wedding scene of Haider's mother and his conniving uncle. Then the director decides to go full Bollywood on us using a song sequence in which Haider dances to a song, whose lyrics tells the tale of betrayal in a laughably melodramatic fashion. From then on the film involves too many twists and turns, all of which leaves us feeling a bit jarred by the experience. Still, there are some great scenes during that as well. I don't know if the director decided for all these convolutions to stay true to the original play but it doesn't feel like a tragedy at the end.
I read up a bit on the character 'Hamlet' from wikipedia and it seems he is someone with philosophical & psychological complexity. You don't expect all of that in a film adaptation which is constrained by other factors like making it work in a modern sense. Still, the director manages to add things like iconic dialog of 'To be or Not to be' and the Oedipal relationship between Hamlet/Haider and his mother. The latter is quite subtle in the initial stages of the film but reveals itself fully prior to the wedding when the mother (Tabu) reminisce that when he was younger, he used to say that he would marry her when he grows up. Freud had analysed these aspects in Hamlet by stating that Hamlet's hesitation in killing his uncle was due to his desire for his mother and was sub-consciously thankful to his uncle for getting rid of his father. To that level, the film doesn't go since Haider is shown to be too fond of his father and some silly religious reasoning is given in that scene where he spares his uncle.
Overall, Haider is a pretty good watch even though its first half is much superior to its rather average second half. Cinematography is excellent, capturing the beauty of Kashmir well in a realistic fashion without resorting to 'tourist post cards' kind of methods, and is well-acted on the whole. Tabu's character is given the most complexity and she carries it well. Haider/Hamlet is quite binary. Irrfan Khan has an extended special appearance and the first instance when he arrives on screen, just before interval, is kick-ass. They have used/stole the initial bit from Moby's 'Extreme Ways', from the Bourne Series, during couple of pivotal scenes which didn't work at all because of my familiarity with that piece of music. There is also a nice reference to 'The Godfather' with the hiding of pistol behind the flush tank scene. Prakash Jha could learn something from that scene because that is how you do it in a subtle manner in stead of his 'References Overload' in 'Rajneeti'. Haider was on the whole a financial and critical success, earning five national awards as well as some international ones. Good to see a mature Indian film set in Kashmir dealing with the politics of it without being manipulative at all.