Sunday, 5 October 2014

How To Play (With) The Famous Hamlet Scenes

The recent release of Haider, a Vishal Bharadwaj movie which happens to be a loose adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet, seems to generate a lot of debates these days. This tempted me to revisit two earlier Hamlet adaptations - one by Franco Zeffirelli in 1990 starring Mel Gibson in the lead role and the other by Michael Almereyda in 2000 starring Ethan Hawke. They had taken some liberties with the plot, action, characters and dialogues of the original play. However, the Zeffirelli version remains closer to the original in comparison both in its treatment and setting, while Almereyda has entirely modernized the play, experimenting with plot reconstruction and fully altered setting. Zeffirelli sticks to the claustrophobic stone castles, ship and meadows that are demanded in the play and sets the film in the time-space limits of the original, while Almereyda’s Hamlet is set in the 2000 New York, with the characters transformed to CEOs in the corporate world and students in the film school. Thus, the depiction and interpretation of the famous scenes of the play take entirely different dimensions in both the versions.

The ‘nunnery scene’ in Zeffirelli’s Hamlet varies slightly from the original. The lines “get thee to a nunnery” are deleted from the scene in which Hamlet meets Ophelia in the basement, pried on by the King and Queen at the behest and company of Polonius. The fact that the entire passage that starts with “get thee to a nunnery” is skipped may shock the audience as they find out that the rest of the dialogue, including the curses on Polonius that follows, are kept intact.

However, the fact that Hamlet utters it wholly in the ‘mousetrap’ scene comes as another surprise. The director might have deliberately displaced the passage to make it more dramatic, as Hamlet is shown fighting with his feelings towards Ophelia while watching the play within the play, even placing his head on her lap. In the Almereyda version, Ophelia is suspected by Hamlet as he comes across the wires that are attached to her by her father, presumably to make use of the surveillance camera that are ubiquitous in the entire movie. Hamlet has reason to suspect her, and his words “are you honest?” suffice for the long sentences that are sheared from the original and creates a very modernistic “get thee to a nunnery” gesture as he abandons her, taking her for a spy working against him with others. 

The ‘mouse-trap scene’ involves the staging of a play within a play, and Zeffirelli promptly makes a play within the movie to create the original effect. However, the aforementioned displaced dialogue by Hamlet makes it a convoluted scene, with an expressively high-decibel spectacle, made complex deliberately. The dumb show that portrays the killing of King Hamlet is watched by all, and the reaction of the king and the queen and the revelation regarding the crime are all spiced with the nunnery dialogue rendered in its passionate heights. In the Almereyda version, the mousetrap happens to be a movie that Hamlet makes in the film school comportment. The entire movie creates the mousetrap effect as the director creates many movies within the movie, including the blockbuster action scenes and the surveillance cameras that pervade the scenes. However, the staging of the mousetrap is fragmentary in this version and the film survives Hamlet’s death. The reaction of Gertrude, exhibiting guilt, overshadows Claudius’s shock and discomfort in this version.

The ‘closet scene’ in Zeffirelli’s adaptation remains truthful to the original as much as possible. However, some Freudian implications are achieved through the close-up shots where Hamlet confronts Gertrude with regard to the comparisons of King Hamlet and Claudius. Even as Gertrude shows her grief and shock with Hamlet’s revelation about the King’s murder, she takes it “the very coinage” of his brain, as she is blinded by her sins that she fails to see the ghost of her husband. In the passionate exchange of words, the film depicts Hamlet pushing Gertrude to the bed and their expressions of distress and pain are shot in such a way that it reminds the audience of a sexual union, though fragmentarily. In the Almereyda version, Gertrude is not someone who goes through the games of fate unwittingly. She is depicted as a woman suffering from alcoholism, and after the scene in which she has to confront Hamlet’s accusations, she drops him at the airport, kisses him goodbye and resorts to drinking. She is depicted as a woman who falls for her passion and the element of guilt and deliberate denial are poignantly depicted in this version than the hapless nature of a woman’s frailty, though led by animalistic passion, in the original.

The ‘mad scene’ in the Zeffirelli version is replete with the cinematic implications that add much more to the Freudian intent. Ophelia is seen as sitting on top of the queen’s throne with her feet up. In her demented state of mind, she hands over flowers to all present, including the King, Queen and Laertes. She maintains most of the singing in the original, though the director shuffles the use of song for his purposes of special effects. The scene where she leaves the castle with her “good night sweet ladies” is cut to her sitting over a bridge on the lake and Gertrude’s narration of her death is used as a voice-over, which creates an illusion of time-space, to good effect. 

However, Almereyda’s Ophelia does not sing, and she contemplates suicide on the lake in her dejected state of mind, but is found dead, mysteriously, in the Guggenheim fountain, in shallow waters. The mad scene also opens simultaneous with an art exhibition at the Guggenheim. And Gertrude’s reaction is rather of embarrassment than pain and shock in this version. 

The ‘grave-digger scene’ though edited considerably, leaving out all the dialogues between the diggers, maintains the scene where Hamlet talks to Yorick’s skull in Zeffirelli’s version. Laertes does not jump into the grave, though the confrontation between him and Hamlet is done on the graveyard itself. Mel Gibson’s passionate delivery of the dialogue, “Forty thousand brothers/ Could not with all their quantity of love/Make up my sum” revives the emotions and rage from the original. In Almereyda’s version, the grave-digger scene is conspicuously absent, and there had been a considerable amount of criticism against this and the hurried and unnatural sword-fight in the end and the sudden use of guns, all deviating from the modernistic depiction which was maintained all through the movie. 

Which among the two versions is to be preferred is not really a good question, as both have their reasons to be what they are. I appreciate the way Almereyda cleverly juxtaposes the different modern gadgets and electronic possibilities to tell the story of Hamlet to the present generation. And he has also succeeded in that to a great extent, with the help of an excellent cast with Ethan Hawke as Prince Hamlet, Kyle Mac Lachlan as Claudius, Diane Venora as Gertrude, Bill Murray as Polonius and Julia Stiles as Ophelia. However, those who have read the original Hamlet of Shakespeare and seen a few adaptations that stick to the time-space elements as much as possible and expect a similar experience may not be much impressed by the Almereyda version's too many subversions. Most of the emotional and psychological conflicts and the cathartic effect they might expect from a Hamlet adaptation might be missing there, perhaps due to the casual way in which the dialogues are delivered, and the presence of a lot of clever attempts of adaptation to the modern time that the director tries hard to bring in. The strong-point of the movie is perhaps its daring attempt to spot a Hamlet story in fully modern setting and to tell it using modern narrative methods.

Zeffirelli’s Hamlet, though it was cut down to just two and a half hours, and did manage with just the punch lines, might be the one much closer to the original, if you are looking for that. The soulful performances by Mel Gibson as Hamlet, Alan Bates as Claudius, Glenn Close as Gertrude, Helena Bonham-Carter as Ophelia and Ian Holm as Polonius and their impeccable dialogue delivery and costumes can be sufficient enough to lift the audience to lofty levels of introspection the way Shakespeare plays do. The subversions are mostly limited to some scene and dialogue reversions, and it does not affect the general tone and tempo of the movie, and rather makes it accessible to the present-generation with its balanced treatment of the plot, scene-setting, dialogue and action. 

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Haider - Some Chutzpah For The Wavering Prince

What is the ultimate tragedy in Shakespeare's Hamlet? Some say it's obviously the Prince's inability to take a decision. As we know, he is torn between two world views - the one his existence as the prince of Denmark demands, and the other the one he acquires from his education and exposure to the worlds beyond. He makes his entry not as a mere poetry-spitting dandy, but a deeply philosophical, self-reflective young man troubled by what has gone wrong with the world. But what is The Tragedy in the end? Is it just the fact that his procrastination and late realizations have led to an unavoidable scene in the final act - a stage scattered with dead bodies of friends and foes? And the fact that he has to be dead too - because, ahem, he's not fit for the role of a king anymore with a shattered mind? For me, it's better that he dies that way, as he won't be the Hamlet we relate to, if he overcame the trauma and became a Machiavellian Prince. I can't imagine him sitting there with an analytical mind, taking large chunks of personal and public morality in his hands and chopping them to neat dry cubes to be kept safe in their separately assigned boxes, as he 'rules' happily ever after.

But there is a greater tragedy there if we transfer the whole story to a later stage in history, a specific time and space. That is the predicament of Vishal Bhardwaj's movie Haider, a free adaptation of the play. A screenplay by the celebrated Kashmiri writer Basharat Peer and Bhardwaj himself has its setting as the Kashmir of the mid 1990s. Haider is a student returning home from Aligarh, after hearing about his father taken away by the paramilitary force for alleged links to militants. Like many such men, his father has 'disappeared'. Haider is just half-way through his research studies in the University and comes back to see his house in ruins and his mother looked after by his uncle. That sets the scene for the drama, for he clearly wants to find out the truth behind his father's disappearance, and he is ready for revenge. The tragedy here is that the two choices he has are not real choices - because, as his mother says, revenge breeds more revenge in his little piece of paradise, and there is no scope for a peaceful redemption of the land, in the near or distant future. Here, the ultimate tragedy would be Haider ending up as a deranged murderer hunted by all, as he is a prince only metaphorically and his land is already a lost battle, even before he was born. There are already foes pretending to be friends trying to rule the land and the minds, and their strong/strange/ghostly presence could not be wished away with random acts of so-called heroism. That calls for some chutzpah then, even if it's of a self-destructive nature. And it's Vishal Bhardwaj who rises up to take that challenge and make Haider the real hero of the times, at the cost of giving his audiences sleepless nights - if they care for the tears, and blood, and unfulfilled desires the snow-covered valley absorbs.

Apart from the character of Haider played out so well by Shahid Kapoor, there are a handful of actors here who could meet the usual challenges, and more, of a Shakespearean play.Tabu is the obvious choice for the role of Haider's mother, and if her performance doesn't surprise you, it is because she has already proven her talent in many other movies. She is the perfect fit for Ghazala, as she could portray her moments of misery, grief, love and lust so convincingly. Shraddha Kapoor portrays Arshia so well, and it is in fact a lengthier and more demanding role than the conventional ones of Ophelia prototypes. Kay Kay Menon as Haider's uncle Khurram, Irrfan Khan as the mysterious Roohdaar/Messenger/Ghost and Narendra Jha as Haider's father Dr. Hilal Meer do great justice to their roles. Another strongpoint worth mentioning is how the music director-turned-film-director Vishal Bhardwaj uses the remarkable songs of Haider to keep all its themes together so skilfully in an invisible string. There is even a theatrical-dance-puppet performance that serves the purpose of the mousetrap scene of Hamlet

Some may ask whether the movie would work for those who aren't familiar with the works of Shakespeare. I feel it would, though I can't say whether it would be on a higher or lower level than those who can't shake the Shakespeare out of their existence. I saw the movie in a small theatre hall in Trivandrum and the audience comprised mostly of a few young North Indian students/employees and a lot of migrant workers who were clearly rooting for Shahid Kapoor and the plot (abandoning the other big Hritik Roshan movie playing in the much bigger hall in the same theatre complex). I could sense how well the transformation of Haider was received, and how all the jokes and philosophical bits worked for all in the same manner, no matter whether they knew their Hamlet or not. I could even decipher a few well timed sighs and gasps.

Each film director would have a favourite spot in the 'original' work when they think of an adaptation. Here that spot turns out to be the complex relationship between Haider and his mother, with its added layers in the Indian context. The scenes in which both of them appear together are replete with a lot of tension, and then relief, and then tension again. They do exploit each other a lot emotionally, shamelessly, as mothers and sons do. Something quite similar in the movie is the way Arshia and her father are depicted. It's all a great risk, I agree, as the overall approach is not to be mistaken as melodramatic. The director manages, somehow, to plod his way back to the central themes even as he spends some extra seconds on the digressions he holds close to his heart. I couldn't observe any lapses in editing or signs of confusion in Bhardwaj's narration. He knows his Hamlet well enough, and knows exactly what he is trying to do with it in his movie - that's what I felt. 

There is a difficult part that has to be addressed as well. Haider is set in a time when forced identities existed as a fear in the minds of people. Now it is a reality. Things haven't improved, but deteriorated drastically. There are even disputes and violence over how the place names in Kashmir should or should not appear in the Indian map. People get thrashed, killed, or worse still, treated as traitors on a daily basis for just being themselves. The fact that there has to be one-liners and afterwords to the work of art in an attempt to appease the different 'parties' involved in the time-space aspects of the story should make one reflect on the challenges that existed, and haven't vanished yet, from the times of Shakespeare - regarding the freedom of expression. Much like the bard who played around with what he was supposed to say through some characters without compromising much on his central themes, Bhardwaj overcomes some of the political risks with a few compromises. Discerning audiences just have to rise up to the challenge of seeing what is really the part of the film's original vision, and what its unnecessary appendages are.