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.