“Haider”… Very well made, if a tad too footnote-heavy – but why ‘Hamlet’?

Posted on October 4, 2014

73


Spoilers ahead…

It’s possible to imagine an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet without the balcony scene – not ideal, but conceivable. Julius Caeasar, too, you could probably rewrite without Mark Antony’s appeal to friends, Romans and countrymen. But a rendering of Hamlet without the prince’s most famous soliloquy is unthinkable. Even those who haven’t read the play know those opening words, which have percolated so deep into culture that Arnold Schwarzenegger has taken a crack at it. In Last Action Hero, he played Hamlet in a dream scene structured like a generic action-movie trailer. The voiceover, in that familiar mix of velvet and gravel, intones: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark, and Hamlet is takin’ out the trash.” Indeed. After hurling Claudius out of a stained glass window, this Hamlet lights up a cigar and ponders, “To be, or not to be…” He decides the latter option is better and blows up the castle at Elsinore. What a piece of work is this man.

Other interpreters of Hamlet, mercifully, weren’t tempted to weave explosions into their words, which they rightfully regarded as an implosion. Both Laurence Olivier (in his Oscar-winning version) and Innokenty Smoktunovsky (in the 1964 Russian adaptation) delivered the soliloquy while gazing on restless waves, perhaps taking inspiration from the “sea of troubles” later in the speech. Mel Gibson, in Franco Zeffirelli’s vividly cinematic outing, muttered these lines in a crypt, while walking past sarcophagi – a reminder of “that sleep of death” that weighs heavily on his mind. Kenneth Branagh, who presented the play intact, at nearly four hours, spoke his lines to a mirror – and what better staging for all this self-reflection? Ethan Hawke, playing Hamlet as a film student, mumbled these words while wandering through the “Action” section of a video store – a wicked joke, considering that he is, at this point, the epitome of inaction.

Hosted by imgur.com

In Vishal Bhardwaj’s (very loose) adaptation of the play – set in 1995, in Srinagar – Haider/Hamlet (Shahid Kapoor) expresses this dilemma most explicitly after making love to Arshia/Ophelia (Shraddha Kapoor, looking quite lost). A soliloquy, thus, is transformed into a part of a conversation. And that, pretty much, sums up Haider. An extremely interior play is opened up, and an extremely solipsistic hero is remade into a politically aware youth who engages with the outside world as much as he battles the torments within. (At different points, the dilemma also becomes a public protest: “Hum hain ki nahin.”) Like Hamlet, Haider is away at college during the events that kick-start the story, but unlike Hamlet, Haider has been sent away because while at school he’d begun to hang out with militants. His mother Ghazala/Gertrude hopes that he will calm down once he’s out of Kashmir, in some place where there’s “na din pe pehre hain, na raat pe taale” – I wish the film had found space for more such poetry; though I must also confess that without subtitles, I was a tad lost with some of the Urdu dialogue – but that doesn’t happen. There too (he’s at Aligarh Muslim University), his research paper is on Revolutionary Poets of British India. That his militant spark hasn’t been extinguished is evident in the scene where he returns to Srinagar and is stopped at a check post. When asked where his home is, he says, “Islamabad.” He’s needling the authorities. Islamabad is another name for Anantnag. But even otherwise, he keeps threatening to go “across the border” for training.

Haider is back because his father Hilal/King Hamlet (an excellent Narendra Jha) has gone missing. Everything’s a metaphor here, so let’s begin with the fact that Hilal is a physician. When Haider is being sent away, Hilal protests that that isn’t the cure for this “illness” (“is marz ki dawa nahin”). Hilal is a kind man who believes in restoring his “ill” hometown to health, and he doesn’t care if the patient is a civilian or a militant. And when he ends up treating a militant, it’s for appendicitis – something’s got to be removed if health is to be restored. Haider, initially, is constantly seen with a backpack – and who’s to say that that’s not the baggage he’s lugging around? As for Ghazala, when we first meet her she’s telling children what a home is, something with “brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers…” That’s not just any home; that’s Kashmir. When Hilal is taken away by the army, his home is incinerated by rocket launchers because his militant-patient is inside, tucked away behind a secret cupboard (this scene is echoed at the end; only now, Haider is the “militant” who’s being targeted with rocket launchers) – and when Haider reaches Srinagar and asks Arshia to take him home, she tells him, “Tumhare ghar mein ghar jaisa kuch bacha nahin hai.” The home he knew – the Kashmir he knew – doesn’t exist anymore. The Dal lake sojourns are a thing of the past. This is a Kashmir where you’d rather be thrown into jail because the alternative is worse – you could “disappear.”

In Hamlet, Shakespeare hit the ground running. The ghost appears. The treachery is made known. Revenge is sought. The plot wasn’t/isn’t as important as the poetry. But in Haider, the “ghost” (Roohdar, played by Irrfan Khan) appears only at interval point (and what a grand appearance it is). So the play, as we know it, is mostly crammed into the second half, while the first half concentrates on presenting a “realistic” picture of the situation in Kashmir. (Note the title design: white and red, signifying blood on snow.) We are schooled about the happenings at Laal Chowk, about specific military operations conducted almost exclusively by South Indians (one of them oddly named “Nagrajan”), about the need to look at things from other points of view (though the film, understandably, looks at the barbarous Indian Army solely through the eyes of the Kashmiris). Khurram/Claudius (Kay Kay Menon, who’s fine, but sometimes caught “acting”) isn’t automatically in power – he has to be elected by people. Haider’s madness is ascribed to a proper medical condition: post-traumatic stress disorder. Even with the characters, Haider takes great pains to flesh out everything – even what’s taken for granted in the play. (Shakespeare knew what his audiences wanted, and it wasn’t backstory.) Khurram has had a crush on Ghazala… from his college days. Haider has had a crush on his mother… since his childhood. He has been writing love poems to Arshia… since his schooldays. Rosencrantz (or is it Guildenstern… as both are named Salman, after their favourite hero?) claims that he knows Haider… from Class XII. There’s a thin line between information and too much information – and with Haider, sometimes, we feel it’s the latter.

This level of detail – orientation, really – is important in a book. Indeed, Basharat Peer, who co-wrote the screenplay with Bhardwaj, is the author of one such book, Curfewed Night. But in a film, these specifics, unless dramatised sharply, come off like footnotes. (And we know when the dramatisation is sharp – as in the superb scene where a civilian refuses to enter his home unless he is frisked. This single moment shows us what an entire populace has been reduced to.) Mani Ratnam gets a lot of flak for “simplifying” the politics in his films, but he does so in order to concentrate on the human drama, which is always at the forefront. And if you’re making your film the “Indian way,” smoothing down thorny issues with a pat message at the end (as opposed to art-house foreign cinema, where you needn’t consider the audience at all), that’s probably the best approach.

With all this attempt at being realistic, the melodramatic/fantastical elements of Hamlet – the real meat, if you will – come off looking forced, as if they were shoehorned in simply because there needed to be parallels to the play. Roohdar should have been a chilling spectral presence; instead, he’s the abstracted spirit of Kashmir. (“Main tha, main hoon, aur main hi rahoonga.”) The “Alas, poor Yorick!” moment makes little sense because we have here not an existential Hamlet, scratching his chin over ontological puzzles, but a political Haider, who’s being inflamed by militants. Liaquat/Laertes (an excellent Aamir Basheer, who might have made a better Haider, good though Shahid Kapoor is) is defanged – he’s no longer the righteously angered nemesis, merely a symbol of the educated Kashmiri youth who were fortunate enough to escape and find well-paying jobs in MNCs outside the state. Haider’s madness is unconvincing, as are some of the play’s conceits – Khurram’s confession after being outed by Haider, for instance. The guilt appears tacked on. Also, how does Haider’s father know that his brother seduced his wife? As a ghost, he’d know, of course – but as a man?

And the outré song sequences jostle uneasily within this framework. The play-within-the-play is now a song – and it’s exquisitely choreographed (watch out for the slow zoom into Haider’s questing face as the dancers around him leap about in an apparent imitation of the roiling Jhelum) – but is this how Haider would go about “realistically” ascertaining his stepfather’s guilt? The gravediggers’ song is worse – it looks comical. But this may be the result of songs no longer fitting smoothly into Bhardwaj’s universe. There was a time – say, around Omkara – where he was less self-conscious about filming music videos to convey emotion. That Bhardwaj would have incorporated Gulon mein rang bhare – the Faiz ghazal; it’s on the soundtrack album, marvellously tuned by Bhardwaj himself – into the flashback establishing the loving bond between the young Haider and Hilal, but here we just have the characters idly humming these lines. These days, Bhardwaj’s song sequences, save for a blandly filmed, utterly conventional duet between Arshia and Haider, come in mostly in quotation marks.

In fact, quite a bit of the film comes in quotation marks, if you’ve been following Bhardwaj’s recent work. The Salmans (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) look like characters who’ve been abducted from an Anurag Kashyap movie. Then there’s the wordplay Bhardwaj has become so fond of – he rhymes “chutzpah” with “AFSPA” (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) – along with pop-culture nods. (Arshia: Yeh kya haal bana rakha hai? Haider: Kuch lete kyon nahin?) He brings in a reference about birds of prey and later has Haider prancing around in a bird mask. At one point, I thought I saw, at a corner of a militant’s hideout, a bowl containing carrots and cauliflower. We all prefer different phases of a filmmaker – and every good filmmaker, every filmmaker who refuses to stagnate, will have his phases – and I must say that I prefer the earlier Bhardwaj, the man who made Maqbool and Omkara. Those were flavourful adaptations too, and they worked beautifully as drama – the emotional beats in the original plays were transferred intact. Haider, on the other hand, left me cold. It’s extraordinarily crafted, but it’s something you admire from a distance. In terms of technique, though, Bhardwaj is irreproachable. Even the scenes I felt weren’t needed are beautifully written, with perfect lead-ins and lead-outs. And his craftsmanship remains beautiful. Whether it’s Haider’s first glimpse, through a gauzy scrim, of his mother flirting with Khurram, or Arshia’s mind unravelling along with her knitted scarf, Bhardwaj’s pictures continue to make words unnecessary.

But Hamlet is all about the words – so why Hamlet? This was the question that continued to haunt me while watching Haider – especially given there’s no equivalent of Horatio (Arshia takes over the best-friend duties) and so few of the famous lines are translated. (Among the ones that survive are the king’s instructions about Ghazala: “leave her to heaven.”) Why zero in on a play so famous when your story could have worked just as well (perhaps even better) outside its shadow? After all, Mission: Kashmir too told the tale of a disturbed young man with two father figures, one of whom he blames for the other one’s death. That film, too, had a journalist as the hero’s love interest, and there, too, we had the scene of the mother seeking out the son in his hideout, trying to reach out to him. Even the end, with Haider (and the film) in an emotional limbo, mirroring the state of Kashmir, doesn’t need the crutch of Shakespeare.

Two characters survive unscathed. Parvez/Polonius (Lalit Parimoo) is no longer a foolish old man but a cunning schemer, wheedling information as if by giving candy to children. And Ghazala is magnificent (as is Tabu). She is the most fully formed creation – a symbol, yes, but more importantly, she’s also a woman. Something is rotten in the state of her marriage, but she doesn’t hate Hilal. She just cannot come to terms with his high-minded idealism. Her needs are simpler. She wants love. She wants that home. And she wants a life that’s not spent waiting for loved ones to return. In what’s perhaps an inadvertent intertextual touch, she reminds us of Tabu’s Lady Macbeth incarnation from Maqbool. Ghazala is as much a manipulator, though her mode of operation, this time, is emotional blackmail. The scene where Haider applies scent on her neck took me back to Lady Macbeth’s line about all the perfumes of Arabia. The film’s grimmest joke is the mehndi she keeps flaunting before her son, driving him further over the edge. At the end, she even plants a peck on his lips. What a piece of work is this woman.

KEY:

* balcony scene from Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet = see here
* Mark Antony’s speech from Joseph Mankiewicz’s Julius Caesar = see here

Copyright ©2014 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi