“Haraamkhor”… Beautiful performances in a story that doesn’t judge a warped relationship

Posted on January 21, 2017

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Spoilers ahead…

It’s probably facile to drag Lolita into the discussion of a film about a consensual-yet-exploitative relationship between an older man and a schoolgirl, but Shlok Sharma’s Haraamkhor makes a strong case for the comparison. There is, first, the disclaimer at the beginning, informing us that the film (I’m paraphrasing) “highlights dangers faced by minor school-going children, especially girls, by those supposed to educate and nurture them.” Given the remarkably non-hectoring tone of what follows, the response to the disclaimer can only be “Heh!” The same kind of “heh” that ensued after reading the last line of the famously fake foreword (written by “John Ray, Jr., Ph.D.”) to Nabokov’s most famous novel: “Lolita should make all of us — parents, social workers, educators — apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world.” You anticipate the Old Testament. You end up with Shakespeare.

Two, Sharma uses humour the way Nabokov used words. If the beauty of Nabokov’s prose kept us purring with pleasure over incident after appalling incident, Haraamkhor frequently punctuates its sordid story with the antics of two delightful schoolchildren, Mintu (Mohammed Samad) and Kamal (Irfan Khan). The name of the title character, Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s Shyam, may itself be a dark joke: a compulsive flirt named after the most mythical of compulsive flirts. He’s married to Sunita (Trimala Adhikari), he’s having an affair with Sandhya (Shweta Tripathi), and he still finds the time to chat up a married schoolteacher, ask her when she’s inviting him home for dinner. At the end of the scene, Siddiqui laughs as if it’s the world’s biggest joke. It isn’t every actor who laughs differently. Siddiqui’s lower body remains stationary, but his upper body convulses as if bobbing on a spring. Every time I think Siddiqui has pulled the last trick out of his bag, that we’re only going to be seeing variations on what we’ve already seen, he pulls out something new. After a tense moment, he turns and walks away from the camera, his hands locked behind his back. We don’t see his face. We don’t need to. His hands tell us what we would have seen on that face.

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Siddiqui builds a towering performance out of literally nothing because Sharma, who also wrote the film, isn’t interested in whys. Why is Shyam this way? Is Sandhya’s family circumstance – a distant, absentee father (Harish Khanna); a missing mother – the reason she fell into a relationship with a man old enough to be her parent? Why are Mintu and Kamal so sex-obsessed? Is it genuinely childlike curiosity, the desire for a glimpse at a grown-up world, or are we watching nascent Shyams? And what about that out-of-nowhere ending? Is it born of a need to end a largely unmelodramatic film (a firing range is mentioned; it sounds premonitory; the ears perk up; it never comes up again) on a high? Or is the point the distance between what Kamal thought would happen when he showed up, near-naked, before Sandhya – he has a thing for her – and how things really turned out?

There’s so much tucked away in the margins that these apparent gaps in the narrative do not come to matter at all. The shockingly casual intimacy between Shyam and Sandhya. The tossed-away line (“Mushkil se maa baap school bhejte hain”) that hints at how much more depraved Shyam’s actions are in this unnamed village, as opposed to a city where children are routinely sent to school. The offhand revelation, again through a tossed-off line, that Sunita was Shyam’s student before she became his wife. The heavy-set androgyny of Neelu (Shreya Shah), who is in a relationship with Sandhya’s father. I bring this up because the character is warm and maternal and you’d expect a “softer”-looking actress to have been cast. Another gender stereotype is gutted when Kamal wears Sandhya’s kameez. The hero of his own story, in the heroine’s clothes.

Haraamkhor takes the broadest of narrative arcs – a hero falls for a heroine, is challenged by a villain, as sidekicks provide merriment – and toys with its elements. Kamal could be the hero, in love with Sandhya, with the evil Shyam in his way. Or if you take the incredible scene where Sandhya has ice cream and teases Shyam, they could be a hero-heroine on the run from a society that doesn’t understand their love, with villains like Kamal (who keeps harassing Shyam) following their every move. They could be the secret lovers from Saathiya. Or Sandhya could be the villain in the Shyam-Sunita marriage, sulking when she realises they’re having sex, which she considers her right.  Haraamkhor, bless its soul, doesn’t have a politically correct bone in its body.

Some scenes are tough to watch, like the one where Shyam slaps Sandhya after his wife finds out. But in an earlier scene, he’s seen slapping other girls at school. The action, thus, is liberated from this particular event and becomes something of a trait. Put differently, we aren’t invited to sympathise especially with Sandhya. Shweta Tripathi is wonderful. She has the sweetest dimple when she smiles and another film would have highlighted her innocence and made her a more conventional “victim.” She is definitely one, but the film isn’t judging anyone. It just gives us a lot of scenes of childhood being lost, against the backdrop of children laughing and playing, children still being children. This line by the abusive protagonist of Lolita kept coming to mind: “I itemize these sunny nothings mainly to prove to my judges that I did everything in my power to give my Lolita a really good time.” For about ninety minutes, we are caught in the warp of this delusion.

KEY:

  • Haraamkhor = wretched; bastard
  • Mushkil se maa baap school bhejte hain” = It is with great difficulty that these parents send their kids to school

Copyright ©2017 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi