It’s a weird juxtaposition of Gandhi Jayanti and Dashehra this year. One the celebration of peace, and the other about finishing off the enemy. Forgiveness v/s punishment. Haider has released just at the right time. It is a story of revenge. Or rather a story of contemplation of revenge, life and death.
At its heart is the story of a family. Tabu’s husband goes missing, and her son, Haider (Shahid) resents her growing closeness with his uncle. This family drama is complicated by the setting of the story: Kashmir embroiled in militancy and caught in a web of violence. The father was caught by the army helping the militants as a doctor, though his political sympathies are not known. The uncle collaborates with the army, and is neck deep in corruption. Haider’s girlfriend is daughter of his uncle’s accomplice in crime. And Haider suspects that his uncle may have something to do with what happened to his father.
And therein lies the rub. This film is no patriotic mouthpiece. Army is an occupying force in Kashmir in this film. They search randomly, arrest many innocents, and torture them for information. They also cooperate with local corrupt forces and indulge in, and reward extrajudicial killings. The militants, as portrayed in film, are more or less honest fighters, looking only for freedom from what they see as occupation. This is an unusual tact for an Indian film to employ, and made me very uncomfortable. A friend helped me decipher a code: At one point, Haider tells his mom that she looks at everything just from her own point of view. Doesn’t try to understand the other’s point of view. That’s what this film is doing. It’s only showing the point of view of Haider, who was always sympathetic towards militants. It’s his point of view that comes though, not a neutral one. We are seeing another side of the conflict that has so scarred the paradise on earth. We only see our side of the story, why not look at the other side’s version too.
While I’m sure there are a lot of genuine grievances of the Kashmiris against the Armed Forces, the issue is not as one sided as portrayed here, as an example, as the fate of Pandits is barely mentioned at all. But looking at it as a biased account, I can leave the political issues aside, and concentrate on the heart of the matter: the hearts of the people.
And there the story takes life. I have heard someone say: the only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself. Viewed thus, this is a story about just two people: Haider and his mother. This is a complex relationship, and suffice it to say that a lot of Oedipal issues arise there. Tabu, caught between her son and her lover, and Haider caught between resenting, hating and loving his mother. Is his hatred of his uncle driven by the desire for punishment for the immoral acts of the uncle, revenge for his father, or just plain jealousy for someone his mother loves? His resentment for the army gets mixed with his love for his father, and his mother, and as a viewer I was unable to tease out what is driving him. That’s how it is meant to be.. And the uncle is torn too, villain though he is. He genuinely cares for Haider’s mother, and is therefore unable to totally remove this obnoxious presence Haider from his household.
And make no mistake, Haider is obnoxious as hell. Whether under the guise of grief, hurt, or plain mental instability, he is a source of lot of discomfort. The song Bismil is the highlight of the film, and there Haider is publicly humiliating his uncle. Another great scene, filmed on Lal Chowk, is a monologue of Haider against the powers in Kashmir: the ones his uncle are a part of.
Shradha Kapoor, playing the love interest, is peripheral to the film, but her father is more central. He seems mild mannered, innocuous, but is sinister. Same as the two Salman fans shown in the film.
If you love cinema, you may just want to see this for the acting talent in here: Tabu excels in portraying a complex, difficult character. Shahid is just superb. Shradha Kapoor is good too, and K K Menon has the best Kashmiri accent of all, but he is too much like any K K Menon we have seen. The small role of Irrfan Khan just punches in energy, shows why he is becoming a star.
It is the inner struggle, superlative moments, and perfectly drawn characters, and superb performances that take Haider towards greatness. Alas, the bloat weighs it down. The film is longer, slower, and at times duller than it should have been. There is a great movie somewhere in there, and it talks about the dilemma of the two holidays we just celebrated. There just were too many distractions, leaving it a very good film instead. This is 3.5 stars instead of 5, but that is still well worth watching.
PS: I’m ashamed to say that I have not read Hamlet. I tried to look at the film as it is, not as an adaptation of something.