To see or not to see: a review of Haider

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.

Sahid-in-HaiderAt 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.
Tabu-Bollywood-film-HaiderIf 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.

Books That Matter To Me

booksI’d love to make a list of books that changed my life, but actually there isn’t any single one. It is all of them together that define me. So here are the books that have entertained me. Also some that made me think.

In no particular order:

Atlas shrugged by Ayn Rand: Written when communism was on the rise, and freedom seemed on back foot. I have read this book from cover to cover more times than any other. There are passages that still make me go wow.

Harry Potter series by J K Rowling: I came to Potter well in my 20’s. Never found it childish. The secret of the books is that they’re not about magic and Hogwarts but about values and relationships. Everyone needs to read them (not just watch the films)

Pillars Of The Earth by Ken Follet: Story of the building of a Cathedral in 12th century England seems rather boring. But this is about what a feudal society does to the powerless, what the world was before science and capitalism.

Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy: This was my introduction to the genre of military thrillers. A Russian nuclear submarine silently creeps towards the US as the Americans freak out. Fabulous.

Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien: What can I say? The genesis of modern Fantasy, the clash of the powerful evil and the meek good. The first Non-Ayn Rand book that I read multiple times.

A Song Of Ice And Fire(The series starting with Game Of Thrones) by George R R Martin: When I read it, I was gripped, but found them a little bleak. I never thought I’d return to it. But I did. Because it’s so complex, and its characters are so rich. It’s not a good v/s evil story, it’s complicated. The most intelligently written complex world I have seen.

If Tomorrow Comes by Sidney Sheldon: It is a sprawling adventure, a great revenge story that doesn’t end with revenge. It has some great con tricks, and a lot of its ideas have been lifted – I mean “featured”- in Bollywood. Not epic literature, but a real fun ride. (Has the best game of chess ever)

Kane and Abel by Jeffrey Archer: This is what a modern world epic looks like. Spanning several decades, several countries, several layers of the society, and two people. Would love to read this again.

Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum: The ultimate spy saga. Hooked me from the first page.

Genome by Matt Ridley: The autobiography of a species in 23 chapters. This is a story of human evolution as told through the genes in each of the 23 chromosomes. It was like reading a story of where I came from, but the story applies to all of us. My favourite non-fiction. Even above the great “A Brief History Of Time”

Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams: So outlandish, so smart, and so hilarious. Also contains a simple answer to the “Ultimate question of life, universe and everything”. I literally laughed out loud more in this book than anything else ever.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (Millennium Trilogy) by Stieg Larson: An anthem for the women, the people at the fringes, the “weirdos”. Lisbeth Salander is one of the greatest heroines ever written. Should be made compulsory reading in our country with our culture of violence against the women and the ostracization of those who refuse to follow the “set way”

To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee: Principles. Thats what you stand for. Written from the perspective of a young girl, it shows how complex, institutionalised discrimination is simple. It’s simply wrong. And it is not the right but the duty of an upstanding citizen to stand against it, whatever the cost. Something I, and most of us, will find hard to practice, but we must know the ideal so we can strive towards it.

OK. I’ll cheat now and add a few more. Though this list is long, and tedious, it still feels incomplete: 1984, Mistborne Trilogy, Kingkiller chronicles, Fountainhead, We The People, Hunger games, His Dark Materials, Ancestor’s tale (Richard Dawkins), The God Delusion, The First Law Trilogy, Grisham thrillers, Day Of The Jackal, Not a penny more, not a penny less, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time …….. I could go on…. list making is hard.