Haider: Is Vishal Bhardwaj the new Laurence Olivier? By Tatiana Szurlej

Engaging with the creative-process of an artist isn’t merely an intellectual hobby but it is also directly related to the textual-reading. It is not necessary to overstretch this textual-reading but it is preferable to limit it to close-reading. Why did Vishal Bhardwaj want to create ‘Haider’? Is a close-reading of ‘Haider’ possible without answering this question!! To put it very simply, Vishal Bharadwaj wanted to make films on three plays of Shakespeare. He had already made ‘Maqbool’ and ‘Omkara’, respectively on Macbeth and Othello. Taking forward this journey, he has adapted Hamlet as ‘Haider’. There have been countless discussions on the ‘discrepancies of Haider’s milieu’ and all these discussions, somewhere fail to see ‘film’ as a form of artistic expression, as a screen  adaptation of a classic play and to locate it in the context the creative-process of a director. Tatiana has tried to examine these untouched aspects closely. A Hindi version of the present critique is also available, which will be shortly published in the November issue of a monthly print magazine; we will try to present it here as soon as the issue actualises. 

Haidar (2014)- Poster

Haidar (2014)- Poster

By Tatiana Szurlej

It is hurculean task to act Hamlet, but it’s also a prized dream of many ambitious actors. May be that’s why there have been so many screen adaptations of one of the best and at the same time one of the most difficult of Shakespeare’s plays. We’ve already seen many variations of it, from routine conventional and traditional interpretations to unorthodox adaptations. Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider is one of those adaptations, where the director tries to narrate an old story in a new context, like he did earlier with two other plays of Shakespeare, Macbeth and Othello. And this time Bhardwaj showcased not only the best of his Shakespearean plays, but also the best of his works so far. With this film he clearly demonstrates that Shakespeare can be read in different historical and cultural contexts. But to do so, meticulous reading and understanding of Shakespear is a must. Sure Bhardwaj makes certain changes in the story, but at the same time he stays as much Shakespearean as he can possibly, and this puts him in the same league with Kenneth Branagh or Laurence Olivier.

Haider is set in Kashmir, the idyllic panorama abandoned not only by Indian filmmakers, who opt for Switzerland instead, but even by God himself, a denouement similar to the kingdom of Denmark, described by Shakespeare as a place where everything rots. Is there any better location in India with similar denouement? The tragedy of Hamlet lays not only in the fact that his father is murdered, but, mostly in the situation that gets more and more complicated with the consequence that Hamlet becomes everybody’s enemy, a boy who is (at least in the beginning) all innocent like any one else. To reveal this mechanism at work, it is important to put in some political bacdrop in the screen story and to throw up a live and palpable conflict, this alone can help the viewer to understand the protagonist’s situation. Denmark, as presented by Shakespeare, is a metaphor for a world where the power that reigns is Evil and where to survive means to be Machiavellian. Bhardwaj toes the line, showing Kashmir as a place where nobody is comfortable and safe, and where even a madman is not allowed to pour out his heart. Kashmir is no more the heaven on the earth, it has turned into a hell, where even an entertainment such as Bollywood cinema is in fact a camouflage, hiding murderers and their criminalities. There are no good and bad sides of the conflict shown in the film; both are cruel and heartless. Even the protagonist’s father loses his great humanity, clearly shown in the beginning of the story, and becomes a wicked person who wants revenge. For a while heartbroken Haider really thinks that this is the best way to fight for justice, but in the end he changes his mind, realizing that looking for vengeance is not the way to fight for freedom. At the same time, however, Haider becomes murderer too, who kills and causes death of his beloved ones which makes him a different, wounded person, and his victory a bitter one.

Kashmir is an important setting not only because of political background, but also for visual aspect of the film. Monochromatic and cold places again associate the story of Bhardwaj with unadorned medieval Denmark of Shakespeare’s play. There are not many colours in the film, and those which appear in the beginning gradually vanish along with the announcement of the “new Kashmir” and subsequent snow-fall, making the environment more and more frigid. Finally there is only sombreness left, with some strong red elements, which emphasizes not only the blood, but also show-cases the exact theme of the story, the anger of the protagonist and his mother’s strong sexuality. The red patch on the face of dancing Haider intimates the fact that his mother becomes sexual attraction and gratification for another man, and his cpnsequent rage of vengeance.

The biggest difference between the film and the play lays in the fact that Haider’s father was killed by his brother not for the kingdom, but because of his beautiful wife. This change in ploy is natural, since it is rather difficult to depict the contemporary tale in which two brothers fight for the kingdom, especially if the story supposes to be original (there is already a version of the play in which Hamlet’s father is an owner of the big company – a film made by Michael Almereyda in 2000, and there was no point of repeating this idea). Haider’s mother, Gazala, seems to love her brother-in-law Khurram more than her husband, may be because doctor Hilal was so busy with his job and unmindful of putting his family in danger from time to time, on the other hand Khurram cares only for her. The feelings of Gazala and other characters are clearly visible in many scenes, because, as already mentioned, there is not much warm in the film, and even when protagonists stay inside their houses their breaths are often frozen. Only love makes the environment a bit warmer, the one that Haider feels toward Arshya, toward his mother, and also those which Gazala has for Khurram. Here, even if there is a little difference between the film and the play, a strong Shakespearean spirit remains intact with its strong influence of the ancient Greek and Roman culture which clearly appears in Gazala motif, being another example of the stories in which a woman inevitably is the reason of war. What is, however, new in the adaptation of Bhardwaj, and probably shocking for Indian cinema, is the fact that spectators finally can see a mature woman, who still is so attractive that she can smite her brother-in-law. Gazala doesn’t have to be young to become as much desirable as the best known heroines, like, Helen of Troy from The Iliad or Sita from Ramayana. And Tabu could play the real, eye-catching woman, and not only a suffering mother, so much characteristic of Indian cinema, proving the point and rightly so that it is possible to cast mature actresses in interesting roles. In the beginning of the film Gazala is depicted in a very conventional way, as many Muslim wives, but after she moves to Khurram’s house she starts wearing different clothes and dissolves her hair, which makes her more and more seductive. Despite her sexuality, however, she remains a mother, that’s why her suicide is different from the one committed by Arshya. Both heroines, the only women in film, become victims of their “wrong love” which cause their death. Arshya loves a man, who killed her father, Gazala marries a murderer of her husband, but as already mentioned, Gazala is not only a lover, but also a mother, that’s why her suicidal death is full of anger and thirst for blood of those who want to hurt her son. To the opposite, Arshya’s death is calm and almost unnoticeable. She doesn’t distribute flowers to other people like Shakespeare’s Ophelia, but destroys her father’s red scarf, which she had made and given to him earlier. Bhardwaj doesn’t show her committing suicide, but lying on the bed covered with red wool, which looks like wounds, and which becomes an interesting counterpoint with real wounds covering Haider’s face in the final sequence of the film.

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is widely known for the hero’s famous “to be or not to be” monologue, and his conversation with the skull of jester. Bhardwaj decides to present the monologue in a rather comical way, two Salmans ask each other if they should go or should not, but this change also stays in the spirit of the play, in which we can also find many humorous elements. The second scene, however, appears a masterpiece, becoming one of those rare moments in the film, which stays with the viewer even long after the show. There are two gravediggers in the play who prepare the grave for Ophelia singing obscene songs. Bhardwaj shows three old men, who dig graves for themselves while singing a haunting song of tired people, who want to sleep. Their dark figures presented on the snow not only look like a chorus from ancient Greek theatre, who comments what is going on in the tragedy, but, in fact, becomes one. The bird’s-eye view shot shows the three holes made by old men look like a huge skull as well. This skull-like ground, graveyard, and tired people become another metaphor of Kashmir, much stronger than Gazala’s and Hussain Mir’s statement about meaninglessness of vengeance. They both say that revenge would never bring freedom to anyone, but maybe people are still forced to live in hell because they are too tired to try to escape.

There are many elements in the film, which, even if they don’t play big part in the story, are clear reference to the play, like the hobby-horse mentioned by Hamlet and shown in the scene in which the birth of new Kashmir is announced. There are also, apart from the counterpoint mentioned above, many other scenes, which become complemented with each other. The demolished house of the doctor Hilal in the beginning comes back in the climax as another building, this time the one on the graveyard, destroyed in similar way. Arshya’s brother disturbs his sister, when she accompanies Haider to the ruined house, and when the protagonist comes back to the remains of the building, this time to meet his mother, the person who disturbs again is Arshya’s father. There is a boy getting up from the heap of dead bodies and alive people who lay in the graves. There is also a man, who is killed while praying in doctor Hilal’s house, and another pray which saves Khurram’s life. The revolver, by which Gazala tries to blackmail her son is hidden under her shawl just like the grenades, which will help her to save him at the end, and so on. Another interesting thing is the use of music with few songs, being rather a background than a real performance. The only exceptions are the mentioned scene in the graveyard, and the show revealing Khurram’s crime which are both very important parts of the film. The dance of Haider, by which he shows his anger and despair, is not only similar to a tribal war dance, but also to destructive rage of tandava, and as such is one of the most intriguing part of the movie.

As mentioned in the beginning, playing Hamlet is a dream chance for many actors, but not many of them can put the chance to good use. Shahid Kapoor’s performance, however, upstaged all the other, maybe except Tabu’s, which is outstanding as well. Of course the other characters were not so expressive, however, still extraordinary, like, the ghostly white figure played by Irrfan Khan, or Kay Kay Menon begging for death, but Kapoor and Tabu simply stole the whole show. In my private rating I give the film 9/10, not 10/10 because of the unnecessary use of the voice-over, repeating the statements about vengeance in the last scene, where Haider puts the gun to Khurram’s head and then leaves him. There was no need of such literalism, typical rather for simple mainstream stories, which sometimes make viewers bored and distracted. Still, even knowing that Vishal Bhardwaj never disappoints, I haven’t seen such a good film for a long time.

Tatiana Szurlej

Tatiana Szurlej

Tatiana Szurlej is a young Indologist and film critic. She also contributes about Bollywood in Hindi journals more often. Currently, she is working on “Tradition, Stereotype, Manipulation: The Courtesan Figure in Indian Literature and Popular Cinema” for her Ph.D from Faculty of Philology, Jagiellonian University, Krakow. She can be contacted on tatiana.szurlej@gmail.com.

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One thought on “Haider: Is Vishal Bhardwaj the new Laurence Olivier? By Tatiana Szurlej

  1. Impressive analysis!

    Aysha Iqbal

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