A valley in shadow
Review of the film 'Haider' published in The Assam Tribune
Chutzpah! This being the age of taking oaths and building national character let us repeat this word at least three times. I am cynical about Baba Ramdev’s intelligence but equally assured that you are pleasantly smiling right now with the sound of this word, Chutzpah. Beauty is, half the population on one side of Kalashnikov rifles cannot pronounce the word, and the other half doesn’t bother. But when Shahid aka Haider spoke the word in Dolby the impact was stereophonic. When he rhymed it with its phonetic cousin AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act), the silence was deafening.
Welcome to Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider, his Kashmir, his Hamlet, his boldest reel ever. His Chutzpah.
The convent educated ‘us’ wear Shakespeare with as much ease as the bard wore his stockings. Even for someone who fantasizes a khadi stockings, Shakespeare is not a persona-non-grata. For someone who is so easily understood in this country of myriad deviations, Shakespeare is boringly familiar. To still pull out a rabbit out of a hat is real hypnotism. Bhardwaj achieves this with simplest art of grabbing your attention, the art of storytelling.
Haider ( Shahid) has to take revenge of his father’s death Dr. Hilal Meer ( Narendar Jha)from his uncle, Khurram (Kay Kay) who engages in not so plebian and platonic relationship with his mother, Ghazala ( Tabu). Contemplative and confused as Haider is, he keeps questioning himself till he monologues the most famous lines English literature has ever produced, To Be Or Not To Be; This is the Question.
If the father-son relationship is amazingly warm and existentialist, Haider’s presence in front of his Mouji (Tabu) will give Oedipus a severe complex. The scandal in the chemistry is so hidden that you almost feel like investigating it. Haider’s suspicions on his Mouji is so obvious that you are possessed with the inner charm which they have for each other. Tabu as a mother seduces her son into doing things against his wishes. As a lover she charms her way through the guilt of infidelity. And as a wife she destroys everything. Her presence is so conspiratorial, so in disguise that you are tempted to smell something, almost always, when she is around. And with Khurram ( Kay Kay), the forbidden picture of their relationship is complete. The lustful solicitor of his Baabi-Jaan, Kay Kay as always makes his character look difficult, tense and stressed but as always executes it with unique ease. Playing an opportunist Kashmiri lawyer and later Haider’s step father, he never lets his acting powers overwhelm his character, a most honest and assured proponent of his art. He synthesizes in his character the two natural forces of strength and vulnerability and pushes an image of himself, of a savior and of saved. Not even for a Pico second will you miss the attraction Khurram and Ghazala have for each other. The physical embrace between the two is removed from the screen (except for a very gentle hug in one scene) but when Khurram and his Baabi-Jaan indulge in the most banal of all human activity- looking and talking to each other- the erotic declaration of the relationship cannot be missed. We are not shown their history but it seems they have been doing this for millenniums and we are instantly convinced.
Kings and their murder has been our most lived historical legacy; it curates the story in a cause and effect narration, builds up anxiety and expectations. A king is incomplete without his murder. Haider’s father has to die. But since this is Kashmir in 1995, what better euphemism than disappearance, a suspension of death in the valley of deaths and more deaths. And here is where Vishal Bhardwaj deserves the biggest pat, contemporizing the political drama of the 16th century Denmark by situating it in the lived reality of 20th century Kashmir. He doesn’t miss the obvious here. The melancholy of Hamlet is atmospheric to Kashmir. Contemplative, confused, indecisive, fatal.
Ghosts. What will we mortals be without these apparitions? Who will live to tell the tale of death? In comes the director’s special, the conjurer for days and night, the inescapable phantom of the opera and Bhardwaj’s man Friday. The oldest Khan who will always be a newcomer in this clan. Irfaan Khan as Roohdaar, as the other mortal, the terrorist, the ghost. He connects the trajectory of the conspiracy and exhorts Haider to take ‘Inteqaam’ (revenge) for that ‘Fareb’ (deceit). Boy! The personal was never so political. A political deceit that visited Kashmiri’s years ago and a personal revenge which they cannot let go of. And Irfaan lights up the screen with this gloom. He limps and you know that something is rotten in the state of…
For all the connoisseurs of snobbery, here is some bad news. Shakti Kapoor, the man who performed in the darkest age of Hindi cinema, the decade of 80’s where every sister was rape bound and every mother a wronged widow; where trees provided the shady negotiation of flesh against flesh and waterfall showered ecstasy; the same man has given us a pleasant surprise, Shraddha Kapoor. The love-ed Arshia of her belove-ed Haider, the delicately stubborn daughter of a police officer Pervez Lone (Lalit Parimoo) and a counter to her otherwise safe, MNC guarded brother. She is shown as a journalist and therefore having her own bold voice, floating around with Haider amidst the air of uncertainty. Shraddha is a silent spark in the movie, transmitting energy in the otherwise fatigued existence of Haider. And yes, she pronounces the one word the way it should be. Fucked.
You must be wondering by now where is Shahid Kapoor in all this? Well, it takes courage to write about such a performance and without sounding fictitious. But such was Haider in Shahid Kapoor, yes, Haider in Shahid Kapoor, that you are left with no choice but to not escape his life. You want to be with him and yet not want to lead his life. So when he calmly tells the army officer that he is from Islamabad (an old name of Anantnag) you skip your breath. When he becomes a radio himself and sends waves of dissent against his uncle and the State, he makes you sit and watch and listen. The crowd uproars and the audience is overwhelmed. He reserves all the gall for his uncle and smells his mother’s neck with a perfume. Yes, a son kissing his mothers neck. And Shahid does it with magnificent simplicity. He is the biggest rabbit which Vishal Bhardwaj has pulled out of his hat!
Go and watch Haider for its evolving theme of betrayal, revenge and morbid charm. Gulzaar’s lyrics are dissolved in Dal Lake, showering from the darkest cloud of Srinagar. Go and watch it to see what Haider we have created, we on either side of AFSPA.
As for Chutzpah, well it’s pronounced as Hoots-Pa. But do we really care?