Haider – a Bollywood remake of the timeless Shakespeare classic Hamlet, set in modern day Kashmir.
I recently watched Bollywood art-film Haider, which interprets Shakespeare’s troubled hero Hamlet into a conflicted younger adult Haider, whose conscience and confusion leads the way through a canvas of Kashmir conflict, troubled relationships and the idea of love in more than one form.
I’m sure it’s no coincidence that there is a Bollywood version of Hamlet – after all, Haider is the third in a series of Shakespeare dramatisations in Bollywood by director Vishal Bhardwaj, after making Omkara which is based on Othello and Maqbool, based on Macbeth. I also recently saw Ram Leela, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s version of Romeo and Juliet, set in the Rajhastan, India, which was a colourful albeit not as serious as the above films. What makes Haider works that it is not just a mere translation of Hamlet – the film takes the story and re-invents it into something much more.
I’ll admit, I’m not a fan of remakes – although there have been a few which have been terrible, and Bollywood on the whole is always churning out films which aren’t always a hundred percent brilliant. It sounds like a typical re-hashing of a clichéd storyline – boy meets girl, conflict from one or both families, and a macho battle at the end where everything ends well.
Haider take on the storyline is a more contemporary one, touching on the conflict in Kashmir, not only being caught in between India and Pakistan’s tug-of-war, but also the idea of conflict in family, between brothers, spouses, mother and child and even between lovers.
Shahid Kapoor plays the troubled youth, whose father goes missing after a military search of their village for terrorists being hidden. Thus sparks a search for the truth, questioning not only where his father is, but also who was responsible for his capture, who to trust, and the concept of revenge.
The primary thing which I note in this film is the spectacular cinematography, the beautiful scenes and landscapes, and the artistic presentation of Kashmir – this is Kashmir as it has never been shown before. For all that Kashmir is a stark, depressing place it also has a haunting beauty, and Bhardwarj depicts all of that – from snowy mountains, grassy hilltops, weaving trains which illuminate modern homes as well as ruins and castles.
Also layered in the film is music, which is infused with Kashmiri tones – there’s only a two or three songs in the whole movie (which is a relief after generations of films which pound out trance-style music or sexy tunes which have nothing to do with the plot) – but they are real Kashmir folk-style songs. Reknowned actress Tabu, who plays Haider’s mother Ghazala mesmerises on-screen, from her expressive eyes and heart-wrenching emotions, to the haunting folk songs she sings, which unravel through the film as we question her motives, her relationship with her brother-in-law, and her love for her son. She sums it up wonderfully when she describes herself as a a ‘half widow’ – half bride and wife, half a widow, forever searching and not knowing, caught up in her own obssessions and guilt which are never fully revealed.
Adding to this is Haider’s father himself, the missing and presumed dead doctor, weaving in his love of music and ballads which adds poetry to the movie, contrasting Kay Kay Menon as the smooth-talking, slippery Uncle of Haider, whose smooth lies and logical explanations add chaos and confusion to the mystery, making not just Haider but the audience question what the truth is.
Also a big part of this is love – Shradda Kapoor plays a feisty Orphelia who tries to support the hero, although his wall of confusion, search for identity and his growing depression pushes back at this. At the heart of this film is also the suggestion of an Oedipal complex – Haider’s relationship with his mother is wraught with jealousy, confusion, and anger, and at times it is almost uncomfortable to watch their awkward, intense scenes. Similarly, Haider’s memories of his father and his love for his father only serve to confuse more, as we question the reason for revenge and whether it is beign manipulated by militants for their own ends – scenes of Haider searching for his father with missing posters in his backpack, bloody, smuggled bodies in trucks and morgues and cemetries only makes this film more haunting and moving.
The best part of the movie, for me, though, was that even though the film has it’s own style, and captures its own struggles well, it still remains faithful to the essence of Hamlet – the self-doubt, the conflict, the questioning which pervades it. And of course, the director could not resist slipping in the eternal famous line “To be or not to be” (in Hindi, of course!) as well as the famous scene with Hamlet and the skull (which is not a horror scene but an amusing one, as Shakespeare intended!) While Haider is a unique story in itself, it remains faithful to the ideas that Hamlet promotes – a haunting scene, for example his Haider’s reasoning that he would not kill his father’s murderer while he is in prayer, because he does not want a sinner to be absolved and go straight to heaven – this is a scene I vividly remember studying in university and which resonated with me.
For all that this is a sombre film, there are also a lot of quirky moments as well, surprisingly amusing moments which add to the depth of the film and add another facet to the character of Haider. Haider’s play-madness makes us chuckle, and the song in the cemetery with three old men digging graves reminds me of a quirky Cohen brother’s movie, something cheeky and slightly inappropriate because of the way it makes fun of death. There are plenty of jokes too, one of my favourite being a woman who is unable to understand why her husband stands outside their house for hours and refuses to speak or come in – which is solved by a quick request for ID card and then permission to enter – it’s a reflection of how their daily lives have become, yet handled deftly and lightly.
For me, Haider works because of the many pieces which fit together and blend well – the music, the scenery, the dialogues and the ability of all of the actors to make characters come alive and make us question. The director cleverly re-shapes this storyline in a new context, while still remaining faithful to the essence of Hamlet, which is not an easy thing to do. I don’t often praise Bollywood films but this is a rare gem, it captivates from the first few scenes and carries through to a compelling, bloody and emotional ending. Haider is a film which is more than just a boy’s search for his father and his murderer, it is about identity of himself and his country, his love for his family, and the idea of truth, revenge and what the right thing to do is.
I would strongly recommend this film to most people – it is poetry, war and misplaced patriotism on screen which answers whether to watch or not to watch, although I say, watch it.