Haider – To Watch or Not to Watch

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. Haider-movie-posterIt 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.

 

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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.

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Boating with a Bengal Tiger

LIFE OF PI (PG)
Directed by Ang Lee

Acclaimed director Ang Lee picked well with his latest venture of adapting Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, depicting cinematic deliciousness with beautiful landscapes, lively animal scenes and a central character who manages to bring a sea-faring adventure to life. Following the unnamed writer who meets a remarkable Indian man to hear about his life story, we meet ‘Pi’, full name Piscine Molitor Patel, named after a French swimming pool, brought up in the French-Indian colony of Pondicherry, who lives in a zoo. And it’s not long before he is sailing on a Japanese ship which is bound for Canada, to begin a new life with his parents and his brother Ravi. And thus begins what seems to be a richly-coloured tale, although it doesn’t just begin there. Painting a portrait of zoo life and schoolboy childhood in India, Pi (and the narrator) creating an engaging voice, pulling us along in his memories of being teased at school, living with zoo animals, and even meeting girls, giving an almost ‘boy’s own’ adventure tone which we can easily fall into.

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And this is, after all, a tale to “make you believe in God”, so it’s fitting that we also learn about Pi’s religious beliefs, and how he is brought up as a Hindu but stumbles upon Christianity and it’s “mind-boggling” concepts of love and sacrifice. Soon, “Islam followed right behind”, with Pi embracing all three religions and accepting their philosophies equally. It is here we see a compassionate young boy, looking to understand the idea of love and God, and the overlying message that all are equal. (Not that it stops his brother teasing him by asking whether “Swami Jesus will be visiting Mecca this year”, or whether “will it be to Rome for your coronation as the next Pope Pi-us?”).

And there are the animals themselves, twittering, growling, moo-ing and neighing in and out of the film, as the director amalgamates Pi’s childhood in the zoo with his journey on the Pacific Ocean. From the very beginning of the film we are asked: “Do animals have a soul?”. Pi’s father insists that it is our own emotions and perceptions which are reflected back at us when looking into their eyes, but Pi’s spiritual nature is reluctant to accept this view. At the peak of the film, events takes a tragic turn when the ship begins to sink, and in true epic style, Pi is left along with some zoo animals, his own knowledge and a whole lot of water. Thus, the story of the survival of a young boy becomes more than just about getting his meal and being rescued; he has to contend with sharing a life-boat with a deadly tiger, keep his sanity, and learn about his place in the world and how far he will go to survive.

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Most striking of all about this film is the aesthetic experience; Lee transports us to an oceanic world which is much more beautiful than your average travel brochure, luring us with beautiful scenes to share this adventure with Pi. With exquisite detail in the landscape, animals and beautiful scenery, this is a movie which appreciates natural beauty as an art, transporting viewers into a simpler world of enhanced beauty, the idea of the spiritual and being human. Blending special effects so that they merge with the spectacular scenes (the night scene with glowing pools of water and fish is one of my favourite scenes, left) it’s easy to leave us breathless, mixing the almost unreal and unbelievable to make the beautifully depicted animals and epic scenes feel just a touch away.

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All in all, this is a wonderful story, Yann Martel’s novel quietly questions the idea of home, and what makes us human, and Ang Lee interprets this on the screen just as well. While the novel is more successful at portraying the angst of religious conflicts and “being all religions is the same as being none at all”, as well as the concept of animals being compared to humans, the film chooses to do this in imagery. We are shown the beauty of nature in all its calm and cruelty, its mastery of mankind as well as the taming of it. Metaphors, too, come in several forms in this film, we see how ‘Richard Parker’ (the tiger) represents not only Nature, but also reflects back Pi’s wild side, just as the sea, the ship, the life-boat and the various encounters the protagonist has represents not only the circle that is Life, but also the idea of a ‘spiritual’ coming of age. Newbie Suraj Sharma plays his role amazingly, and doesn’t overact or under-emote, and his ability to express emotions realistically only adds to the calibre of the film.

I loved the book because of its haunting and quiet descriptions of a lone soul struggling to survive in an extreme situation, and just as it quietly comes to an astonishing end, this film also ties the threads to come together in a startling, yet quiet conclusion in this masterpiece. I will admit that the novel felt more articulate and the ending felt more coherent to me than the film, yet the actual cinematic experience of this film is beautiful and cannot be beaten, it is a journey which I ‘d recommend to all.

Guilt, Blame and Red Splattered Memories in a dark drama

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (15)
Directed by Lynne Ramsey

We need to talk about Kevin, based on the bestselling novel by Lionel Shrivers, follows the quiet anguish of mother Eva in the aftermath of the mass murder committed by her son Kevin (played by Ezra Miller). Superbly portrayed by the talented Tilda Swinton, Eva is a woman haunted by her role as a mother of a child she feels a lack of maternal instinct for, and at the same time trying to live out the rest of her shattered life after the killings. As the film plays out, we see how Eva struggles to bring up her antagonistic son, and her belief that he is a deliberately malicious child whose behaviour increasingly becomes calculated and hostile. Looking back on her early life as both a woman and a mother, while simultaneously showing her current life being reduced to ‘That Mother’ of a killer, Eva shows how she tries to analyse back to Kevin’s childhood in order to find an explanation for what has happened.

And so the ‘nature versus nurture’ question is subtly woven in, always lapping at our minds in the periphery of the film as we try to decide: is Kevin a bad product of society, or is he, as Eva is constantly asserting for us to believe, someone with inherently wicked genes inevitably following a doomed path? This is an argument which is never resolved, due to the fact that nothing is black and white as it seems, and as Eva soon shows, neither party are entirely innocent of the final culmination which Kevin eventually reaches. While Kevin is shown as a difficult child, the position of blame does not lie squarely with him. We see how Kevin shows his malevolent side, refusing to interact and co-operate with his mother, damaging her various things in a cruel streak which goes beyond childish mischief, and his subtle taunts which he always presents throughout his life. We also see the games he plays; and how he targets Eva while presenting a facade of innocence and good-nature to his father, presumably to conceal his cruelty and as further acts of manipulation.

Yet at the same time, the film also cleverly draws our attention to Eva’s faults, how at times she appears self-obsessed, and how she, too, finds it hard to be motherly with her child. Quite frankly, Eva does not hide the fact that she does not like her child, and it is this which makes her views a little harder to trust, she is a mother who does not want to be one (cooing ironically to her son “Mommy was happy before Kevin came along.”). While the film primarily focuses on Eva, and what she is feeling and thinking, her life is always measured in relation to Kevin, while all other roles, as a wife, as a businesswoman, as a woman, all come second. While there are several issues from the novel which perhaps do not translate on the big screen in the same way, such as the Eva’s back-story before Kevin is born, and her relationship with her husband, there are others, however, which come across remarkably well. We feel the chilling anticipation as Eva tries to unsuccessfully bond with her son, which amplifies as he grows older, showing that this is not merely a phase that the two characters are going through. There is constant foreshadowing throughout the film, even as the film flashes back to the final event of the final killings throughout the film to remind us that this is not a story which will end well.

Symbolism, abstract images and metaphors abound in this film, and they are used cleverly to add to the eerie atmosphere which is continuously maintained throughout. We constantly see Eva wringing her hands, washing them, cleaning with her, symbolising her anguish and her desire to rid herself of the guilt which has been imposed on her. There is also the theme of the colour red running through the novel; from the very start of the film we see Eva drenched in red to foreshadow the horror which will come, and throughout these splashes of red serve as reminders of what will inevitably happen, as well as acting as markers for Eva’s and Kevin’s struggles with each other, and perhaps even showing the view the ambiguity of the story, and how morality is something which cannot be easily measured.
Similarly, there is constant mirroring between Kevin and Eva, further emphasising the fact that although their relationship is perpetually hostile, there are also too many similarities between the two which cannot be ignored, perhaps suggesting that one reason for their strained relationship is that they see something of themselves in each other and this is a truth which they push away.
There is always a creeping anticipation for viewers in this film, as outsiders we are aware of what will happen, yet there is still always a feeling that there is worse to come. This is made more disturbing by the tense and sometimes high-spirited music which feels out of place, at times too jaunty, and usually jarring, having the effect of making us feel uncomfortable and displaced, and perhaps representing the idea of false layering being used which is unable to conceal an unpleasant truth.

Ultimately, the character of Kevin, shown as clever, malicious, sinister, arrogant, is one which we are initially supposed to reject, as he has been rejected by his mother. His cruel behaviour and manipulative games make him someone difficult to like, and yet there are also brief moments of empathy or even sympathy for Kevin – we see his need for human company and his loneliness at times, and even perhaps a form of recognition for the reasons for his anger, which blurs the idea of blame as we wonder what made him the person he is. We need to talk about Kevin makes it clear from its very start that there are no happy endings, yet it still effectively acts as a psychological mystery, exploring the build-up to the events which take place. This film excellently explores the idea of morals, social values and the struggles of motherhood, and it is portrayed acutely by both of the protagonists of this film (as well as the actors who play them). While Kevin is still the child of this relationship, the normal workings of a family are far from glamorised here, we see disenchantment, pessimism and heartbreak from all parties involved. While this may seem a reason not to watch this film, I would strongly encourage the opposite, We need to talk about Kevin shows us the importance of human relationships and facing up to fears, and bravely brings to life those unspoken fears that parents as well as their children have; and forces us to question whether we make the child or whether the child makes us.

’80s Nostalgia and Adventure meets 21st Century Monsters

Super 8 (12A)
Directed by Zack Snyder

From the director of Cloverfield, Lost and the Star Trek remake comes another monster-adventure-alien-y genred movie, this time in the form of the anticipated Super 8. Following the adventures of young hero Joe Lamb and his friends, in the midst of making their own ‘Super 8’ camera directed zombie film, when they find themselves plunged into the middle of impressive train crashes and explosions, government cover-up, and of course, a rampant monster on the loose. Harking back to the glory adventure days of films of the ‘80s, the film follows the same giddy adventurous delights of watching those Spielberg films from our childhood involving aliens, treasure-hunting and childhood friends (think E.T, The Goonies and Close Encounters). Yet Abrams tries to sculpt this out with more than just the escapades of these young tweens: adding emotional background drama and presenting the bonds of childhood friendship in a way that makes us want to put down our iPads, touch-screen phones and Xboxes and instead reach for our bikes and just go looking for healthy, old-fashioned adventure in the outskirts of town.

There are all sorts of plot devices which weave into the story here, Joe’s emotional recovery from the death if his mother, his resulting strained relationship with his father, his friendships with the other young boys, his budding romance with Alice (played by an admirable Elle Fanning), and of course, the fact that both alien-monster AND the government are out to get them.
So can this be seen as a type of coming of age drama? It could be argued that this adventure-style approach is a rite of passage, not just for the young characters in the film, but for us as viewers, re-introducing us to something we all watched as youngsters back in the pre-digital-age days when there were only four television channels and we all remembered watching the same show on the same channel.
Complete with amiable humour (“Stop talking about production value, the Air Force is going to kill us!”) and jump-in-your-seat monster moments, the film endeavours to never let the focus leave the youngsters of the films, leaving us rooting for the good guys and their loveable tricks.

There are a few downsides to the genre of this movie, however; Abrams can be said to rely a little too much on the style of a Boy’s Own adventure that we all know and loved from the ‘80s. It is no accident that main character Joe looks a teensy-weensy eerie bit too like Elliot from E.T – we get that the film tries to recreate the Spielberg magic and excitement – and yet it all begins to feel a little, at times, too far-fetched and video game-ish a narrative amongst the sophisticated special effects and complicated storylines of today’s films. Although Abrams does try to merge the two generations of eighties genre and twenty-first century graphics, this begins to feels a little anachronistic at times, making the film feel less genuine.

Another criticism is that there does not feel like there is enough of a back story for the monster – it just simply appears in the boys’ lives in a way that seems half-heartedly explained. Admittedly the film is not about the alien-monster in its entirety, yet this leaves us with the feeling that there is no no REAL sense of mystery, Abrams tries to generate this mystery by not letting us get a good look at the monster, so that we are left in suspense as to *what* could possibly be behind the massive scale government cover-up in Super 8, yet this is not much of a mystery to us, and you can see where his directing style is similar to his previous films like Cloverfield, which follows a similar pattern of obscure flashes of monster’s feet and cameras panning away to the sky.

However, there is brilliant acting from all sides; the main character may look like a dimpled Elliot escaped from an E.T sci-fi convention, yet this is no way means that his acting ability is undermined. The appeal of Super 8 lies in its pure joy in watching boys being boys, and being a youngster, exploring the outside world and its dangers, with the emotions and feelings as acted by the characters feeling quite genuine, even if the concept of the story does not resound as solidly. Despite the ambiguity of the ‘mystery’ behind the film, this is still a fair watch, we may not completely feel as if we have been transported to those magical living-room days of watching holiday films of our childhood, but it does comes pretty close when we watch these young adventurers.

Furry Aliens with Big Chompy Glow-In-The-Dark-Teeth

ATTACK THE BLOCK (15)
Directed by Joe Cornish

Based in South London, Attack The Block is a seemingly low-budget debut directed by man-of-the-moment Joe Cornish. Low budget the film may have been, but low-quality it certainly is not. The film depicts a teen gang who are forced to unite with their own mugging victim (“Why did you rob a poor person?! Them nurses don’t get paid shit!”) in order to defend their tower block
from oncoming alien invasion, and is, in my opinion, an absolutely hilariously brilliant film.  With the tagline ‘Inner City versus Outer Space’, Cornish draws on from action-filled American alien films from the ‘90s and ‘80s (presumably harking back to his earlier years), and at the same time parodies the clichés of the same period, encompassed in the basic concept of large, hairy aliens with bitey teeth. And did I mention that they have glow-in-the-dark teeth? Combining inner-city, street London patois with middle class vernacular, and hooded, mixed cultured ‘yoofs’ with middle-class white adults, we see how representations of youths, colour and urban landscape are turned on their heads, forcing both characters within the plot as well as the viewers to face their preconceptions and redefine them. But it is the humour which really marks out Attack the Block as a memorable and intelligent gem, using the street-smart of the teenagers without patronising their common sense. With comments such as: “…‘You can get bare pea for that alien ting, maybe we should call the tabloids’…. ‘Nah bruv, The Sun will just make it look like dem page 3 girls, allow that shizzle’ ” being chimed out amidst alien attack and thundering action, Cornish succeeds in avoiding the route where the younger characters are pushed to the background by the ‘adults’, choosing instead to benefit from the fearless yet loveable personalities portrayed by Moses (played by John Boyega) and his gang. Also added to the mix is National-Geographic-obsessed stoner Ron, portrayed by the ever amusing Nick Frost, showing how the film grounds itself in British humour without becoming snobby or obscure. However the film also succeeds in reflecting a darker side to the film in the drug-dealing Hi-Hatz, and the dangers of gang culture, showing how Cornish does not choose to ignore the negative image of South-London, but rather seeks to throw light on the way that youngsters can become trapped in this lifestyle.

“Them tings…… I’m gonna merk them!”

Intertwining indignant slang and comical bravado throughout the film, there are several one-liners targeted at a multi-audience, with references to contemporary culture (“Call the police!” “You’re better off calling the Ghostbusters love!”), heart-warming friendship, and fresh action involving all parties “tooling up” to save the council estate tower block, all the while having to make sure that they’ll “be home before ten Mum!”.

For those of you who were impressed by the radioactive-looking chompers onscreen, you’re not the only one, as someone has already taken to selling T-Shirts of the things! And that’s not the only range of merchandise that has generated from the movie, as a game has been released for the iPhone which actually looks quite curious (I’m mainly interested in finding out whether any of the game-characters can hide in the bins like their movie counterparts!)

This is a film that I would definitely recommend to all, it is a sparkling addition to British cinema and, although seeming as if it plays along with the image of ‘hoodies’ and street culture at times, it successfully sheds light on the idea of solidarity, loyalty, and looking out for your mates.

False Eyelashes Amock

SUCKER PUNCH (12A)
Directed by Zach Snyder

Sucker Punch is a very stylised action-slash-fantasy movie portraying a young girl (played by Emily Blunt) who has been forced into a mental institution by her stepfather following her sister’s accidental death. It is here that the film’s heroine dives heads-first into fantasy and adventure in order to ultimately escape her lobotomy destiny.
Throughout the film we see highly sexualised young women, who are depicted as commodities to benefit men, and we see that there is very much a traditional patriarchal system in play here. However at the same time, the heroines are fully aware of this objectification and take advantage of this for their own survival. The general portrayal of men are often shown as seedy and grasping, despite the fact that they seem to hold the cards in the institution. However this is not a film that focuses on the women’s emotions and the subtly hidden abuse, it is about women taking control despite their imprisonment.
The general effect of the film is very video-game like, and feels as if you are watching someone play a very sophisticated computer game – but this does not mean that this is not an enjoyable watch. This would appear very much a ‘boys’  film, with guns, explosions and beautiful women in scantily clad outfits who have suddenly acquired expert fighting skills, which very much epitomises the general male fantasy being played out.

The names given to the main characters – Babydoll, Blondie, Rocket, Sweetpea and Amber – are in fact very feminine and patronising, and we never do really find out their real names. Even Babydoll has few lines throughout the movie, and speaks very little, therefore her character is built through her expressions and her actions such as her ability to fight.
There are various alternative realities (or rather, fantasies) used throughout as methods of excape. With various scenes of a brothel, mental institution, theatre not to mention the actual fight scenes that play out whenever Babydoll begins to dances. This is really an interesting interpretation of mental illness or breakdown, as well as the exploration of the human mind and its coping mechanisms. The ‘adventures’ that Babydoll fantasises about are all very much quest-like and has reminisces of other scenes from other films. In one scene, for example, in which the girls must defeat a dragon, I was reminded of setting of Mordor, and Orcs from Lord Of The Rings. Similarly, the android robots fantasy gave off a feeling of ‘I, Robot’ and ‘Terminator’. That is not to say that Snyder has copied these ideas but rather has created the general feeling of the ‘adventures’  being a bit too manufactured and neatly imagined. Accordingly, even the colour scheme reflects the unrealness of the scenes, at times it is sedated to reflect the general grim mood of movie, yet becomes alive with colour and special effects during the actions and adventure scenes.

The soundtrack throughout the film is very fast-paced, but also very likeable. With  ‘Tainted Love’ being incorporated to blast open the movie, to ‘We Will Rock You’ and ‘Love Is the Drug’ to accompany slick moves and fight scenes. The film is rife with dramatic one-liners such as “Your survival begins here” and “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything”. The main issue here is not to take this film too seriously. This movie is very aesthetically pleasing, with beautiful scenes, women, costumes – and the focus is on this, rather than the emotional side. If you’re interested in cleverly shot video-game-like movies, then this is one to watch, complete with burlesque-clad mercenaries throughout.