(Cast: Shahid Kapoor, Tabu, Shradda Kapoor, KK Menon, Irfan Khan; Music, Story, Screenplay, Direction: Vishal Bharadwaj)


Hamlet is arguably be one of the toughest Shakespeare plays to remake, more so to Indianise. There’s infidelity, familial disloyalties, hallucinations and mental illnesses, unpalatable tragedy and, why, even an incestuous undertone. None of this that Indian audience would like to spend their time on, especially today’s attention-deficit ones who can’t stand any frame longer than two seconds. It’s not clear whether Vishal Bharadwaj was a daredevil or an extremely stupid person to set out to adapt Hamlet. And he even had a gall to set it in the 90s Kashmir! Shakespeare would have called him, ‘Thou impudent devil!’

And to think that Bharadwaj has succeeded to a large extent in that effort! Haider is a beautifully inspired adaptation of the tragic Hamlet. The Kashmir backdrop not only provides an impressive setting of the Medieval Denmark, it adds layers to the narration and interpretation. It is easy to imagine why any of us, if placed in Kashmir, can turn mad, experience hallucinations and give into soliloquy, in other words, blabber to ourselves. Half widows, disappearances, mass graves, torture chambers, frequent curfews all line through the rims of the narration, making a grim and brooding prop befitting the story. There’s even one critical and one ridiculous commentary on AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act). One character rhymes AFSPA with the word ‘chutzpa’  and laugh at the similarity in the meaning! One of the most famous soliloquys of Hamlet is set here in his acute criticism of AFSPA, very powerfully imagined. The film is so harshly critical of Indian army’s role in and India’s stand on Kashmir that it’s surprising how it did not get into trouble with the censors, or the right-wing parties. We have only seen Kashmir movies that are highly jingoistic or emotive on India’s cause, but if you want to see a true-to-the heart film on Kashmir, here’s one for you.

Kashmir aside, Bharadwaj uses his brilliant imagination to interpret some of the key elements of the story. He knew that he was telling the story of both Kashmir as well as Haider. They are both intertwined and separated. Another key aspect is Haider’s complex relationship with his mother, bordering on incest, determines his actions and inactions. It is difficult to determine who is exploiting whom or both are being driven mad by extreme emotional turmoil. And what a choice of casting here with Tabu! After watching the film, I cannot imagine anyone else as having done enough justice to the emotionally torn Gertrude. Also, how Bharadwaj enacts the play that Haider stages where he reveals his knowledge of how his father was killed was adorned with brilliance. And the way Arshia dies and the way her ‘drowning’ is imagined. Well, I can go on and on, but the masterstroke is making Irfan Khan play the Ghost! The entry of his character, his costumes and his name all mess with your mind and invite you to try comparisons. Haider’s father and Irfan’s Roohdaar are housed in the same cell in the detention camp and interrogated together and even tortured together. So much so that they are often considered as a same person, with one being the body and the other being the soul. The body (father) dies and the soul (Rooh) lives to tell the tale! This is as ingenious and exciting as adaptations can get!

Alas, the experience would have been extraordinary had Shahid Kapoor not cast as the titular role. Hamlet is a brooding, tragic hero, but you don’t act him as if you’re suffering chronic haemorrhoids. There are many layers to Haider’s suffering. That of his father’s disappearance, of his complex love/hate with his mother, his physical intimacy with her, his confused love with Arshia, his inability to trust his uncle, and his loyalties towards the separatist cause. So much depends on how Haider reacts to these multi-dimensional needs and Shahid betrays us terribly. We should have had someone in the calibre of Mohanlal or Om Puri or even Ajay Devgan, all are, unfortunately, too old to play this role. Perhaps somebody like Dhanush would have done justice to the role if he could speak flawless Urdu and Hindustani. If a more skilled actor had been cast, this film would have turned into an instant classic. Now it remains just a great adaptation and and a brilliant film! What a drag!