Directed by: Vishal Bhardwaj || Produced by: Vishal Bhardwaj, Siddarth Roy Kapur, Shahid Kapoor
Screenplay by: Basharat Peer, Vishal Bhardwaj || Starring: Shahid Kapoor, Tabu Hashmi, Shraddha Kapoor, Kay Kay Menon, Narendra Jha, Irrfan Khan, Kulbhashan Kharbanda, Lalit Parimoo, Ashish Vidyarthi, Aamir Bashir
Music by: Vishal Bhardwaj || Cinematography: Pankaj Kumar || Cinematography by: Pankaj Kumar || Edited by: Aarif Sheikh || Country: India || Language: Hindi
Running Time: 162 minutes
Set against a politically volatile, war-torn backdrop of the contested Kashmir territory in 1995, Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider acts as the third installment in Bhardwaj’s trilogy of Hindi-Shakespeare adaptations, following Maqbool (based on Macbeth) in 2003 and Omkara (based on Othello) in 2006, Haider itself an adaptation of Hamlet. Based on my research and on this particular film’s explicit content, the writer-directer seems to be rather partial to bloody, politically-charged crime dramas that attempt to stretch well beyond the industry’s romantic-opera staple, and to that end he seems to be a particularly talented at filming them if Haider’s quality is representative at all of his greater career filmography.
Not only is this film one of the first mainstream, widely distributed Bollywood pictures to examine extremely controversial sociopolitical events within India without a nationalist or patriotic slant, it manages to tell a genuinely enthralling tale that stands on its own as a brilliant melding of Hindi and Shakespearean melodrama. One can either view this powerful, gut-wrenching narrative as an explicit, critical commentary on the complicated political history of the region and India’s political maneuvering as whole, or one can simply enjoy the film on a purely cinematic level as a gritty, intelligent crime drama that uses history and arguably Shakespeare’s greatest narrative framework to tell on engrossing tale about the universal human condition.
The fact that Basharat Peer’s and Bhardwaj’s screenplay covers such controversial social and political content while never becoming heavy-handed or taking clear-cut sides to spout hamfisted social commentary is made all the more amazing for how integral the movie’s historical premise is to its retrofitted Shakespearean tragedy. There’s so much going on in this movie and yet its story never feels bloated, its direction maintains such strong energy from its first frame till its last, and altogether it remains so satisfying regardless of whatever subjective lens through which one views it. Haider is just fine filmmaking, no two ways about it, and the way director Bhardwaj handles the touchy, controversial material at his disposal should be a benchmark for all filmmakers going forward. I have not seen a film that was this sociopolitically intelligent and this entertaining and this multilayered since Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 (2009). It is that good.
Haider follows the story of its titular character, played by a brilliant Shahid Kapoor, who returns to his partially war-torn, partially-occupied homeland searching for his father who has gone missing while he was away for years at school. People often go “missing” in this part of the world as it turns out, generally when they become perceived as an enemy or political threat to this regime or that, and their remaining family members are referred to as “half-relatives.” Haider’s mother, Ghazala Meer (a beautiful Tabu Hashmi), is a “half-widow,” as her son now becomes a “half-orphan.” As Haider searches for the truth and whereabouts of his father (and to determine whether or not he is even alive), his path leads him down a dark rabbit hole and into a seedy web of political corruption, crime, and deadly family dynamics. If you know the story of Hamlet or have seen other filmic adaptations of the source material (e.g. The Lion King ), you’ll know the general outline of the story from the get-go and have a good idea of the twists to come, but in no way will that spoil your enjoyment of the film or lessen the emotional impacts of the betrayal and violence that occur therein.
That being said, this is not a movie like 3 Idiots (2009) which, while being universally appealing and impossible not to enjoy regardless of one’s cinematic inclinations, essentially abandons its Bollywood industrial roots in favor of a far more westernized look and feel. Haider very much looks and sounds the part of a glorious Hindi-blockbuster epic, boasting a great score and two very well-directed song numbers that are both cinematically attractive and spectacles in their own right, and also serve as thematic drivers of the overarching story. The movie is oozing with organic flavor and wonderful color schemes, drawing from fantastic location-shoots as well as glorious costume designs and a seriously awesome haircut for lead Shahid Kapoor.
Another shocking thing about Haider is how great the violence is, both from a standpoint of sheer visceral intensity and also cinematographic execution. Blood flows freely and frequently in Haider, and the way Bhardwaj is mostly unapologetic about its execution and stages the fight sequences like scenes from Michael Mann’s Heat (1995) is incredibly satisfying. Contrast this very westernized approach to cinematic guerrilla warfare with the intimate sexual teases of standard Bollywood fare, luscious musical scenes featuring Hindi lyrics with non-standard American influences like jazz and rock, and you begin to notice why someone like me likes this movie so damn much: Haider takes plenty of ques from outside sources beyond its South Asian stables (e.g. popular American music, action scenes that don’t suck, some partial but tasteful nudity, realistic acting, and of course Shakespeare’s writing) but allows them to enhance, rather than drown out or replace, its distinctly Bollywood tone and story that boast great music, colorful visuals, and homegrown drama.
There are a few problems with this movie, I’ll begrudgingly admit. Occasionally Bhardwaj makes odd moves with his camera to sidestep a particularly gruesome execution here and there in what I assume were moves to improve the film’s viewership rating (Haider achieved a U/A certification for its Indian theatrical release, the rough equivalent of a PG-13 rating here in the United States). Oddly enough, though, judging by the ordered cuts demanded by the Indian censoring board, the version I watched may be the unedited cut given how much of the violence, brief nudity, and heavily incestual sexual vibes seem relatively untouched and intact. I have a hard-time believing the version I watched would get anything less than an R-rating in the United States, and that’s a good thing given the film’s visceral content.
However, the occasional instances where the camera cuts to a long shot of an insurgent’s execution or awkwardly pans away when Haider crushes an enemy’s skull with a huge rock (things that can’t be restored from forced censorship edits) seem somewhat out of place in a film otherwise so up-front about about its subject matter. The good thing about these few instances compared to the film as a whole is that it holds up much better than, say, The Dark Knight (2008) and that film’s infrequent but very distracting PG-13-ized edits (e.g. cutting to an anguished henchmen’s face when Heath Ledger stabs Michael Jai White in the mouth, laughably blood-free shootouts, etc.). Haider does regrettably pull a few of its punches, but thankfully the vast majority of them come crashing through for maximum impact.
Perhaps the highest praise I can give the film is this: In the past, I always used to fall back on recommending 3 Idiots as an introduction for westerners unaccustomed to Bollywood to minimize any culture-shock that might initially scare them off from delving further into the industry. Their own faults aside, I would always lament that it was “unwise” to push something like either Devdas (2002) or Dilwale Dulhania La Jayenge (1995) on a Bollywood-novice; now that situation has changed —- I have a new film I can push for any and all interested in diving into one of the coolest film industries on the planet, and this one doesn’t require outside influences to water down its native base. Unlike something akin to Rajkuma Hirani’s 2009 fun-for-all-ages and cultures adventure, Haider uses non-native ques to bolster rather than circumvent its proud Bollywood culture, and as a result becomes great cinematic artistry and entertainment for all who like damned good movies.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Vishal Bhardwaj’s directs the hell out of this movie with expert pacing, tense but never exhausting cinematography, potent action scenes, great musical accompaniment (he wrote the entire score for the film as well), and terrific location-shooting. Basharat Peer and Bhardwaj’s script is outstanding and may be the best cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare’s works to date (it’s certainly the best that I have ever seen). Somehow the story manages to scream Kashmir’s historical realism, Shakespearean drama, Bollywood spice, and universal humanist applicability all at once and leaves you wanting more. Shahid Kapoor is absolute dynamite as one of the best Bollywood leads I’ve seen in a long time.
— However… some legacies of the Indian Central Board of Film Certification’s censorship remain despite director Bhardwaj’s best intentions. That being said, the fact that this film exists at all is a great sign of the industry’s maturation and the country of India as a whole coming to grips with modernized political commentary, artistic freedom of expression, and acknowledgment of its colorful past and complicated present.
—> Haider receives MY HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION.
? Nothing else to say. Rock us out, Vishal Dadlani…. though I do wish that “rock ‘n roll” version was somewhere in the actual movie.