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-[Film Reviews]-, Bollywood, South Asian Cinema

‘Haider’ (2014): Hamlet in the Himalayas


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 the politically volatile, war-torn backdrop of the contested Kashmir territory in 1995, Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider acts as the third installment in his trilogy of Hindi-Shakespeare adaptations, following Maqbool (based on Macbeth) in 2003 and Omkara (based on Othello) in 2006; Haider itself is an adaptation of Hamlet. Based on my research and on this particular film’s explicit content, the writer-directer seems partial to bloody, politically charged crime dramas that stretch well beyond the industry’s romantic-opera staple, and to that end he seems talented at filming them if Haider’s quality is representative of his greater filmography.

haider bismil - choreography

The musical centerpiece, “Bismil,” features its main characters confronting one another about murder, deception, and conspiracy.

Not only is this film one of the first mainstream, widely distributed Bollywood pictures to examine controversial sociopolitical events within India without a nationalist or patriotic slant, it tells a brilliant, standalone narrative that melds Hindi and Shakespearean melodrama. One can view this powerful, gut-wrenching narrative as an explicit, harsh commentary on the complicated history of India’s geopolitical maneuvering within the Kashmir region, or one can simply enjoy the film on a purely cinematic level; for myself, Haider is most effective as a gritty, intelligent crime drama that uses history and arguably Shakespeare’s greatest narrative framework to tell an engrossing tale about the universal human condition.

The fact that Basharat Peer and Bhardwaj’s screenplay covers such controversial sociopolitical content, while never becoming heavy-handed or taking clear 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 energy from its first frame till its last; altogether, the film remains satisfying regardless of whichever 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.

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 — including whether or not he is even alive — his path leads him down a dark rabbit hole through 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 [1994]), you’ll know the general outline of the story from the get-go and have a good idea of the twists to come; in no way will that spoil your enjoyment of the film, however, 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 industrial Bollywood roots in favor of a more Westernized look and feel. Haider very much looks and sounds the part of a glorious Hindi-blockbuster epic; it boasts a great score and two well directed song numbers that are cinematically attractive and spectacles in their own right, which serve as thematic drivers of the overarching story. The movie boasts identifiable, memorable artistic design with a wonderful color scheme, taking advantage of fantastic location-shoots as well as glorious costume designs and awesome hair and makeup styling for lead Kapoor.

haider montage 3

From top to bottom: The seedy family intrigue begins (top) as political strife gives rise to protests from various “half families” of abducted political prisoners (middle), and Haider (Kapoor) searches in vain for his father’s whereabouts.

Haider’s cinematographic and screenwriting influences are numerous: Its action framing echoes contemporary dynamic set-pieces from Hollywood crime dramas and low-budget genre films, not skimping on blood and gore. Elsewhere, this Westernized approach to action filmmaking contrasts with the movie’s diverse musical sequences, charismatic yet tasteful Bollywood sensuality, and atypical soundtrack touches like jazz and blues riffs. Haider takes ques from sources beyond its South Asian stables (e.g. popular American music, handheld camerawork for action sequences, partial nudity, and of course, Shakespeare’s writing) but allows them to enhance, rather than drown out its distinctly Bollywood tone, colorful visuals, and homegrown drama.

There are a few problems with this movie, I’ll admit. Occasionally, Bhardwaj makes odd moves with his camera to sidestep graphic violence in what I assume were attempts 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 in the United States). 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 rock seem out of place in a film otherwise so up-front about about its subject-matter. 

Perhaps the highest praise I can give the film is this: In the past, I always fell back on recommending 3 Idiots as an introduction for Westerners unaccustomed to Bollywood to minimize any culture-shock that might scare them off. 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; that situation has now 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 aesthetic. Unlike something akin to Rajkumar Hirani’s 2009 for-all-ages adventure, Haider uses non-native ques to bolster rather than circumvent its proud Hindi filmmaking culture, and as a result becomes great cinematic artistry and entertainment for all who like damned good movies.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Vishal Bhardwaj 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. Somehow the story manages to scream Kashmir’s historical realism, Shakespearean drama, Bollywood spice, and universal humanism all at once and leaves you wanting more. Shahid Kapoor is 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.

—> Haider comes RECOMMENDED.

? I do wish the “rock ‘n roll” version of the song, “Aao Na,” was in the actual movie.

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.


12 thoughts on “‘Haider’ (2014): Hamlet in the Himalayas

  1. I’ve seen Omkara so will hunt this one down. Have to say, Shahid Kapoor’s come a long way since I last saw him playing pretty boy roles in the likes of 36, China Town! Still, if Priyanka Chopra can escape the shackles of the beautiful and reinvent herself anyone can.

    Posted by theopeningsentence | January 7, 2015, 4:10 pm
    • Happy hunting 🙂 I’m not kidding when I say I love this film — it may be my new favorite Bollywood film, or at least one of the best that I’ve ever seen. Kapoor’s performance here really shows how good so many of these soap-opera-type actors are. They’re all genuinely good actors, it’s just that they’re usually told to overract or portray caricatures in silly movies for whatever reason (tradition, maybe?).

      How good is Omkara, by the way?

      Posted by The Celtic Predator | January 11, 2015, 9:08 am
      • It’s a few years since I’ve seen it, but I remember at the time thinking it was better than the usual Bollywood presentation. No melodrama, mature acting and direction. I’m not sure if I was gripped by the narrative, but it was certainly a world away from the usual Karan Johar-style approach to film making. Certainly worth recommending; I don’t think you’ll feel as if you’ve wasted two and half hours of your life when it’s finished.

        Posted by theopeningsentence | January 11, 2015, 11:52 am


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