Most of the coverage of Hindi film Haider—released in 2014—focused on the portrayal of Kashmir and its tortured politics. In my humble opinion, this controversy is secondary. The primary focus has to be on the the central issue whether lovers of Hamlet end up liking Haider or not.
What all intelligent readers of this paper (sorry, all readers of this paper are, of course, intelligent) should grapple with is that some 500 years after he lived and wrote, the Bard can be such an extraordinary inspiration, provided the adapter is as sensitive as Vishal Bhardwaj.
I have watched this movie a dozen times. The last time I watched it was along with my two sons. I kept telling them about the unforgettable performances of the twin brother duo, the video parlour operators, who played the roles of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Personally, I found their casting and acting most interesting and intriguing.
My elder son, Vijay, educated me. He told me that both the characters are called Salman and that they sang songs from Salman Khan movies—a detail which I would have missed, given my minuscule knowledge of Bollywood. This adds a contemporary masala which old Will would have approved of. After all, he was acutely conscious of the need for commercial success in the hot-house world of the Elizabethan stage. Vijay was more intrigued by the police officer who portrayed Polonius. My younger son, Raghav, felt that casting Ophelia as a contemporary journalist was an act of sheer genius.
We were all in violent agreement about the following:
The ghost was introduced with great sensitivity and much aplomb;
The portrayal of Claudius was extraordinary. The actor is very good. And the fact that Claudius’s attraction to his sister-in-law turned wife is fundamentally not that unreasonable is captured with panache;
Ophelia, by being less melancholy and just more charming (her chutzpah is just something else), actually ended up being very convincing;
The repeated instructions of the senior Hamlet to his son to pluck out Claudius’s eyes suggest that revenge in the 21st century is more clinical, physical and brutal than it was 500 years ago;
The grave-digger’s scene, easily the toughest scene in Hamlet, and one of the toughest in all of Shakespeare, is transformed into an extraordinarily poetic and, mind you, a very effective scene;
The substitution of Aligarh for Wurtenburg and Bangalore for Paris is just very, very clever. Bangalore, with its multinational companies and seductive jobs, should make any Dane (Kashmiri) salivate. No wonder, Bhardwaj’s Laertes is so convincing;
The substitution of the player’s drama with a Bollywood dance number is more than just an expression of genius. It, in fact, demonstrated an extraordinary sophistication.
I was reluctant to discuss with my sons (I am an old man and I need to be understood as a representative of a dying, embarrassed generation) the explicit erotic incestuous scene as the young Haider (Hamlet) caresses his mother’s back. I have seen at least a dozen different versions of Hamlet on the stage and three or four on the screen. I have never felt the impact of the repressed subterranean forbidden love with this sheer sense of fever-pointedness.
This leads me to the other thing about Gertrude—the way she blows herself up is so much in keeping with what one would expect of a woman who embodies the essence of this tragedy—a younger woman married to a larger-than-life older man, but an older man who simply does not have the romantic allure of his brother. Therefore, severely compromised, but not to the point that she should be denied redemption.
The Kashmir valley cannot be the setting for a dark, cold, melancholic Denmark. Hamlet’s madness takes on a public, political hue, rather than a private one characterised by a sense of interiority. But the fact that Hamlet, Haider and, for that matter, you and I are Lord of the Flies psychotics with a thin patina of sanity on the surface is captured very well. The choice of ancient temple ruins to set the play within the play is an inspired one. It is almost as if Bhardwaj is saying that there is an Elsinore in every land. It is for us to seek it. Perhaps we each carry a private Elsinore in the interstices of our neural synapses.
If there is one relatively mild negative observation I have about the Haider-Hamlet transformation, it is that somehow the soliloquies do not work too well. Perhaps the screen is not a good medium to capture the acme of the dramatic art which the solitary speaking actor on the stage represents. Perhaps it is necessary that there be some fault. There is a saying that there is no such thing as a perfect painting, and perhaps there should not be one. As one who was entranced by Macbeth-Maqbool and by Othello-Omkara, although a little less than the former, I went to the movie prepared to be astonished and pleased. Haider did not disappoint me. The brilliant transformation of Tabu from an unusually lust-filled Lady Macbeth to a Gertrude equally in the thrall of her lusts was impressive. Perhaps this is how the great Sarah Bernhardt acted.
A must-watch movie. It puts Bhardwaj in the same class as Akira Kurosawa—a comparison I make with considerable trepidation, but also with some confidence. Let’s not forget the Japanese giant’s adaptation of King Lear. We must now wait for Bhardwaj’s version.
The author is a Mumbai-based entrepreneur