Vishal Bharadwaj's third Shakespearean adaptation,' Haider' urf 'Hamlet' is a spectacular looking film, each little detail of set and setting perfect. Where it falters is in telling the story it sets out to: the result is a gorgeous but choppy film that you cannot take your eyes off for fear of losing another exquisite piece of detailing; it is also one that fails to fully keep you with it.
The film is set in 1995, when militancy in Kashmir was at its peak. Haider (Shahid) returns home after a gap to find his world in ruins. His father (Jha) has disappeared, presumably into the bowels of the 'system' after an army 'crackdown', leaving his 'half-widow' of a mother (Tabu) closeted with his politically ambitious 'chacha' (Kay Kay). Haider is bereft, his only solace his girlfriend Arshia (Shraddha), and his two old friends, who may not be who they seem to be.
The strongest part of the film is in the way it has depicted the dissension-hit state of Kashmir, overrun by militants and the military, skillfully skewering the still-strong Bollywoodized memory of the idyllic Dal lake full of flower-laden shikaras and yodeling stars. Instead of Shammi and Sharmila sliding on a Gulmarg hillside, we have Shahid and Shraddha, trying to find a way around the darkness and despair that has settled into the sinews of the 'Paradise on earth' on 'zameen ast'
And that has to do, one suspects, because of Basharat Peer's contribution to the script : so many of the touches seem to have come from his telling first-person account ('Curfewed Night') of what it is to live with constant fear and suspicion, where friends can be foes, and ghosts roam the beautiful lakeside : an early chilling scene of an' identification parade- and-arrest' isn't bettered in the rest of the film.
The setting is perfect for the gloomy tale of 'Hamlet', the story of the confused prince who has a thing for his mother, and whose bewilderment and grief at his father's death sends him hurtling over the precipice. But the plot seems foisted upon on the landscape: the twin threads of story and setting lie uneasily about each other, rising off the screen in some jaw-droppingly good scenes, and then flattening out again in verbose patches which weigh on the story, and the actors.
The drama is pumped up by swelling orchestral background music, calling attention to itself. This is the first time I've felt this in a Vishal Bharadwaj film, he who knits the poetry and music so integrally and beautifully into his films. Shahid has a couple of break-out moments, but never really makes us ache for the lonely, deeply distressed young man. Kay Kay, who has a role to die for, plays it with familiar flourishes. Shradhha is fresh-faced but unexciting. And Irrfan, in a bit part, gets himself an 'entry', and we sit up, and then he slides, too. Even the marvelous Tabu, who can raise a scene just by being there, isn't as riveting as she can be (the way she was in Bharadwaj's own 'Maqbool'): the strongly Oedipal moments create a picture but do not cause a frisson.
I doubt if I will be able to forget the stunning visuals which dot the film, but the sum is never more than its terrific parts. The craggy old gravediggers in a scene that soars, and the truest character of the film, Haider's father (played by Jha), channel the continuing tragedy that is Kashmir. As do the lovely 'kani' shawls flung over the shoulders of the characters, the wispy steam rising from the 'kahwa' cups, the conflicted tears that flow out of Tabu's eyes . If only they had a film to match.