Back in 2003, Vishal Bhardwaj started his Shakespearean trilogy project, and delivered the masterpiece that was Maqbool, Bharadwaj’s retelling of Macbeth. The film was followed up in 2006 with Omkara, the retelling of Othello. After delivering two stunning films inspired by William Shakespeare’s tragedies, the movie-goer would expect Haider, an
alleged adaptation of Hamlet, to show loyalty to Shakespeare. To be, or not to be (loyal), is the question that dogged Bharadwaj and in the end, the film disappoints, and culminates in a half-hearted attempt to deliver a moral message about peace.
The story begins with Hilaal Meer (Hamlet) and his wife, Ghazala (Gertrude), a surgeon and school teacher respectively. Under the influence of the Hippocratic oath, Hilaal performs an appendicitis surgery on a militant leader, and the discovery of the militants in his house, leads to his “disappearance”. Haider (Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark) returns to Kashmir from Aligarh, and discovers his uncle, Khurram (Claudius), a political leader, romancing his mother. Disgusted that she could entertain such behaviour so quickly after his father’s disappearance, Haider leaves the house in order to search for Hilaal. Khurram assigns Salman and Salman (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) to spy on Haider.
Arshia (Ophelia) is Haider’s romantic interest, and the daughter of Pervez (Polonious), a local policeman, receives a message for Haider from Roohdaar (Ghost of Hamlet). Roohdaar, an ISI double-agent, informs Haider of Hilaal’s detention at an unknown military base, his torture in the hands of the Army for information on militants, and his subsequent death. Through Roohdaar, Haider discovers that Khurram, who has always shown an incestuous interest in Ghazala, is the root-cause for Hilaal’s disappearance and death. Haider swears to kill Khurram, and avenge Hilaal. The news of Hilaal’s death is quickly conveyed to Khurram, and Ghazala, who marry on the day of the funeral, while Haider feigns mental illness. On the wedding day, Haider stages a play (through the song Bismil) depicting the murder of Hilaal, through which he receives proof of Khurram’s involvement. Under the pretense of institutionalising him, Pervez and the two Salmans attempt to kill Haider, who instead kills them. Mad with grief over Pervez’s death, Arshia commits suicide; enraged at his father’s and sister’s deaths, and encouraged by Khurram Liyaquat (Laertas) attempts to murder Haider, who instead kills him. At this point, Bharadwaj’s dedication to Shakespeare explodes to smithereens with Ghazala in the climax.
I can unashamedly admit that I expected to be bawling beautifully when the tale began, and involved ingenious plot twists to incorporate Claudius’s betrayal, and Hamlet’s ghost. With Shahid Kapoor entering the skin of Haider, the child of war, the companion of violence and insurgency, displaying an almost sexual love for Ghazala, played by the well-seasoned Tabu, with Kay Kay permeating sliminess into Khurram, and Shraddha Kapoor, a delicate innocence in Arshia, Bharadwaj had all the elements for the perfect Indian retelling of Hamlet. Until the death of Ghazala, the script is gripping, and then, it isn’t.
Adapting Hamlet into anarchic Kashmir, where people can disappear without much hoo-haa, where lives are worthless, and where Haider would’ve had no choice but to go mad would seem initially to be pure genius. But here, Bharadwaj changes the end, a right that he has not (yet) earned from the bard, and lets the movie-goer down with a script that blindly meandered. I might have shed a tear or two, not for the tragedy of Haider, but for the death of a script that forced me to involve myself in the anarchy of a conflict-ridden Kashmir, which evolves from a mere plot-setting to the lead character. Was I meant to care for Haider and Arshia, Ghazala and Liyaquat? Was I meant to hate Khurram, and mourn Hilaal? Or was I meant to rue the plight of Kashmir? “Hara-kiri,” I wanted to yell, and it would have been all too fitting. But in the end, I convinced myself to get into the film as it turned out to be, and forget that I was watching a version of Hamlet (most of the crowd would not have known the play, or cared anyway). Bharadwaj’s usual genius is lost in Haider, leaving me with no choice but to give the movie a dejected 3 stars out of 5. One of those stars may purely be for the beautiful soundtrack composed by Bharadwaj.