This blog post probably won’t make much sense to someone who hasn’t read Hamlet and watched Haider, for which I apologize in advance. For the record, both are worth doing, and an infinitely better use of your time than reading this.
It helps, I think, to think of Haider as not so much an adaptation but a re-imagining of Hamlet. Sort of like Shakespeare in Love, but with a bit more violence. Or The Immortals of Meluha, but with a lot better writing.
The chronology of events is not the same as in the play. The encounter with the ghost of Hamlet’s father, for instance, comes at the midway point. The reference to Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquy comes as part of a conversation. Like with Shakespeare in Love, there is a certain panache in the way the source material has been interpreted. A scene with two prisoners on a bridge turns out to be such a sublimely brilliant reference to the phrase “shuffling off one’s mortal coil” that I could barely keep myself from guffawing. There is a sly reference to the way Laertes (Liaqat) dies by his own sword, but done so beautifully that I didn’t even realize it until later.
But really, what stands out is the level of detail in the script. Over the course of his three adaptations, Vishal Bharadwaj has slowly moved from using Shakespeare as a source to using him as a medium to tell his own story. We understand Shakespeare’s plays in terms of their characters, perhaps because the audiences of his time would have related to those settings better than we do today. Bharadwaj reimagines the setting, and What the Bard summarized as “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” turns into a two hour long meditation on the state of Kashmir circa mid-1990s. It helps that the screenplay is co-written by Bharadwaj and Basharat Peer, the author of Curfewed Night.
There is a moment right at the beginning when Ghazala (Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother) asks her husband, “Which side are you on?” The question is very pertinent, given the context in which this adaptation is set: people in Kashmir at the time probably did not feel like they had the luxury of an apolitical viewpoint. And it is this enmeshing of the political and the personal (Haider and Hamlet, or Peer and Bharadwaj if you will) that makes the death of Hilal Meer (Hamlet’s father) and Haider’s thirst for revenge a lot more complex than a straightforward adaptation would have probably allowed for. As a result of the tumultous climate the characters find themselves in, what is a largely internal battle in Hamlet is externalized to a great extent in Haider. And this inversion is complete when you consider what happens to the key characters in the end.
The detailing extends to the characters and their relationships as well: Ophelia (Arshiya, Haider’s girlfriend) gets more to do, seeing as how she also has to play the role of Horatio. Her relationship with Hamlet is a lot less dysfunctional than in the play, and a certain conversation involving English pronunciation is such a wonderful mix of hilarity and warmth that it almost belongs in a different film. Polonius (Pervez, the father of Haider’s girlfriend) has a meatier part, and while his lines have a lot more matter and brevity, he is definitely not lacking in art. Khurram (Claudius, Hamlet’s stepfather) is more than just an unctuous usurper of his brother’s throne and marital bed — watch what he does in the end when all about him are doing something else altogether. But the real standout is Haider’s relationship with his mother, and the character of Ghazala herself. Rarely has Hindi cinema ventured to portray something this complex. And frankly, I suspect we won’t see its like too often again either.
As for the performances, I have rarely found myself wondering whether to write “the performances live up to the writing” or “the writing lives up to the performances”, and finding equally good reasons to put it either way. The weakest link is Shraddha Kapoor as Arshiya, and even she isn’t half bad (apart from an unfortunate tendency to blink under stress, as though she is reading her lines in Morse code). Shahid Kapoor does brilliantly in the title role, and lives up to the promise I feel he’s wasted in a series of bad roles in the past. The only problem is that he is in the company of actors whom he cannot overshadow. Kay Kay Menon does what Kay Kay Menon does, as does Irfan Khan, and when you see them, you realize that you cannot imagine anyone else playing that part. The standout, though, is Tabu. I consider her the most underrated actress in Hindi cinema: not because people don’t realize how good an actress she is, but because it is impossible to come up with superlatives to do her justice. Maybe one ought to initiate a Kickstarter project to keep her clothed and fed, just so she wouldn’t have to do something like Jai Ho.