After making two excellent films (Maqbool, Omkara) based on Shakespeare's plays, Vishal Bhardwaj takes a third shot at it, and this time he adapts what is considered as Shakespeare's greatest play, Hamlet. Adapting a Shakespeare play into a film is a difficult task in itself, but then trying to give the play an Indian perspective -- a Kashmiri perspective to be precise -- becomes doubly challenging. With Maqbool and Omakara, Bhardwaj managed to retain the essence of the respective Shakespearian plays, while he wiggled room for what were inherently stories rooted in Indian hinterlands. The craftsman that Bhardwaj is, and the depth that Shakespeare's plays carry, it's no co-incidence, both Maqbool and Omkara are his best works till date. So the expectations with Haider automatically surge, but does Bhardwaj manages to weave the magic third time ?
Like in any Shakespearian tragedy, Hamlet (and Haider) has a deeply flawed character at its center, who is plagued by a deep sense grief and a desire for revenge. Vishal Bahrdwaj, and his screenwriting partner (Basharat Peer, a Kashmiri journalist) intelligently utilize Kashmir as their backdrop, which allows them to make a socio-political commentary on the past (and present) mishaps in Kashmir while simultaneously telling a tale of grief and guilt. A tale that unequivocally represents pointlessness of violence and utter futility of revenge.
Haider is a faithful adaption of Hamlet for the most part: a grief-stricken, revenge-seeking protagonist, a conniving uncle, a repentant mother, but it does veer off its source material in the last act (roughly last half-an-hour) and that's also where the film looses most of its charm. After that point the film becomes a routine Bollywood fare with unnecessary melodrama. The idea to create a shocking ending is actually quite un-shocking, and rather trite for a film that mostly was brave in its choices before that. A 30 minutes shorter film with a Shakespearian ending would have been rather a more satisfactory watch. Though, I won't take anything good away from Haider. It's a film that would remain with you for hours after you have finished watching it, and most importantly, it raises the right questions, many of which people were too afraid to even talk about. It's a film that is technically brilliant with some of the best cinematography you will see all year, and a score that's as beautiful as it is unusual.
It helps to have a Kashmiri writer in the ranks because otherwise dialogues won't have as perfect as it is in the film. Though, I had few issues with how modern the characters sounded at times for a 1995 Kashmir. Acting wise, without doubt, Kay Kay Menon and Tabu are way and beyond the picks of the lot. Both bring their A-game to the table, and results are outstanding. Especially Menon, in a part that seemed tailer made for Irrfan Khan, is just exceptional. Shahid Kapoor, even though great in a couple of scenes, is limited by his character's aloofness and his own acting limitedness.
Overall, Haider might fall a little short in convincingly bringing Hamlet to screen, though as a socio-political commentary it more than achieves its purpose. It's hard-hitting and eye-opening. A film with such bold political message is obviously going to ruffle few feathers. And purpose of art sometimes is exactly that : To wake people from up slumber. On that count alone, Haider is a must-watch. Whether you like the message of the film or not is immaterial as long as you recognize the argument behind that message.