Vishal Bhardwaj’s ambitious trilogy of Bollywood films based on William Shakespeare plays comes to a triumphant close with Haider, his adaptation of Hamlet. His 2003 Maqbool (based on Macbeth) premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, and 2006’s Omkara (Othello) screened at Cannes, both to wide acclaim.
Although Haider star Shahid Kapoor isn’t quite up to the heavy lifting required of the role, he is supported by the likes of Irrfan Khan (The Lunchbox), Kay Kay Menon and Tabu (The Namesake, Life of Pi) — as well as some of the most gorgeous photography seen this year by cinematographer Pankaj Kumar (Ship of Theseus) and a haunting score by Bhardwaj himself incorporating Kashmiri folk instruments and melodies.
This is the type of film that woos critics but often leaves Indian audiences nonplussed, so its release on Oct. 2 (the holiday of Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday) opposite the splashy musical Bang Bang! may not bode well from a financial standpoint. International audiences will get another chance to savor this atmospheric and powerful film when it screens at festivals in Rome and Busan.
The year is 1995, as Pakistan-India rivalry worsens over the disputed north Indian state of Kashmir; militants plot an uprising, armed Indian soldiers line the streets, a strict curfew is imposed, and every man is under suspicion. Haider’s father (charismatic TV actor Narendra Jha), a politically neutral surgeon, operates on an insurgent and is found out and “disappeared” by Indian security forces. Haider’s torment over the loss of his father is compounded by the discovery that his mother, Ghazala (Tabu), is in a relationship with his father’s brother, the ambitious politician Khurram (Kay Kay Menon, Black Friday). When Haider learns that his father has been murdered at the hand of his uncle, he swears to avenge him.
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Shraddha Kapoor (no relation to Shahid Kapoor), the daughter of screen comic Shakti Kapoor, is Arshiya, or Ophelia; and some welcome comic relief comes in the shape of two buffoonish Bollywood video rental clerks (Bhardwaj’s version of Rosencranz and Guildenstern) charged with spying on Haider.
Shahid Kapoor, who has changed the spelling of his last name since his last outing with Bhardwaj in Kaminey, sulks throughout much of his performance, but his expert dancing skills are put to good use in the song “Bismil,” in which his character mounts a drama exposing the truth about Khurram and his mother, set to a thrilling folk rhythm and traditional Kashmiri instrumentation.
Khan is restrained and intriguing as the ghostly Roohdaar, but it is Tabu who dominates the film: Her changing moods are complemented by Kumar’s expert lighting — harsh as the glare of a Kashmir winter, other times warm and evocative. The actress’ maturity lends authority to one of literature’s most sexually charged, powerful roles.
Bhardwaj’s films often skate on the sidelines of the mainstream with limited success, such as in the murder comedy 7 Khoon Maaf or the political satire Matru ki Bijli ka Mandola, and his trademark quirkiness at times wears thin. But with Haider, he wisely forgoes the rough-edged attitude in his other films to embrace a slicker and more sophisticated style; and some of the film’s most effective moments are masterful in their visual storytelling skill.
Production companies: UTV Motion Pictures Ltd. and Vishal Bhardwaj Pictures Pvt. Ltd.
Cast: Shahid Kapoor, Tabu, Irrfan Khan, Kay Kay Menon, Shraddha Kapoor, Narendra Jha, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Lalit Parimoo, Ashish Vidyarthi, Aamir Bashir, Sumit Kaul, Rajat Bhagat
Director: Vishal Bhardwaj
Screenwriters: Vishal Bardwaj, Basharat Peer
Producers: Siddharth Roy Kapur, Vishal Bhardwaj
Director of photography: Pankaj Kumar
Production designers: Subrata Chakraborthy, Amit Ray
Costume designer: Dolly Ahluwalia
Editor: Aarif Sheikh
Music: Vishal Bhardwaj
No MPAA rating, 159 minutes