There’s a sweeping, operatic quality to Haider, director Vishal Bhardwaj’s robust staging of Hamlet against the troubled landscape of Kashmir at the peak of militancy in the mid-nineties. The ongoing insurgency, which has pitted militants and separatists against security forces for decades, makes for a potent setting. But Bhardwaj – who successfully rooted Omkara in the badlands of Uttar Pradesh, and Maqbool in the Mumbai underworld – isn’t one to use backdrop merely as decorative wallpaper. He presents a warts-and-all insider’s view, often making scathing observations like the identity crisis faced by local Kashmiris, or the torture of separatists and terror suspects in army camps. This is easily the director’s most political film.At the centre of this volatile world he places his protagonist, Haider (Shahid Kapoor), a young student who returns home from university on receiving news of his father’s disappearance after being picked up by the army. Equally upsetting is the discovery that his mother, Ghazala (Tabu), has taken up with his father’s brother, Khurram (Kay Kay Menon). When Haider learns the truth behind his father’s death, he’s plunged into grief and rage, and is possibly losing his mind.Bhardwaj and his co-writer, journalist-author Basharrat Peer, lay out a canvas ripe for revenge and tragedy. But the plot only kicks in halfway into the film when Irrfan Khan’s Roohdar, a mysterious figure with a questionable identity (standing in for the ghost from the original play), shows up and sets the wheels in motion.

 

As if conducting an orchestra, Bhardwaj lines up his instruments, employing camera, music, and artful production design to deliver a moody drama that feels consistently authentic. Pankaj Kumar’s cinematography, in particular, is one of the film’s trump cards. The stunning landscapes and the inventively shot play-within-a-play song-sequence aside, we get a real, lived-in sense of Kashmir as inhabited by the characters themselves.

The film benefits also from a top-notch cast who do some of their best work here. Kay Kay Menon sinks his teeth into the slimy Claudius role, and Shraddha Kapoor, blessed with the most expressive eyes, oozes earnestness as Arshia, torn between familial pressure and her childhood sweetheart Haider. With minimal dialogue, Irrfan Khan leaves a lasting impression as the shadowy stranger bearing a crucial message. And as Haider himself, Shahid Kapoor delivers his strongest performance yet, skillfully going from helpless to grieving to obsessed with revenge. The film though belongs to Tabu, who infuses an aching vulnerability to her part. Fragile and heartbreaking, she is the secret strength of Bhardwaj’s film. Watch her in those scenes with Shahid that are brimming with Oedipal undertones; they’ll give you gooseflesh.

For a film set in a world plagued with constant strife, Haider is also surprisingly laced with dark humor. In Salman and Salman, the filmmaker gives us a pair of bumbling informants who also happen to be die-hard fans of the Bollywood superstar. A song filmed on a quartet of gravediggers is nicely cheeky. “Aao tum bhi apni kabr khodo aur isme so jao,” one of them tells Haider.

With so much going on, it’s no surprise that the film feels inordinately long – and it is, unfolding leisurely at 2 hours and 41 minutes! The first half is particularly dense, and introduces multiple narrative strands that are abandoned without explanation. I never quite figured out the mission announced by an army chief (Ashish Vidyarthi), or what happened to Kulbushan Kharbanda who turned up in one scene as Ghazala’s father-in-law, never to be seen or referred to again.

A few such hiccups aside, Haider is an elegant, thrilling film that casts a brave, unflinching eye on the Kashmir struggle. In deviating from the original ending of Hamlet, it also makes a necessary point about the cyclical nature of revenge and violence.

Its deliberate pacing may not work for all, but this is a solid, well-acted movie that deserves your time. I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five. To see or not to see? Do you really have to ask?

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