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?