Sunday, October 12, 2014

Haider: Of Sons, Lovers and Shakespeare

Naseeruddin Shah in his enthrallingly honest autobiography And Then One Day makes an interesting observation, which if not original, is uttered with a certain degree of sarcasm:

...the Hindi filmwalas have helped themselves to such humongous doses of Shakespeare ― there is no cliché in Hindi cinema that is not borrowed from the man, and I often wonder what popular Hindi cinema would have been like without Shakespeare’s source material.

Besides direct plot-borrowings from the playwright which have been rampant (from Comedy of Errors to Romeo and Juliet), the Bombay revenge dramas of earlier years bear distinct marks of Shakespearean tragedies. Even certain motifs, for instance, a guilt-ridden Sanjeev Kumar compulsively washing his hands at regular intervals in the Yash Chopra multi-starrer Trishul (1978) or the musical play-within-the-film which unsettles the villainous Simi Garewal revealing to the world the conspiratorial plot she had hatched to murder her husband in Subhash Ghai’s 1980 blockbuster Karz (later revisited by Farah Khan in the 2007 megahit Om Shanti Om), are clearly drawn from Shakespeare.

Therefore, when a partially mad Haider (Shahid Kapoor) stages a perfectly choreographed dance at his mother’s wedding, it appears more Karz than Hamlet, for in between Hamlet and Haider a lot has been stolen from Shakespeare without acknowledgement. In fact, in his one-man-show below the clock-tower, Haider reminds more of Antony Gonsalvez of the mother of all lost-and-found melodramas, Amar Akbar Antony (Dir: Manmohan Desai, 1977), than Hamlet, with a bout of Chaplinesque trampish comedy thrown in. Therefore, Vishal Bharadwaj’s official analogical adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic revenge tragedy might appear less Shakespearean and more Bollywoodish to an alert viewer. The Indo-Pak skirmish over Kashmir does not help in upping the originality quotient, at least apparently! For, it invariably recalls Mani Ratnam’s mesmerizingly lyrical Roja (1992) or even the very forgettable Mission Kashmir (Dir: Vidhu Vinod Chopra, 2000), in which a brawny Hrithik Roshan, still shining in the glory of newfound stardom, mouthed some fiery dialogues and danced some extraordinarily good dances. The mother, figuratively representing Kashmir itself, is seemingly no revelation either, for she has always been a symbol of a contested political site, the nation, over which Hindi film’s good sons have fought emotional battles forever.

So, what’s new in Haider, and rivetingly and unsettlingly new?

Perhaps, Haider’s difference from all that went before it on Kashmir in Bollywood is that, the film tellingly discards the populist-nationalist rhetoric of the need to protect Kashmir from an insurgent and unlawful neighbour, which has been mindlessly villainized in film after film riding high on belligerent jingoistic invectives. Haider remarkably problematizes the Kashmir issue, rescuing it from the simplistic populist narrative of a Hindustan vs. Pakistan war, and locates it within a very complex matrix of ‘internal’ politics, in which the ‘real’ villain is not really a “weak-hearted” neighbour (cf. Border or LOC: Kargil or Pukaar) waiting in ambush to pounce on the unsuspecting at the first opportunity.

And, the great “to be or not to be” dilemma of Hamlet is here transferred into a less talked about reality of the war-torn Kashmir: Hum hai ke nahi hai, calls into question the state’s deliberate nonchalance towards those who disappeared never to return. The literally liminal existence of these disappeared people, between life and death, generating an entire population of “half-widows” is remarkably captured by the “to be or not to be” syndrome. The narrative of disappeared individuals in the wake of one of the most blood-curdling wars of all times has been thereby brought to the fore in a hard-hitting manner, not seen in any other mainstream film. This is perhaps one of the best parts of the adaptation, apart from the film’s gradual shift to a more surreal/absurdist mode in the second half. The existential crisis which forms the core of the Shakespearean play is transposed beautifully on-screen, be it in the clock-tower tramp act, or in the grave-diggers’ scene, the backdrop of a snow-clad Kashmir providing the perfect ambience for the absurdist drama to unfold believably.

Probably the best thing about this film is Ghazala. Enacted brilliantly by a luminously real Tabu, Bhardwaj and his co-scriptwriter Basharat Peer give Shakespeare’s Gertrude a wonderful makeover, from a passive, submissive mother and wife to an articulate half-widow, inextricably and helplessly torn between a distraught son and a scheming lover. In fact, the film by postponing the back-story of the murder of the Doctor (read, the appearance of the ghost), Haider’s father, foregrounds the Oedipal tension between mother and son to remarkably unsettling effects. In fact, Haider’s erotic leanings towards Ghazala are totally unambiguous, beginning and ending with a physical intimacy which is distinctly sexual. Bharadwaj and Peer do away with circumlocution which always took care to conceal the son’s eternal obsession with the mother, floating such narratives through sanitised tropes of nation, patriotism, duty and some such moral responsibilities.

Ghazala wields power both as a lover and a mother, in both roles, excelling in incredible seductiveness and an equally adorable vulnerability. This seductiveness which precariously verges on her self-destructive tendencies erupts rather powerfully in the end, when she blows herself up. What is remarkably extraordinary about Haider is that how by attributing an agency to Ghazala, Bharadwaj and Peer challenge the predominant patriarchal structures within which the Shakespearean play mostly operates.

Haider, while being located firmly in the tradition of Bollywood potboilers, also takes care to dissociate itself from it, most conspicuously evidenced by its portrayal of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the two Salmans, obsessed with Salman Khan films! The two knaves, to use an archaic term, turn out to be the most detestable villains, completely spineless and chicken-hearted. In other words, they fail the screen-god they are so fond of in their real life actions, thereby obliquely garnering a critique of Bollywood’s much celebrated larger-than-life heroism and its speciousness.

Yet, what appears disturbing is how Bharadwaj and Peer completely do away with the procrastination, which is so fundamental to Shakespeare’s tragedy. Haider broods like Hamlet, feels cheated, feels betrayed, but he doesn’t procrastinate in the classical Hamletian fashion. The design behind his father’s incarceration and his subsequent death (his jail days, by the way, cannot but remind of Manoj Kumar’s patriotic potboilers where the shaheed incessantly sings sentimental songs from behind the bars) is revealed to him much later, when half the film is literally over. By then, Haider probably is not left with enough screen time to put away the revenge eternally. Had he wasted time in procrastinating, the film would have dragged, robbing the plot of its initial raciness. Perhaps, this technical reason marked out procrastination as an unnecessary evil to be done away with, catapulting Haider directly into madness, which is, however, enacted radiantly, but not with too much originality. If there is any procrastination at all, it is more circumstantial than philosophical. What actually damages the intensity of the second half is a romantic song in the snow, which comes immediately after Haider visibly loses his mind. It seriously dilutes the gravity of his psychological trauma in its lyrical extravaganza, and also irrevocably harms Arshi’s character (Ophelia played by Shraddha Kapoor), attenuating to a great extent the tragic intensity of her eventual suicide.

While Haider is actually a constellation of intertexts overlapping each other in the garb of an official adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, I believe the film cannot be fully appreciated without knowledge of Shakespeare. Even without that, the extreme agony of a burning paradise on earth is bound to leave you utterly distraught, as the camera gradually zooms out, the top shot revealing an unending snow-covered landscape strewn with dead bodies. The stains and blotches of blood on immaculate whiteness of the snow aggravate the horror of it all. Haider doesn’t die, he limps out of the frame in maddening rage, totally devastated, leaving to the audience’s imagination what would happen to him next. Bharadwaj’s Haider is not blessed with death, unlike his Shakespearean counterpart, which intensifies the tragedy all the more. 
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