Shakespeare would have been proud of Vishal Bhardwaj, it's a given. One cannot imagine better Indian adaptions of Macbeth and Othello than Maqbool and Omkara respectively. I mean, even if you match title to title, Maqbool and Omkara sound super cool, and these names have a certain 'ring' much like their Shakespearean counterparts. With Haider, Bhardwaj does something unusual and daring, he amalgamates the bard's Hamlet with Kashmir. The resultant is a dramatic and dark cocktail of personal strife and collective sorrow of Kashmir, sorrow that has been mostly ignored by the mainstream Hindi cinema.
Kashmir is not just a shooting location in Haider, it is one of the film's main protagonists. Full credit to Vishal Bhardwaj for an imaginative, sensitive and well-researched portrayal of Kashmir of the mid-90s, the era when the state was battling incessant militancy and unease. It requires a lot of courage and conviction to call a spade and a spade and Bhardwaj does exactly that when he calls AFSPA as 'chutzpah'. It is by far the most quirky take by any Indian film on the draconian law that gives sweeping powers to the armed forces in the strife-torn areas. There is no chest thumping about nationalism nor there is any over-dramatic cry for the 'Kashmiri' cause. Haider beautifully balances its narrative by giving a voice to grievances of all the sides, however, it largely focuses on the plight of the average Kashmiri who is torn by the unrest in the valley.
But apart from a brave, honest and intimate take on Kashmir, Haider also boasts of a heartfelt portrayal of mother-son relationship. Tabu and Shahid Kapoor put up pitch perfect performances as Gazala Meer and Haider respectively, to gift us one of the best Ma-beta jodi of Hindi cinema in recent times. With Hamlet as its inspiration, this mother-son duo share a unique bond that is simmering with love, longing and a strange shade of hatred from Haider's side. Tabu steals the show as Shahid's mother and it is such a joy to watch the great actor on screen after so long. One could only wish to see more of her on the silver screen and thank Vishal Bhardwaj for giving this acting powerhouse another meaty role post Maqbool.
Shahid Kapoor shows yet again that he is a terrific actor and comes up with a layered performance that is at times restrained and mostly vulnerable. Irrfan Khan makes a huge impact in a very brief role as the mysterious Roohdaar and Kay Kay Menon looks cunning enough as Haider's uncle Khurram. Shradha Kapoor comes of age in role of Arshi and takes a big leap in the acting department. She shares a lovely chemistry with Shahid, and the two light up the screen every time they find some room for romance. The film's cinematography (Pankaj Kumar) is first rate, so is the soundtrack and background music. Also, the film's dialogues are truly memorable that are sprinkled with doses of humor, intrigue and pain.
But everything is not hunky dory with Haider. The second half seems a bit dragged specially after a stunningly impactful first half. Bhardwaj fails to resist the temptation of getting into self-indulgence and pretentious symbolism towards the fag end of the film. So, there are graveyard caretakers singing 'So Jao' and digging graves for themselves, Haider holding and talking to a human skull as if it were a trophy and this over-dramatic sequence also a has a young boy watching and asking questions. Trying to pass on a commentary on Kashmir's present and future, Mr. Bhardwaj? It does not come out well, eh? Also, at times conversations on Kashmir seem a little forced and contrived. Kulbhushan Kharbanda's character gives us a sermon on how one 'inteqaam' would only lead to another inteqaam, and it only comes across as the director's attempt to balance out the anti-India or anti-army tirade in the film.
But overall, Haider is a fantastic film and to see or not to see it is never a question. But is it Bhardwaj's best work till date? I would stop short of claiming anything like that and would still rate Maqbool as the affable director's finest work.
Rating: *** 1/2 (Very Good)