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HAIDER. Director: Vishal Bhardwaj. Players: Shahid Kapoor, Tabu, Kay Kay Menon, Shraddha Kapoor, Irrfan Khan, Kulbhushan Kharbanda. Music: Vishal Bhardwaj. Hindi w/ Eng. Sub-titles. Theatrical release (UTV).

Bhardwaj has a preoccupation—some would say obsession—for translating Shakespeare’s tragedies onto a broad Indian canvas and to date, doing so very successfully. First with Maqbool (2003), based on Macbeth, and then with Omkara (2006) based on Othello, Bhardwaj established himself as a premier modern Indian filmmaker who achieved classic story re-telling prowess. With Haider, a re-envisioning of Hamlet, Bhardwaj once again comes up roses by absolutely nailing the alignment between age-old soul searching and modern sensibilities in an Indian milieu.

Central to this plot, as it has been for centuries, is Haider Meer (Kapoor), a college kid who returns to his family home in Kashmir many years after Haider father (Narendra Jha), a doctor, mysteriously disappears while on duty. In addition to Ghazala Meer (Tabu), Haider’s devoted mother, he is also welcomed back by Arshia (Shraddha Kapoor, no relation), the daughter of head of the local constabulary. Haider suspects, and can’t prove yet, that Haider’s uncle Khurram Meer (Menon) has a hand behind the doctor’s disappearance. Against the backdrop of an Islamist insurgency brewing locally, Haider goes about retracing the truth behind his father’s disappearance.

While Pankaj Kumar’s strikingly lush cinematography using starkly beautiful mountain vistas to add layers of shadows outdoors as well as to a key graveyard scene, it is ultimately some amazing characterization that  makes it all come together. Shahid Kapoor nicely underplays Haider’s would-be princeling and is able to command focus on his plight as the story’s primary motivator. Tabu’s Ghazala is the embodiment of uncertainty at the choices she has made in life and now must fess up to.

As the villainous uncle, Menon’s Khurram Meer is a wily opportunist able to shift allegiance at a moment’s notice. And what about Khan’s strange and shadowy Roohdaar? Is he a former cellmate of Haider’s father, a principled insurgent turncoat or a criminal benefactor? Strangely, it is his mere shadowy presence that helps solve some key riddles.

To Bhardwaj’s credit, his script makes no attempt to water down the oedipal drama at the heart of the story. Haider is, as Hamlet was, a love triangle that has for its vertices Haider, his mother, and the uncle both the son and mother either suspect or know had a hand in the disappearance of Haider’s father. From this perspective, Haider’s angst is fueled more by losing a potential lover —his mother—than by a search for avenging a grievance against an uncle. In a cleverly staged scene where Haider confronts his fate, the director cunningly exploits both the revenge and the love-triangle motifs, simultaneously solving everything and yet nothing. The debate between the dramatists and psychoanalysts will rage on, no doubt.

Bhardwaj’s score, with a hand from Vishal Dadlani and lyricist Gulzar, is a sensory feast in itself and a knockout musical soundtrack. Gulzar’s lyrics reinforce an unsettled landscape where bloodletting could start anytime. Vishal Dadlani’s “Aao Na” reignites the undying embers of vengeance, while Sukhwinder Sing’s uptempo “Bismil” foreshadows the death of a songbird that strays too far from home. The most bittersweet tune, one that thematically sums up the script, is Bhardwaj’s rendition of “Jhelum,” outwardly a somber quest for the famed river’s coast, is allegorically about dead bodies buried on the shore. The tides in the river turn salty from the tears cried on its banks. Very good stuff!

Finally, Bhardwaj also wins points for using the Bard’s framework against richly (and oft sadly) pervasive vignettes from India’s unique national experience. While Maqbool tapped into the Mumbai underworld and Omkara toured rural official corruption, Haider reaches for the Islamist insurgency in Kashmir. Other contemporary Hindi filmmakers have also found success in adapting Shakespearean tragedies. Mansoor Khan’s Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988) and Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Ram Leela (2011) both succeeded at loosely re-spinning Romeo and Juliet. As a thematic discipline, however, they were not able to match Bhardwaj’s powerful story-telling and artistic prowess. Here’s hoping that Bhardwaj will continue to return to the well that for him at least, keeps on giving.

EQ : A

Aniruddh C.

Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.