The Colour Red
Vishal Bhardwaj’s third instalment of his Shakespeare-influenced trilogy is a stunning cinematic story but suffers from hazy political vision
Sonali Ghosh Sen Kolkata
To be or not to be. That is the question that is asked many times in Haider, Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The question permeates the layers of the narrative, and in ways Shakespeare never devised — in the identity of Kashmir (to be or not to be free), in the voices of the disappeared (hum hain ki hum nahin), and in Haider himself (jaan loon, ki jaan doon… main rahun ki main nahin).
Srinagar in 1995 is a city under siege, a snowbound paradise patrolled by many — the Indian army, the militants, and Haider, as he searches day and night for his father: the good doctor who disappeared. Bhardwaj structures his film in three acts, from the political, to the people, to the personal — each leading, each feeding from another.
Haider starts from something deeply personal — the premise that every man’s home is his castle and when the castle is besieged, repercussions will follow.
From the first sequence of an injured militant being rowed across the Jhelum to the house of Dr Hilaal Mir for treatment, one knows that this act will change the lives of Haider, his mother, Ghazala, and his childhood sweetheart, Arshia. As a house goes up in flames, felled by an army rocket launcher, it becomes a house of memories, a house of ghosts and a house divided.
When Haider returns home to a fortified Kashmir, he finds his mother being wooed by his crafty uncle, Khurram (Kay Kay Menon), and, feeling righteously betrayed, goes out to seek his missing father who was taken prisoner in one of the many military camps in Kashmir.
Through the search for a missing parent, Bhardwaj addresses the bigger question of the state — the question of home and homelessness, and the almost Oedipal love one has for one’s motherland, because nationalism at its most extreme (the army, the militants) is nothing but an incestuous, unrequited love, whether it be for those who want to be with the state, or those who want to be free of it.
Haider lives in turbulent times and his journey takes him into further dark alleys of truth and half-truth. And betrayal shadows every journey. There’s Roohdar (Irrfan Khan in a delicious cameo) who takes him through torture chambers and cemeteries to the path of revenge. There’s Ghazala, his mother, who leads him through the path of memories but seems to have forsaken hers. There’s Arshia, his loyal companion, who follows him through the journey, until she discovers that one must take sides in a battle and pay the price for it.
The war is within and outside in Haider. There is talk of freedom and talk of tolerance. There is the fear of truth and the fear of suspicion. There are acts of oppression and moments of liberty. This is a story where even memories can betray you. As Haider says, “Shaq pe hai yakeen toh, toh yakeen pe hai shaq mujhe…kiska jhooth jhooth hai, kiska sach sach nahin.” Is Haider’s father as saintly as his memories serve or more of the flawed man Ghazala describes? Is Haider’s search as righteous as he claims or more a catalyst of the unspoken traitorous jealousy he harbours? What his character wants – to find his missing father — and what his character needs — the search for a love long abandoned — are reflected in the macro narrative, which is of Kashmir.
Making Kashmir a part of and not a backdrop to the narrative is both a strength and weakness of the movie. In his politics, the filmmaker becomes too ambitious in trying to cram a complicated 60-year history into a three-hour film that is juxtaposed onto a powerful human tragedy. Words are used with the rat-a-tat precision of a machine gun — to wound, to debate, to take sides — but sometimes words overwhelm, speeches and debates remain too self-righteous as if the filmmaker himself is fumbling in his political strategy in what he really wants to say to his audience. In trying to show too many sides to the Kashmir coin, the film ends up pleasing none.
It’s only when his camera is an observer, when scenes look like they were cut out of a Saadat Hasan Manto story that the film narrative and politics become stronger (a boy found alive amongst dead bodies, a man afraid to enter his own home, a movie theatre turned from an escapist fantasy into a theatre of interrogation). In the duplicitous nature of humour in the characters of Salman and Salman (Sumit Kaul and Rajat Bhagat) Haider finds the vein of dark humour that brings a sinister levity to the proceedings. The film’s real political commentary is also couched in its haunting songs (“Jhelum”, “Bismil”,“Ao Naa”,“Aaj ke Naam”) where just the lyrics could launch a
As a filmmaker, Bhardwaj’s Kashmir enthralls. Pankaj Kapur’s cinematography highlights the beautiful but desolate wintry landscape, where the primary colour is red — on lips, on kurtas, on mufflers and blood slowly seeping into the snow. Red and white becomes a recurring leitmotif, to distinguish characters, to underline a subtext, to display joy and anguish. The Jhelum too becomes not a river of romantic lore but a river of sorrow, and beautiful snowfall mutes the sound of impending tragedy.
The actors too respond to Haider’s Kashmir, with grace, strength and bravura unseen in mainstream films of today. What remains with you is the unspoken eloquence of Ghazala’s eyes (a brilliant Tabu), the wily Khurram’s smile (a convincing Menon), Arshia’s life unravelled in a woollen spool (an erratic Shraddha Kapoor), and Haider’s (an intense Shahid Kapoor) silent appeal, as he stands in the shadows trying to make sense of his mother and motherland.
Haider, in the end, is a film that should not be seen from the lens of a film that “would have been, should have been, ought to have been” but as a film that is — a film made with rare chutzpah by a mainstream director, a film that doesn’t shy away from debate, a film that is a fitting conclusion to Bhardwaj’s Shakespearean trilogy, after Maqbool (Macbeth) and Omkara (Othello).