I first saw Shlok Sharma’s Haraamkhor at the Mumbai Film Festival in 2015. I remember being moved at the time by Shweta Tripathi’s brave performance, but also put off by the jocular treatment of the b-plot and the empty bombast of the ending. A second viewing earlier this week reinforced these feelings. Haraamkhor is both uncompromising and compromised, unflinching and outrageous. Chances are, even if it ends rubbing you the wrong way, you’ll feel something.
Tripathi, 26 when the film was shot, plays the lonely 15-year-old Sandhya, the daughter of a police officer posted in a small unidentified town in central India. Kept at arm’s length by her morose father, she develops an intense, destabilizing crush on Shyam (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a teacher in the local school. Driven half-desperate by sexual curiosity and the desire for adult approval, she’s easy pickings for Shyam, who has preyed on young women before (we find this out through when Shyam’s wife says she doesn’t like Sandhya, then reminds him that she used to be his student too).
When the film isn’t concentrating on Shyam and Sandhya, the focus shifts to two local schoolchildren, Mintu (Mohd Samad) and Kamal (Irfan Khan). Kamal has his own romantic feelings for Sandhya, which the film treats mainly as slapstick. Whenever the two kids appear onscreen, they’re accompanied by a comic musical theme. Samad gets up to impish fun and Khan has a sadness to him that’s touching, but by treating their subplot with very little seriousness, writer-director Sharma places all the weight on his main story.
By the time Haraamkhor begins, Sandhya’s already in neck deep. Because we never see the beginnings of her infatuation, it’s impossible to say if Shyam was more charming in the initial days of the seduction. The man we see is crude, rough-spoken, cowardly – not someone you’d expect a girl, even one as insecure as Sandhya, to fall for, though teenage urges are rarely sensible and often self-defeating. Only marginally more appealing than Shyam is Sandhya’s father, distant when he isn’t drunk, and harboring a secret.
As if to match the subject matter, the visual aesthetic is specifically, intensely anti-beauty. The surroundings, all rocky ground and howling wind, are spare and unlovely. From time to time, and for no conceivable reason, the camera gets a major case of the shakes. Out of this spare sternness, some formidable scenes emerge: Sandhya and Shyam circling each other like matador and bull on a windy outcrop; Shyam throwing the emotional kitchen sink at his wife to stop her from leaving him. Siddiqui – never one to paper over a character’s failings – plays Shyam as weak and despicable, but the emotional centre of the film is rightly claimed by Tripathi, who is by turn fiercely passionate, needy, desperate and devastated.
Though it’s been cut short by the censor board, the ending is still as perplexing as when I first saw it. The last 10 minutes play out like a writer’s attempt at a big, thudding climax rather than a natural culmination of events. It’s undeniably dramatic – all that rain and mud, sound and fury – but compare it to the last scene of Nagraj Manjule’s Fandry and you’ll see the difference between shock deployed for shock’s sake and something that’s disturbing but inevitable. Nevertheless, with its unadorned, unflinching treatment, Haraamkhor is a difficult film to shake off.