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When films transmute William Shakespeare’s poetic imagery and the atmosphere that his verses conjure into re-imagined, re-contextualized visuals, and not merely reproduce the action with select dialogues, a movie adaptation of a Shakespeare play can be considered successful. That is why, thought British film scholar Roger Manvell, Shakespeare often translates best in what he considered “foreign films". The setting is one of the reasons Haider, Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptation of Hamlet, works. It is true to the haunting ambiguity of the characters’ motives in the original play, Shakespeare’s most opaque of tragedies, but the Kashmir canvas is potent. Bhardwaj’s visual intelligence and the screenplay by Bhardwaj and Basharat Peer, one of India’s acute commentators on Kashmir, his home state, add to the effective localization.

Shakespearean purism aside, Haider is a thrilling film. It is a film of luxuriant paranoia. It is about Oedipal love. Unlike the cardboard insurgency imagery or images of damaged beauty that soak most films about Kashmir, Haider is an unflinching take on the Kashmir malaise, the tragedy infused with a sense of dark humour about the ordinary Kashmiri’s hopelessness. Compared to Bhardwaj’s earlier two Shakespeare adaptations, Maqbool (Macbeth) and Omkara (Othello), both of which depended heavily on language and dialogues and used Shakespeare’s stories rather conveniently to propel the plot, Haider is a quieter yet richer spectacle and a convincing standalone piece.

Bhardwaj chooses bold strokes over gloomy introspection, and in that sense, Haider is in the tradition of mainstream Hindi cinema. The picturization of songs is riveting to watch (Pankaj Kumar’s cinematography is breathtaking throughout, and especially in the songs) and the songs are some of Bhardwaj’s best compositions as a music director in recent times. The melodrama towards the end loosens the narrative and the last half hour feels like a bit of a drag, again a typical affliction in Hindi films. The protagonist is far from the melancholy Dane; Haider, which Shahid Kapoor plays with impressive zest and inventiveness, is more a dashing, combustible figure than a brooder. Bhardwaj also does away with the supernatural horror so integral to the original play, and which can be an easy tool for creating suspense and drama in cinema. The horror is in the everyday macabre reality of death, loss and waiting, and in the manipulation of a Kashmiri Muslim’s emotions and insecurities.

Haider (Kapoor) arrives in the Kashmiri village he left long ago to study at Aligarh after his father, a doctor, has disappeared. His mother Ghazala (Tabu) is romantically close to his father’s younger brother (Kay Kay Menon). Arshi (Shraddha Kapoor), his childhood sweetheart, is torn between her pro-Indian establishment family and Haider, who is devastated to see his mother’s sudden transformation. His idyllic childhood with parents seemingly in love is shattered. When Roohdar (Irrfan Khan), a mysterious man with a limp sends him a message from his lost father, Haider is on a destructive path of jealousy, hatred, turmoil and doubt. Central to the story is the relationship between Ghazala and Haider—a tender as well as anguished bond between mother and son, fuelling the film as essentially an Oedipal drama. The romantic love between Arshi and Haider is almost a sweet afterthought.

The casting ideas work impressively well. Kay Kay Menon stands out as a superbly calculating man, the villain in Haider’s mind, and Tabu makes a heart-rending Ghazala. Shraddha Kapoor delivers an earnestly fervent performance and Irrfan Khan is pitch perfect as a quietly menacing presence, the only personification close to a ghostly apparition. Salman Khan is here too, in a deliciously manufactured ode to the Hindi film hero through Salman and Salman, Haider’s friends and a pair of all-round crooks, an interesting replication of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from the original play.

Haider is an immensely effective reimagination of Shakespeare—and the film’s biggest triumph is that the provincial, in this case Kashmir and the characters defined by its reality, shine in a universal and timeless tragedy.

Haider releases in theatres on Thursday.

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