A still from the movie ‘Haider’.
A still from the movie ‘Haider’.

The thing that’s wrong with ‘Haider’

Haider is one of the most intelligent Hindi films I have seen in quite some time. And it left me totally cold

As I walked out of the hall while the end credits of Haider were rolling on the screen, the first thought that struck me was that director Vishal Bhardwaj’s problem is exactly the opposite of Jethro Tull’s opening lament in Thick As A Brick: “I can make you feel but I can’t make you think." Bhardwaj can make us think but he can’t make us feel. We are dazzled by his imagination as he transposes Hamlet on Kashmir and makes Shakespeare’s drama totally indigenous; we are impressed by his mastery over his craft—from cinematography to editing to his attention to every detail in recreating the milieu to the tight control he maintains over the pace of his film. But at the end, we empathize with none of the characters, even as they brood, weep, grieve, scream, lose their sanity.

While I was watching Haider, my typical reactions were: “Wow, that was smart!" or “That was a great piece of dialogue!" or “Yes, that sequence was done really well!" or “That was fine acting!" But I merely watched and appreciated, I did not connect. My heart didn’t sink, I wasn’t overcome by any sense of dread, no lump rose in my throat.

That’s a tragedy when you’re watching the enactment of one of Western literature’s most acclaimed tragedies. Which begs the question: Does a film necessarily have to emotionally impact the viewer?

No, certainly not. As a commercial art form, it’s principal duty is to keep the viewer engrossed, which Haider certainly does, to a large extent. But I would say that really great films—the ones that become classics—invariably involve viewers emotionally, make them root for one character or the other, share in their joys and sorrows. They are also immersive experiences, at least the first time you watch them, drawing you inside them and their worlds, not allowing you to step back and admire the technique and the acting and so on. These things strike you after you walk out of the hall.

When you watch a Chaplin film, you don’t care about the film maker’s genius; all you want is the little tramp to win. In the Apu trilogy, when Durga or Sarbajaya or Aparna dies, you feel the loss as deeply as Apu, and when at the end, Apu strides off into the horizon with his little son on his shoulders, you feel pure joy. You don’t give a damn about the framing of the scenes and Ravi Shankar’s music; all that you can analyse later, endlessly. When in the last scene of Bicycle Thieves, the son clutches the hand of his defeated father as they walk back home to an apparently hopeless future, the audience feels that touch of the palm in their hearts.

And Haider is Shakespearean tragedy. Shakespeare wrote his plays as a thoroughly commercial enterprise, with the sole aim of making money by titillating and manipulating his audiences, either by giving them a hearty laugh or making them go home snivelling. In fact, audiences found the ending of King Lear so heartbreaking that for years, it was performed without the last scene, and even for some time (after Shakespeare’s death) with a happy ending slapped on.

Bharadwaj’s adaptation of Hamlet, however admirable an achievement in pure cinematic terms, fails on this crucial front: we are not absorbed—far from it—in the fates of the characters.

And this may sound like a totally Philistine view, given the amount of critical acclaim Bhardwaj’s Shakespeare trilogy has garnered—but I felt exactly the same way about his Maqbool (Macbeth) and Omkara (Othello).

I enjoyed Maqbool for the meticulous creation of a sub-culture—a devoutly Muslim Mumbai underworld gang—and for the bravura performances of Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri, the two corrupt cops who replaced the three witches of the original play—a terrific feat of imagination by Bhardwaj. But I couldn’t figure out why Maqbool would be so obsessed with his boss’ wife to go down the one-way street to doom. In fact, to me, Irrfan Khan, playing Maqbool, didn’t even look very obsessed. Just as in Haider, I was extremely impressed by the director’s intelligence, but emotionally untouched.

Omkara was a wonderfully stylish movie. The theme song playing over a shootout sequence—guns going off and people running and dying in slow motion—was pure thrilling cinema with an innovative director going full blast. Beedi jalaile had a raw energy that no other item number I have ever seen has come close to matching. The dialogue, in its eastern Uttar Pradesh dialect, was sparkling. But when it came down to the denouement, when Othello realizes the catastrophic mistake he has committed by killing Desdemona, Omkara let me down.

Othello is a tragedy on a grand scale. It demands its hero to give vent to his grief in a manner that matches the level of misfortune that has befallen him. Howl, scream, try to gouge your own eyes out, let go of yourself as an actor. But Ajay Devgn, as Omkara, who had done his trademark brooding throughout the film, just brooded some more and a bit more intensely. Perhaps Bhardwaj’s innate sophistication made him hold back on the over-the-top melodrama that would have given the audience the necessary catharsis, but that is what the play has provided for centuries.

I still watch Maqbool and Omkara sometimes on DVD—but only in bits and pieces, particular sequences that I find stylish and cool and entertaining—but I don’t think I would ever watch the full films again.

I’ll end by making a larger point that I’ve been pondering for a few years now. Bhardwaj and Anurag Kashyap are the heroes of a different kind of Hindi cinema—bolder, more intelligent, more experimental, riskier by mainstream standards. Both make interesting films, but neither can make me connect emotionally with what happens in their films.

Kashyap can make a film—Dev D—on the story of Devdas, that can shock, thrill and enthral us with its daring technical twists and turns, and its sheer aesthetic chutzpah (a word that is used to absolutely brilliant effect in Haider). But he can’t make us give a damn about the fates of Devdas, Paro or Chandramukhi—we don’t really care for their angst and their helplessness and their loves. Saratchandra would have been puzzled. (Hasty disclaimer: I couldn’t take Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas for more than 20 minutes. I found the heavy-handed clawing at tear glands harrowing and distasteful.)

We love Gangs of Wasseypur for its style and cool quotient, but did we feel sorry for any of the dozens of characters who died? Now just compare that with what you felt after watching The Godfather or yes, even Reservoir Dogs.

Such talented directors, such command over the craft of cinema, so much exposure to the best films of the world—why can’t they make us feel? Since they keep winning our heads, shouldn’t they try the same for our hearts? For only then can they become great film makers.

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