GF on Haider

this was a response to Qalandar’s piece but it deserves a separate post..

All sorts of spooky spoilers follow…

Your review was a welcome read, Q, as always. I found in Haider a rawness of emotion that I often think is pretty much absent in contemporary Hindi cinema. It was deeply affecting on a purely emotional level, and that on its own is a win. As far as Hindi films of the last several years go, this movie, in its tone, in its nuanced, clear (and novel!) criticism of the establishment and in its daring filmmaking strokes (the visuals, the location shooting, sure, but also the unabashed embrace of all things that are Hindi Film 101) I was actually most reminded of Ratnam’s Raavan. For this reason specifically where I differ with you most is with respect to which “half” of the film I preferred. I found the first hour (and change) of the film, the section dealing with Haider’s search, while watchable, a bit dry, and certainly a bit overlong. I can see the usefulness of this first act, it is novel in its representations, specifically in offering a set of characters unburdened by tired template(s), and, most mercifully, a Kashmir that doesn’t seem like a post-apocalpytic ski resort, but a place where people live and have lived. But this entire section nevertheless felt, to me, like an artless version of Shaji Karun’s (succinct!) masterpiece Piravi, which dealt with a similar kind of hopelessness encountered by a father who also goes in fruitless search of his missing son in the big city, and who, again like Bhardwaj’s Hamlet here, descends into a kind of madness when this search draws him into the interminably circuitous pathways of an aggressively uncaring bureaucracy.

It’s utterly unsurprising to me but Irrfan Khan’s presence elevated the movie immediately, immensely, and from the interval on, I was hooked. The film really had me in its grip from this section to the very end because from the moment Khan arrives, the filmmakers inject a bit of mystery, (a burden that the sublime Tabu had carried almost single-handedly for that first hour) and just the faintest dollop of masala, into what had been, up to that point, a realistic political drama like many other realistic political dramas about ordinary people getting ground to the dust by an abominable, intractable situation. I don’t mean to be too critical or indelicate about the latter kind of movie. Just that when these ideas are braided to a narrative that then becomes more accessible, more energetic, (for lack of a better term) they become all the more admirable for their ambition, to make no mention of their value as pure entertainment.

The ending complicated things. Its cue seems to have come from Anurag Kashyap’s Dev D, where the filmmaker took very well known source material and changed the final beat so that things would serve his specific worldview. So while Kashyap transformed Devdas from a loathsome, self-destructive Have to a human, world-weary Have-Not, (and kept him alive for it) Bhardwaj takes Hamlet from reluctant soldier to reluctant pacifist (and keeps him from taking revenge for it). The ambition is interesting…and also a near-complete betrayal of Shakespeare’s play. It is finally quite moving, not least because one senses that this choice reveals that Bhardwaj is more concerned about Kashmir than he is about Shakespeare. The problem of course is that Shakespeare traffics in truth, while Bhardwaj is more interested in fantasy, or less pejoratively, in idealism. In choosing to dramatize the latter, he pulled a punch, and a crucial one at that.

Bhardwaj’s Shakespeare trilogy as a whole deserves better, more thoughtful criticism at some point. It occurs to me that he began at the cinematic center of India and gradually pulled out to its farthest geopolitical frontier. That the last film in the sequence is one that seems to constantly negotiate its political context with its cinematic soul seems fitting.

There’s a lot more rattling around in my head but I’ll pause here. If only to just add this – boycotting this film might be the right call for some, (to me it’s simply a choice to not see a good movie) but I’d love it if someone started a simultaneous boycott of Bang Bang. Because at least then we wouldn’t be punishing gifted artists.


40 Responses to “GF on Haider”

  1. >The ambition is interesting…and also a near-complete betrayal of Shakespeare’s play. It is finally quite moving, not least because one senses that this choice reveals that Bhardwaj is more concerned about Kashmir than he is about Shakespeare.

    I liked this part.

    What did you think about the acting? You’ve indicated your appreciation of Tabu’s and Irfan’s in your review, but Shahid Kapoor and Shraddha, or KKM?


    • Another excellent piece here . This along with Qalandar’s piece make me want to see the movie badly. But, won’t for shallow ideological reasons.
      Am glad for all concerned including VB , Tabu and shahid that it is getting critical acclaim.
      Still uncomfortable with its politics.


      • To see or not to see.

        It is better to skip. I do the same with certain films. Not for ideological reasons.


      • Rajen: Sir, if you find its politics that uncomfortable then don’t watch it in the theatre, but watch it on an unofficial print/transfer (though a good one, the visuals are one of the film’s many strengths) when it becomes available (in that way you are still boycotting the “official version” and not contributing even a penny to its gross).


      • It’s also possible that you’ll find it doesn’t harm or go against your ideology at all.


        • There is definite political statement in the movie but people who don’t follow movies and/or politics may overlook the agenda as part of movie. Some of my logical/sane friends didn’t find anything wrong but they are not follower of politics or movie ( they do have opinion on topics but at superficial level only). Of course people on “left” are loving the movie and on the “right” are hating it.


          • Yes, but that’s only partly. Great Bong (Arnab Ray) who despises folks on the Left and has enormous ideological problems with Haider has said it is a bloody good film-

            “When I came out of the theater after seeing Haider, I was happy I had seen a film that had flipped the formula. I was happy that finally the censors were letting audiences decide what was wrong and what was right and that there were no bans or stay-orders or any of the other silliness that has so stifled the free expression of ideas in India, a fact that was doubly surprising given that our wise mediwallahs had been prophesying a dystopian Hitlerian Bharat of suppress-oppress-depress ever since that man took over.

            Haider is a film that deserves to be seen. It is about as ingenious an adaptation of Hamlet that you could hope to see, true to form and structure and with enough “A-ha that was nicely done” moments which make it more than worth the price of admission. Tabu is sensational, the cinematography marvelous, and Shahid Kapoor abandons his “saaj daaj ke tashan mein rahena” mainstream leading man avatar for something different, the kind of risk most of his contemporaries would not even consider taking. Haider is not perfect of course, with Shraddha Kapoor recycling her Aarohi expressions, the Rosencratz-Guildenstern Salmaniacs hammy in a Keshto Mukherjee comedy track kind of way, and the politics of the film suffocating the narrative at several places. But even then it is pretty darn impressive, particularly in an age where people like me who love cinema have given up on Bollywood producing anything except 100-plus-crore targeted products of the Bang-Bang variety.”

            “The pity though is that Haider is just as black and white as anything Sunny Deol would have put his name to, as jingoistic in its propaganda and as selective in its portrayal of reality as its less pretentious cousins.

            To be honest, any time you name your villain as Abhrush as Pukaar does or the director’s credit says Guddu Dhanoa, you are not expecting the audience to take you seriously.

            However Haider wants you to trust that it is painting the real picture of Kashmir, anchoring the story to actual incidents and making the film realistic and gritty, and then for good measure, harping on the “this is the true story of Kashmir” angle in the movie promotions.

            This is definitely not fiction, in the way Mission Kashmir is, and it would be naive to argue otherwise.

            It is pointed political propaganda.”

            “Again a film does not require balance, it can be as tunnel-visioned and as one-sided as it likes. It just needs to work as a film. Haider does. Most definitely.

            But to sell it as the true story of the Kashmiri struggle requires some…what’s the word now?




          • You’re right.. people fall rather easily into these boxes. But I think there’s a difference between a film with a political view or ideological angle one might have an objection to and pure propaganda. These days there’s a tendency to define any political view one doesn’t like as propaganda. Now of course there ‘is’ propaganda. It just cannot be defined as everything one dislikes!

            I’d also say this as a larger matter without of course having seen the film. A film might be critiquing the army as an institution, as a representative of state power and/or ideology without necessarily attacking the common soldier. Sometimes these differences get blurred. We all know people in the armed forces and we sometimes have a hard time imagining them committing atrocities. And they’re not doing so in most cases. But the people who are also belong to families and are also thought of by their families in the same ways. And yes it’s always a minority actually doing these things but they’re also not ‘bad apples’ in the sense that most of the excesses come about because they’re instructed to deal with whoever constitutes ‘the enemy’ with a very heavy hand. If I instruct my police force to get results from certain suspects and not worry too much about other niceties certain things will follow even if I didn’t intend those specific things that actually end up happening. Because an environment can sometimes be created for certain things to become more possible or probable. Yes there is a very small minority that just goes off the reservation but most people are not in it to be sadistic! The Sri Lankan govt concluded a brutal campaign against its Tamil inhabitants. Being brutal was just part of the ‘responsibility’ for people who served in that army. This doesn’t excuse the atrocious violence the LTTE practiced on a constant basis but whether this justified that sort of army response is a wholly different question. Now one might argue that this is always predictable. But notice what happens. The average Tamilian in SL might not be happy with the govt, might even have sympathy for the LTTE cause (without necessarily agreeing with the tactics) but he or she didn’t have much of a vote in the matter beyond a point. Because the political group in these situations hijacks the entire agent, does all sorts of things to provoke a brutal govt response and then when one is forthcoming it affects the larger population and in turn the group either turns soft supporters into hard ones and/or indifferent ones to the sympathetic kind. You’re an average family in Kashmir and sometimes you’re harassed by militants who want to hide in your house (and you don’t have the option of saying no!) and then you’re harassed by the army for shielding the same. In some cases people sympathetic to the militants actually do this willingly but beyond a point the army has no real way of figuring this out and so as always the ‘security force’ sweep with the broadest brush. The point I’m trying to make is that in all such situations there’s a direct symmetry between these militant outfits and the state security forces. Then the whole debate becomes a binary one in the deepest sense. It’s about Muslims/Hindus more than its about anything else. You have ethnic cleansing of one group (because they too are then defined as representatives of the State), all sorts of things. It becomes a messy situation where no one is guiltless barring the ordinary folks who are forever caught up in the middle in such situations. And so it seems to be the point ought not to be to choose one side or the other absolutely. And again anything could be termed propaganda. In the recent Palestinian film Omar which is mostly a love story but touches tangentially on the political situation there one could very easily say the same thing, that it’s anti-Israeli and what not. The filmmaker is just obliged to make an honest film whether it’s an agenda one agrees or disagrees with. But that’s different from defining something as dishonest merely because one doesn’t agree with it. You could have a critique of Obama that’s very tough on him and still honest and I certainly would be ok with that. But I could also be a person who defines any such critique of Obama as inherently dishonest. There’s a difference. Much as I could say ‘you can never criticize Obama without also including the Republicans or the Tea Party or whatever’. So there are all these alibis one can resort to. All of this doesn’t mean I’m endorsing Haider because again I haven’t seen the film. But nor have those who’re dissing it. Specially those who have ‘seen’ the film in some ‘literal’ sense!

            Caveat for others here: I’ve responded only to Munna here. Those who don’t have the maturity to respond adequately here (if they choose to) will find their comments evaporating rather fast!


          • Agree pretty much with your comment. I referred “agenda” because there are multiple people/apparatus who are the cause of the misery of the people (and some are self inflicted by people themselves),but director chose to show only “one” which is essentially a separatist view (there is subtle reference to local politicians as well who get elected with very small number of votes..but then it is part of separatist view as well that elected officials don’t represent people!) . We can always argue about blurred lines between point of view and agenda.

            ps – **Spoiler** – The young Haider has a gun in school bag. But the director didn’t choose to explore the reason(s). IMO it was kind of wrong based on Kashmir timeline or probably Bhardwaj was lazy and convenient way to send him to Aligarh.


          • I have no understanding of ‘right’ or ‘left’ and belong to neither. Don’t wish to be one dimensional.

            I sympathise with the Kashmiri pandits’ cause, but appreciated the other side of the coin that VB tried to show. for which KP are not responsible nor did the film try to say that.

            But yes, it’s all personal, and how much you can take – or- how much you ‘think’ you see.


          • My response above is to munna.


      • On avoiding movies – I think anyone can do so for just about any reason – politics, genre, cast, whatever it is. But any comment made about the film in question beyond this by a person actively avoiding it will necessarily be cast in light of that choice. That’s a fair enough bargain, I think.

        I do think, Rajen, that you’re not the type to go into a movie wanting to take it down, wanting to be incensed, so if you do see the movie at some point when all the unnecessary background noise has died down, I hope you’ll enjoy it. A lot of the comments Ive seen (from people who both have and have not given the film a chance) appear more to do with people’s personal baggage than the actual film.

        Actually Saurabh’s suggestion isn’t bad for your precise predicament. You could see the film and, if it does prove offensive, (I don’t think it will) you can sleep soundly in the knowledge that you haven’t endorsed it.


      • In some ways the answer is already embedded in your response. First off I wouldn’t agree with the ‘shallow’ description here. We are all shallow in different ways! But leaving this aside I have a simple test when it comes to these things. Speaking as a consumer of all kinds of political films, of both left and right, where in each case the formulations in question might make my stomach churn. My simple test is whether the film has something more to offer by way of its aesthetics or by way of its overall ‘seriousness’ for want of a better term. If the answer is ‘yes’ I don’t mind watching it at all even if I might mind the ‘message’ of the film very much. But partly also because if I use that standard I’d have to stop engaging with a number of works (not just films). Now sometimes I might still give relatively serious films a miss (much to the consternation of some people here) but that’s because I am using a somewhat higher bar. For instance you might watch other films that you consider to be better than Haider but that you find as unacceptable in an ideological sense. In any case and speaking only for myself no political objection for me overrides the aesthetic one. I may well find the former indefensible no matter how strong the film is on the latter score. But I couldn’t not visit it at all for that reason. Also I think that we’d all be left with our private viewing lists if we all avoided films that we found objectionable on nationalistic, ethnic, religious, ideological etc grounds or whatever. The better option might be to watch these things and then militate against them (mean it in the good sense!) as much as one wants.


      • Re: “This along with Qalandar’s piece make me want to see the movie badly. But, won’t for shallow ideological reasons.”

        A compromise: check it out on DVD 🙂


    • Thought Shahid was very fine, don’t think he’s ever been better, but I do think that an actor with more natural gravitas might have been more interesting to watch. Don’t mean to be hard on him, he was really good and this part would be a challenge for anyone. And within his generation an actor with natural gravitas is a rare thing, to put it lightly. KK is always fun to watch and I thought he was very effective here. Shraddha was good though I didn’t quite “buy” her descent – might have been a result of the action of the play being as condensed as it was here in the second half.


  2. lot of things that gf wrote is already written by many reviewers out there (words like “rawness of emotion” etc). Anyhow, how is ideology shallow? Overall I try not to watch depressing movies. Even the drama within drama song-bismil, is boring to watch. I didn’t like the modern dance and the dance choreography. I would have been tempted to see this movie had it been done by a capable actor–maybe Irrfan or some one else playing Hamlet; not Shahid. So not tempted to watch it.


    • >Even the drama within drama song-bismil, is boring to watch. I didn’t like the modern dance and the dance choreography.

      I liked this song and dance very much. If it wasn’t for this i would never have noticed Haider. Someone put up a link to this on twitter, and I was immediately impressed, and wanted to know more about the other songs and gradually the film itself.

      Contemporary song and dance don’t make an impression on me normally.
      Found the choreography excellent, in the sense that the others look all the same to me. I wouldn’t know the difference between dances of Bang Bang/HNY/…or for that matter any other film.
      So thanks to ‘bismil’ I was able to appreciate an excellent film, and join in the ‘discussions’ (hehe) here.


  3. Great bong :

    And so it goes, Haider alternating between story and blunt political sloganeering.

    There is nothing new about the version of events of course, this is the official azaadi narrative.

    The Kashmiri-fighters are innocent lambs who only fire when fired upon, the real terrorists are the Ikhwan-ul-Muslemoons, agents of the Indian army tasked with extrajudicial killings of the Azaadi-fighters, Kashmir is a big open-air prison for its denizens, and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act is the worst instrument of India’s aggression.

    As I said, nothing new.

    However even more important than what Haider keeps in is what it keeps out.

    While there are anti-India graffiti scribbled everywhere on the walls, there are no green flags of Islam (not any I saw), no Islamic slogans, no “Kashmiri Hindu men leave Kashmir but leave your wives and daughters” naarebaazi, or any kind of religious symbolism that characterizes the radical-Islamic nature of the Kashmir struggle. In each frame, Bharadwaj drains out the radical green and colors the struggle with the neutral black color of secular suffering and “azaadi”. This de-religionization of the most radical agitations is the intellectual subterfuge that allows self-avowed Leftists to throw their lot in with Islamic-fundamentalist power-grabs all over the world, despite inconvenient developments like the underdog-against-evil-overlord Syrian independence struggle morphing into ISIS and allows them to frame the battle in Kashmir as one waged by an evil expansionist state against innocent citizens, and not one of a secular nation protecting itself from Talibanization/ISIS-ization.


    • LOL he could make a fantasy film of his own with this spin.


    • Superb, Great Bong is really Great, Thanks Bliss for posting the complete picture rather than selective quote.
      If I had to rate Vishal’s movies I would rate them as- Maqbool, Omkara, Kaminey, Saat Khoon Maaf, and Matru…
      P.S.- TBU was simply waste of time.


    • Bandra.NRI Says:

      VB did what the any intellectual should do, VB looked at the problem rather than the bi products.

      At a Yoga studio someone complains that her stomach is acting up, the Indian in the groups says, have some ginger. Middle Eastern guy says eats some licorice. The American guy says have some rolaids. EVERONE looks within their experience/knowkedge base/traditions for solutions. The problem here is not ginger or licorice or rolaids, it is an upset stomach.

      VB is rare amongst the intellectuals today who rather than talk about the bi product, addresses the issue.


  4. Tabu carried the movie on her shoulders……Shahid’s acts in later half were bizarre …..if Tabu were not in this movie – I wouldn’t bother to watch it


  5. Bandra.NRI Says:

    An Jo

    The following is what Ms Kapoor has to say about her accent in Haider:


  6. I finally read this piece, GF — thank you for writing this; I think this is probably the best “defense” of that second half that I have read (and, most intriguing of all, you tie it to masala, a genre often (crudely) equated with violence in much writing about Indian films; i.e. the masala trajectory here ends with Haider’s pacifist epiphany, a subversion of much masala form, albeit a vindication of the more inclusive politics of its 1970s heyday).


    • That is an interesting, well-articulated idea, Q, and one that certainly dovetails nicely with my sense of where (and how) the second half headed.


    • Speaking of masala, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Trishul: in the sense that both involve vengeance against a parent in some sense, to vindicate the other parent — and Trishul is nothing if not Shakespearean, although both films suffer from resolutions that are not only weaker than the rest of the film, but don’t follow the rest of the films’ logic. In Haider one can at least tap into a Gandhian ethos (Haider’s grandfather himself seems to be navigating that sort of current), but the film hasn’t done the work to get us there (and rightly so: it would have ruined the film had the director and writer paved the way for this change)…but in Trishul the ending was a “WTF?!” moment…


  7. Re: “It’s utterly unsurprising to me but Irrfan Khan’s presence elevated the movie immediately, immensely, and from the interval on, I was hooked.”

    I didn’t respond in the same way, but what an entry that is! Perhaps a bit incongruous here, but worthy of some great masala moments.


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