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  • Ali Lakhany

Review: Haider

Haider (2014), UTV Motion Pictures

Rating: ★★★★

One of the many facets of Hamlet’s brilliance is its everlasting obsession with “energy and variety” as critic Nightingale declares, so I was very excited when I found out about the Bollywood interpretation of this seminal work. Having grown up watching hours of Bollywood films with family, I remain starstruck by the uncanny choreography, singing, and the scintillating colours woven into the fibres of this film industry. Shahid Kapoor, who plays Haider, focuses on the ‘antic disposition’ (I.v) Hamlet is so well known for, as well as the virile hatred and righteous rage for his murdered father, all in the middle of the politically and religiously conflicted foreground of Kashmir in 1995. Director Vishal Bhardwarj drops us headfirst into the world of Haider, set against the backdrop of the Kashmir Valley's ongoing turmoil on the Indian border and insurgency, the film deftly parallels the power struggles and moral complexities of Shakespeare's play with the socio-political dynamics of the region. This juxtaposition allows the narrative to delve into themes of betrayal, manipulation, and the quest for justice within the context of Kashmir's unique history and ongoing conflict, creating a deeply resonant portrayal of personal and political upheaval.


Bhardwaj’s presentation of the multifaceted, complex, Haider is a refreshing take on the Hamlets of the past, the Bollywood lens providing a vibrant and colourful approach to his descent into madness. The aforementioned antic disposition is captured by Bhardwaj’s costume design of Haider once he finds out his father is indeed dead; illustrated through his unkept attire - he shaves his head, fashioning a noose around his neck as he prances around Kashmir, rallying crowds and conducting speeches filled with witty puns. Haider’s explicit aggression is captured through the brutal murder of Salman and Salman by stoning them to death, instead of Shakespeare’s slightly less direct approach to ‘shuffle them off the mortal coil.’ (III.i).


Haider (2014), UTV Motion Pictures

As with all Bollywood films, Haider has musical insertions; I found that these were executed as well as they could have been – Haider’s move to ‘catch the conscience of the king’ (II.ii) is performed with the classic dance renditions and musical qualities, but the moody style of cinematographer, Pankaj Kumar, allowed the singing to remain somewhat menacing. This maintains the presentation of Haider’s troubled mind even through song and dance.


In addition to Bhardwaj’s decisions with Haider, Ghazala’s sympathy for her son’s horrifying situation links seamlessly with the image of the stereotypically sensitive mother in Asian culture, providing an interesting new angle on the generally despised figure of Gertrude. It is comedic how Bhardwaj’s interpretation twists Hamlet to fit both the Bollywood film industry and portray the dynamics of Asian families; in Hamlet’s ‘I know not seems’ (I.ii) scene, Haider is instead met with a slap on his face from his mother (I was met with a subtle glare from my mother too, who claimed she’d act the same way) for his rude comments regarding his mother’s love life. Similarly, Bhardwaj shines light on the Freudian nature of this Hamlet – much like Laurence Olivier’s production, the director has cast a Queen of a similar age to the Prince which blurs and taints the heartfelt scenes of intimacy and passion between mother and son, making it clear that something is ‘rotten in the state of Kashmir’. The tender love between Arshia (Ophelia) and Haider is also emphasised through the Bollywood song montage and steamy intimacy featured before the delivery of Haider’s marked line, beautifully translated into Hindi as ‘Main rahoon ki main nahi’ -  ‘to be or not to be’, said with Arshia in his arms - wow.


Not only does Bhardwaj capture the intensity of Haider’s relationships with Ghazala and Arshia, but the humorous episodes are portrayed beautifully too. One I found particularly amusing was Bhardwaj’s interpretation of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – who many critics and directors have interpreted as two sides of the same coin. Bhardwaj takes the similarity of Hamlet’s two classmates used by many directors to the next level – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern become two brothers named Salman and Salman, close friends of Haider who run a typical Desi CD store specialising aptly in the films of Salman Khan, one of Bollywood’s most lauded actors.


Bhardwaj’s Elsinore – or Kashmir – is a state bedevilled by a violent insurgency, captured through the military patrols and curfews that pepper the storyline. Bhardwaj gives it a twist that rings true of themes within Bollywood cinema through a sharp focus on Haider’s relationships with his family over his inner turmoil. Haider succeeds more as a topical tale of Kashmiri unrest and official brutality than it does as a telling of Hamlet. In comparison to Hamlet, Haider is a simple man because he knows what he wants; his purpose is solely to avenge his father and he goes after it. Through watching this Bollywood depiction of what many argue to be the greatest work in English literature, it’s clear to see how Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a platform for directors to discuss topical issues, twisting the play to cater to an audience and spread a message.


Bhardwaj’s Haider is a triumph in blending dramatic art from the east and the west, and showing that Hamlet is not all about the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ (III.i), but about dancing too.

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