Thursday, June 02, 2016

Hamlet in Kashmir

It may seem easy to dismiss the motivations behind endless violent conflicts as petty but it's important remember how human, universal, and tortuously ambiguous issues related to revenge can be. 2014's Haider is a Bollywood film that adapts Shakespeare's Hamlet to set it in mid-90s Kashmir. Well shot, it uses the familiar, distinct cinematic language of Bollywood to make an insightful connexion between the great English poet and the modern troubles in the country torn apart by the influences of India, Pakistan, and independence.

The story begins well before the events of the play as we meet the father of Hamlet (Narendra Jha) when he's a doctor harbouring a militant fugitive despite the anxiety this causes his wife, Ghazala (Tabu), the film's version of Gertrude.

In the twentieth and twenty first century it's been increasingly common to interrupt Hamlet's relationship with his mother as having incestuous undertones. Haider decides to cast its lot with this interpretation and the relationship between Ghazala and her son, Haider (Shahid Kapoor), poises them in many scenes seemingly at the point of making out.

The film's version of Ophelia, Arshia (Shraddha Kapoor), can scarcely compete though one of the film's musical numbers is a very effectively shot romantic interlude between Haider and Arshia and it includes a nicely erotic hijab removal.

Like many Bollywood musical numbers, this sequence feels much like a western music video, switching between location and time without fidelity to linear progression. Shots of Haider and Arshia playing in the snow are mixed with dark, candlelit scenes of Haider and Arshia slowly exploring each other's bodies in a cabin. And yet, it is different from the traditional Bollywood musical number in that the characters don't seem to be singing. Instead, there's a disembodied voice on the soundtrack. This seems part of a sad trend in Bollywood to emulate Hollywood which has for the most part lost the taste and talent for musical numbers in live action film. Many Bollywood films seem to avoid proper musical numbers until at least an hour and a half in now, as though to gently ease an audience into the idea. Haider finally has a proper musical number around three quarters into the nearly three hour film when Claudius and Gertrude, Khurram (Kay Kay Menon) and Ghazala, finally marry.

This is Haider, Hamlet, delivering the famous play within a play and much like Shakespeare's version it presents the story of Khurram murdering Haider's father and seducing his mother. For much of the film, Haider's unsure if Khurram really is responsible for his father's death and there's some indication that the film's version of the ghost is misleading Haider.

The reconceptualising of the ghost is one of the more interesting adaptations in the film, essentially breaking down one character into several to serve and highlight several of the thematic functions of the ghost on Prince Hamlet's mind. Instead of the apparition of his father, Haider encounters Roohdaar (Irrfan Khan), who claims to be a former cellmate of his father's. Roohdaar is also part of the militant faction resisting Indian rule and tells Haider his father wanted him to join the militants and assassinate his uncle Kharram, whom Roohdaar says is responsible for his father's imprisonment and execution. So Hamlet's preoccupation with honour and revenge neatly translates to the revenge desired by the militant faction that claims to be fighting to retake a homeland.

In one scene that's definitely not in Hamlet, Haider's grandfather, a university professor (Kulbhushan), gently confronts the leader of Haider's militant cell when he mentions the motive of revenge. Haider's grandfather tells the man that India's freedom was won not by violence but by the passive resistance of Ghandi.

So the film takes a much clearer ideological stance than Hamlet, though considering the very real world troubles it's dealing with it's easy to see why the filmmakers would be reluctant to leave the audience with questions on that score. But enough ambiguity remains to make the viewer consider the conflicting points of view.

The film's not perfect--its version of Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are two over the top buffoons who run a video store. Ophelia's story is short-changed considerably by having no "get thee to a nunnery" moments from Haider but there is a wonderful visual device of a bright red scarf Arshia knits for her father, the Polonius character (Lallit Parimoo), that winds up in Haider's hands, and then back in hers, in an interesting way. Ultimately the movie's heart seems to be more with Haider and his mother than Hamlet's was with the prince and Gertrude and Khurram is a bit more outright villainous than Claudius. But the movie is very well shot, the music is very good, and performances by Shahid Kapoor and Tabu are very effective.

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