Movie Review: Haider (2014)

Haider4 Stars (out of 4)

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Classic works of art earn the designation because of their ability to connect with audiences long after their creators are dead. Filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj demonstrates why William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a classic by updating the play as Haider, a film that presents Hamlet‘s essential truths in a way that is fresh and compelling.

Bhardwaj changes the story’s setting from the royal court of Denmark to Kashmir in 1995. The film supplies more than enough information for international audiences to understand the social and political conflict present in the region at the time.

The city of Srinagar is officially under Indian control, though militants wishing for the region to unite with Pakistan offer armed resistance. Hilal (Narendra Jha), a doctor, secretly performs surgery on a militant leader, citing his oath to preserve all life. His wife, Ghazala (Tabu), is afraid. As the army officer Pervez (Lalit Parimoo) puts it, “When the elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled.” Ghazala knows she and Hilal are the grass, not the elephants.

A masked informer tells the army that Hilal is harboring a terrorist. The doctor is carted off and his house destroyed.

The doctor’s son, Haider (Shahid Kapoor), returns to Srinagar to find his house a smouldering ruin and his mother giggling in the company of his fraternal uncle, Khurram (Kay Kay Menon). Ghazala and Khurram protest that the situation is not what it looks like, but Haider isn’t buying it.

Haider’s personal quest to discover what happened to his father takes place within an environment of increasing turmoil. There’s a lot of money and power to be had, thanks to Indian government initiatives to track down militants. Pervez, Khurram, and even the two guys named Salman who own the local video store are eager to cash in. Information is the most valuable currency, so no one can be trusted.

A lack of trust also lies at the heart of Haider’s troubled relationship with Ghazala. Flashbacks showing a happy household give way to memories of emotional manipulation and simmering resentment.

Kapoor and Tabu are brilliant together. That mistrust bubbles under the surface of every conversation, breaking through just when they seem on the verge of sharing a tender moment. Yet their bond is overpowering. He is her only son, she his only remaining parent.

Each of the principal characters is driven by complicated motives. Menon is duplicitous and opportunistic, but he genuinely loves Ghazala. Ghazala — though she doesn’t wish for her husband’s death — enjoys being doted on by Khurram. She fruitlessly tries to explain to Haider that parents are adults with their own needs and feelings that have nothing to do with their children.

Caught in the middle is Arshee (Shraddha Kapoor), Haider’s childhood sweetheart. With Haider back in town, she’s ready to get married. She doesn’t realize that Haider’s path of vengeance likely precludes a wedding.

What’s interesting about the female characters in Haider is the way they have both more and less autonomy than the male characters. The women can move freely about town, without the ID checks and pat downs the men endure at every turn. Arshee publishes articles critical of the Indian government in the local paper.

Yet their futures are still governed by men. Arshee’s brother, Lucky (Aamir Bashir), and her father, Officer Pervez, have the power to cancel her engagement to Haider. While Hilal is considered officially missing but not deceased, Ghazala is designated a “half-widow,” unable to mourn and remarry, forced to wait.

The genius of Bhardwaj’s creation is the way it so successfully tells both the story of Hamlet and the story of Kashmir. Bhardwaj turns Shakespeare’s story into the ideal tool to illuminate a complicated, controversial part of India’s past and present, all while maintaining the tone and spirit of the original.

Bhardwaj is also responsible for the film’s masterful background score and soundtrack. The sound design in the movie is spot on, with frequent quiet periods to enhance the effectiveness of the music.

There’s one dance number in the movie, and it seems designed to make all future Bollywood dance numbers look superfluous and bland by comparison. Haider stages a musical performance to try to intimidate his uncle, and it’s spectacular. Kapoor is a skilled individual dancer, but here his talents are used as an integral part of the story.

Every performance is tremendous. The cinematography uses Srinagar’s abundant snow as a backdrop for breathtaking shots. The music is spectacular. Haider is a movie that begs to be seen.


45 thoughts on “Movie Review: Haider (2014)

  1. moviemavengal

    I’m so excited that you loved it! This is one I’ve really been anticipating, and it’s so wonderful to hear that it lives up to the hype.

  2. Shrey

    whoa… thats like your 5th 4 star bollywood movie this year….
    I guess you need to watch Maqbool to complete the trilogy….

    1. Kathy

      It’s been a good year, Shrey. Let’s see if anything can knock Haider from atop my list of favorite movies of 2014. πŸ™‚

  3. Parth

    perfectly put. perfect 4 stars..

    i can go on and on about this one, for me this is vishal Bhardwaj’s best adapation (having zero knowledge of Hamlet other than “to be or not to be” line).
    things that stood out for me.
    1. cinematography: though showcasing awesome scenery of kashmir, it never pushed the characters behind. the beauty of kashmir always stayed behind making it something beautifully haunted place.

    2. Songs: Gulzarsaab always keeps his best for VB. and Bismil is so great. telling whole Hamtel story in one song.

    3. Backgroud score

    4: Performances: everyone has done great job. But Tabu was extraaaordinary.

    5. Screenplay: Baraasat Peer’s own experience of living in Kashmir. so there wasn’t much chance for false things.

    1. Kathy

      I’ll add something to your list, Parth: whoever translated the dialogue for the English subtitles did a tremendous job. I understand just enough spoken Hindi to know that they didn’t do a literal translation but tailored the translation to make the lines sound more poetic in English. It’s one of the best translations I’ve ever seen.

      1. Parth

        wow, they did that… that is amazing. other filmmakers must follow this, rather than going for literal, translation should be in accordance of the other language.
        i guess even Devdas’s subtitles are like that only.

  4. Nicky

    Hi Kathy,

    How are you doing?

    Coming to Haider,given that it was a Vishal Bharadwaj’s film whom i immensely admire & the fact that it was garnering appreciation, i decided to watch it only to be deeply anguished about the way things were portrayed in stark contrast to the absolute reality.Suddenly,i lost respect for the person who i really admired all these years.I am not here to comment on the artists performances,sure they were great but it doesn’t matter.What bothered me was how the actual reality of Kashmir in 1990’s was completely buried in the story,insidious suggestions in the movie like Kashmiri Pandits genocide being false,sympathizing with the militants/separatists & showing them as being victimized when they were actually responsible for ethnic cleansing of the Kashmiri Pandits left me wondering how much more wrong Haider & its writers Bharadwaj/Peer can be.

    I request you to go through this link which is the response of a Kashmiri Pandit to Basharat Peer,the screenwriter of Haider on Nandimarg massacre.

    For me, Haider sympathized with militants & separatists & justified ethnic cleansing.

    1. Kathy

      Hi, Nicky! Thanks for providing this prospective on Haider and for linking to an article on the topic. I don’t know enough about the subject to comment on Bhardwaj’s accuracy in depicting events from Kashmir in the 1990s. However, I think his intent was to use this particular conflict as an example of how individuals in every war-torn region try to benefit from the chaos at the expense of ordinary people (as exemplified by Haider’s uncle, Khurram). The danger of using such a recent conflict as a backdrop for a story is that there are still enough people alive who were personally affected by it who can call out filmmakers for any inaccuracies.

      1. Nicky

        You are welcome,Kathy !
        Those weren’t some inaccuracies but rather gross distortions of the facts.Clearly,Bhardwaj & Peer weren’t interested in all aspects of Kashmir,political & historical.For them Kashmir provided an ideal backdrop for adaptation of Hamlet into an Indian environment.It might have worked great at cinematic level but it had nothing to do with the real story of Kashmir & hence historical accuracy is of no importance to him & his writer,which was a blunder in my view.May be his intent was right,but his execution was severely flawed because of the uni dimensional view adopted by him & his writer.

        I felt it was important to share this view.When good film makers screw up things big time especially with facts it isn’t admirable.I would continue to watch his films out of sheer admiration for his previous works.Moreover, #boycott Haider which was trending in India since its release only brought out more audience to the theaters & more reviewers in the print media πŸ™‚ So,at the end of the day,it did good to the movie than bad !

        Enough said i guess,i rest my case & end my whine ! πŸ™‚

        PS:The above views weren’t only mine,many folks here shared a similar opinion.

      2. Parth

        Nicky, Kathy,

        Haider is strictly showing life in kashmir from only one point of view. it is a biased story. we get only one line about kashmiri pundits in entire movie. it is not showcasing any what actually happened in general.
        it is showcasing accurately what happened from only one point of view. not others and there are many ponints of view if we want to do justice.
        but it is a movie and like kathy said main intent was showing one person’s life in the hell like paradise and converting Hamlet into indian version. i am glad that they didn’t go to do justice to other views too. too many cook spoils the food.

  5. sukanya

    loved every bit of the movie.That gravedigger song beckoning death,the excellent representation of kashmir’s landscape,the music…and most of all a not-so-silent’s truly a powerful film

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  7. Shah Shahid

    Awesome! This better solidify Shahid Kapoor as the ace actor he’s been from his debut. (In the hands of the right director).

    I may skip my usual wait-a-year-before-watching-a-new-release thing for this one!

  8. Anushka

    Intense, passionate, lyrical…the complex understanding of the characters and the relationships is praiseworthy . The music was top notch, bismil was marvelous. Cinematography deserves all the awards. The performances by Shahid and Tabu were excellent! Cinematically, it is a well made film!

    But, I agree with Nicky here. The film is totally biased and I was shocked to see the inaccurate representation of the 90’s Kashmir, almost amateurish . It hardly mentions the ‘Kashmir Pandits genocide’ which is the reason AFSPA (,_1958) stayed in practice during that period of time. Instead the film takes endless jibes at the Indian army and the govt. Ofcourse, lot of it could be true but you can’t just pull a veil on the most important aspects. Sympathizing with the militants/separatists/terrorists (who are responsible for a million deaths and un-ending political unrest in Kashmir) is just disgusting! These things totally made me frown.

    I just wished that Vishal Bhardwaj did proper reaserch and hired someone else as his co-writer who had a better understanding of the situation.

    But VB sure knows his craft very well irrespective of his understanding of sensitive issues. No doubts there.

    1. Kathy

      Thanks for pointing out why AFSPA was in place during the events of the movie, Anushka. Without explaining why the government felt like extra security measures were needed, it seemed like the Indian government was being heavy-handed just because it could be.

      This harkens back to problems I’ve had with some of Bhardwaj’s movies in the past. I’ve felt that some of his movies with especially intense local flavor — The Blue Umbrella and Omkara, for example — weren’t very accessible to international audience members, like myself. Even though lots of people love Kaminey, I found it really hard to understand. Perhaps Bhardwaj needs to provides more context in his movies, and not assume that all of his audience members share the same background knowledge (and feelings about that knowledge) that he does. I think it’s possible to do that without sacrificing quality.

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  10. rik

    Haider appears like a coin whose both sides can be seen in the same image. Perhaps impossible, not for Haider. At once I was engrossed by one man’s intense strive for retribution, and exasperated at his lack of broader perspective. Roohdar’s details seem convincing. Khurram appears moved whenever he looks at Haider. Did he really intend to execute him? Difficult for me to believe.

    The film isnt about Kashmir. I dont think fiction can be about anything other than lives, and a life has freedom to think in its own way. At its core the film throws some convincing options before an already vulnerable man, and asks him which road he will take when things get personal to him. The greatness of the film is that it seems unfazed by its own lunacy. It doesn’t design chaos, it invites it.

    Haider will also be special for me because through it I discovered your blog. I regret not coming across it 6 years back. Looking forward. πŸ™‚

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  17. mansah

    Oh man, I went on holiday just before this came out and I’m gutted that it didn’t stick around in the London cinemas longer. It sounds every bit as amazing as I could have wished it to be! Here’s hoping they get it to netflix soon!

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