Haraamkhor (international title: The Wretched) is a captivating examination of adolescents and their understanding of sexuality and romantic relationships. The stakes are high for the kids in the film as they takes their uneasy steps toward adulthood.
The action in Haraamkhor centers around Sandhya (Shweta Tripathi), a 15-year-old schoolgirl. Her mother abandoned her years ago, and her police constable father is a secretive drunk. She’s new to the small town in Gujarat where she lives, and she has no friends.
She does have an admirer, however. Kamal (Irfan Khan of Chillar Party) is a skinny boy a few years Sandhya’s junior, and he is determined to marry her. Unfortunately, Kamal breaks both of his arms at the start of the film, forcing him to rely heavily on his best friend, Mintu (Modh Samad), for assistance in his romantic pursuits.
Mintu is the main source of dubious information about sex for all of the prepubescent boys in town. According to Mintu, a boy and a girl have to get married if they see each other naked. He helps Kamal spy on Sandhya in the shower before developing several botched plans to trick Sandhya into seeing Kamal naked. The best of his ridiculous plans involves Mintu acting as a miniature Hugh Hefner, photographing underwear-clad Kamal in what passes for a seductive pose to a pre-teen boy.
Sandhya’s other admirer isn’t so innocent. She’s smitten with her teacher, Shyam (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), and the older man is happy to draw her into a sexual relationship. This isn’t his first time. His wife, Sunita (Trimala Adhikari), is herself a former student.
Kamal and Mintu are convinced that Sandhya and Shyam are having an affair, but the boys don’t completely understand what that means or consequences it could have. Shyam certainly does, but he’s brazen enough to ride around the small town with Sandhya. She wraps her head in a scarf as a disguise, as if people won’t recognize her bright red backpack and school uniform.
Writer-director Shlok Sharma is forgiving of Kamal’s and Sandhya’s naiveté. Kamal is very much still a kid, and Sandhya lacks good adult role models to guide her through puberty. She’s been disappointed by adults before — but not outright deceived, as she is by Shyam.
Sandhya eventually finds that role model in Neelu (Shreya Shah), the girlfriend her father has kept secret for years. Neelu knows exactly what Sandhya is going through and guides the girl without pushing her. The tender development of their relationship is one of the highlights of the film.
Every performance in the film is excellent. Shah is patient, Adhikari annoyed. Khan and Samad are boyhood at its most endearing. Tripathi is superb, playing a character half her age with great sympathy.
Siddiqui makes a villainous character seem downright ordinary, as though Shyam could be any guy in any town. He’s a violent predator, but thanks to Siddiqui, we see how Shyam is able to maintain his good standing in town for as long as he does.
The integration of Haraamkhor‘s two main storylines isn’t always successful. A scene of Shyam trying to molest Sandhya is immediately followed by Kamal and Neelu sneaking around Sandhya’s house, accompanied by dodo music. It’s hard to flip the emotional switch as quickly as Sharma demands.
But that’s the point of Haraamkhor, I guess. Kids don’t always get to grow up at the pace they are ready for.