To pout or not to pout: Hamlet goes Bollywood

Bhardwaj relocates the action to Kashmir in the mid-1990s. If the graft doesn’t quite take, it’s because the film is so persuasive in portraying the oppression of the Kashmiri people that the woes of Hamlet seem small beer.

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Haider (15)
dir: Vishal Bhardwaj

The idea of a Bollywood Hamlet throws up all manner of preconceptions. But Haider transpires to be a far less irreverent interpretation than, say, the 2000 US version in which Ethan Hawke delivered the “To be or not to be” soliloquy from the “Action” section of Blockbuster Video. The director, Vishal Bhardwaj, has already made acclaimed versions of Macbeth (Maqbool) and Othello (Omkara). In Haider he shows himself to be a traditionalist with a clear respect for the text, no matter that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern work in a video shop or that Ophelia drives a hatchback.

For a full 80 minutes or so before the interval (yes, Bollywood films have intervals), it doesn’t even seem as though the hero’s father is dead. Without a corpse there can be no ghost. And Hamlet without a ghost would be like The Importance of Being Earnest without a handbag. But Haider’s father turns out to have been “disappeared”. Bhardwaj’s big idea for the film, which he co-wrote with the Kashmiri journalist Basharat Peer, is to relocate the action to Kashmir in the mid-1990s. If the graft doesn’t quite take, it’s not because of an unsuitable match, but more that the picture is so persuasive in portraying the oppression of the Kashmiri people that the woes of Hamlet, or rather Haider, seem like pretty small beer.

The film describes a climate in which the relatives of imprisoned militants are encouraged to agree to fictitious charges being brought against their loved ones simply because, once officially in the court system, the prisoners will then be less likely to vanish in suspicious circumstances. “Chutzpah” is a word that crops up repeatedly in the script, and that none of the actors has been told how to pronounce it properly doesn’t detract from its pertinence here.

Save for a few charged scenes, such as Haider (Shahid Kapoor) spying on a moment of intimacy between his mother, Ghazala (played by the actress Tabu), and his uncle Khurram (Kay Kay Menon), the first half of the film isn’t really Hamlet at all. There are proper hints of eroticism between mother and son. Bhardwaj traces these back to Haider’s adolescence, when he would dab perfume on her neck and then follow it up with a kiss.

Her behaviour when she sends him away after discovering a gun in his school rucksack is more akin to that of a jealous lover than a disciplinarian parent. She turns up while he’s playing cricket with his chums and places the gun against her own head: she’ll pull the trigger, she promises, unless he agrees to leave. Honestly, parents can be so embarrassing.

Only with the arrival of Roohdaar (Irrfan Khan), a ghostlike figure bearing a posthumous message from Haider’s father, does the action take a properly Shakespearean turn. A slight weak link is Haider himself. Torture and summary executions occur right under his nose. Kalashnikovs, grenades and rocket launchers are unpacked during a fierce battle in a snowy cemetery. That he can’t put one itsy-bitsy bullet in his uncle’s head seems faintly ludicrous under the circumstances. Especially when, as shown by Haider’s concealment of a gun behind a toilet cistern, he has clearly been taking lessons from The Godfather.

A heartier actor might have conveyed the inner turmoil better, and communicated that (as Clint Eastwood puts it in Unforgiven) it’s a hell of a thing killing a man. But it is fair to say that Shahid Kapoor, though one of the prettiest of all Hamlets, will not go down in history alongside Rylance or Gielgud, or even Hawke. The main conundrum on his mind appears to be “To pout or not to pout”. Kapoor’s initial insipidness does at least make his descent into madness more shocking. He rants and raves with a noose around his neck and does some full-bodied crying of the snot-and-dribble, Truly Madly Deeply variety.

The film gains considerable force as it advances towards tragedy. Bhardwaj (who also composed the shimmering score) handles complicated battle scenes with confidence. The hearty Bollywood spin on the visit of the travelling players works a treat. Bhardwaj’s visual sense is impeccable: the image of Arshia (Shradda Kapoor), aka Ophelia, lying beneath a web of red wool from an unpicked scarf that mirrors her own unravelling, is striking. And he knows that the tiniest anomaly, such as that scarf, will have a destabilising effect on the eye when seen against the blazing white Himalayan landscape. What else can I say? Get thee to a multiplex. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Grayson Perry guest edit