Spoiler Alert: Salman Khan and the headline of this piece is discussed in the first 4 paragraphs and contains a spoiler. Read from paragraph 5 if you want to avoid it.
Note: Have added my view on the debate around Haider in the existing review, in the last three paragraphs.
Haider is a film that makes daring statements about many different things over the course of its runtime. But the most artful statement it makes has to do with Salman Khan. * spoilers follow* In the movie, set in 1995, two brothers (or friends), both called Salman, are Salman fanatics (fondly called ‘Bhaitards’ on the internet): they are not only obsessive about Salman’s movies, they also impersonate him down to his look, style, and behaviour. They run a Bollywood VHS parlour, dressed almost entirely with posters of Salman’s mug, in the middle of a lake in Kashmir and sell Salman Khan ‘Bollywood’s Rocky and all time superstar’ to anyone, Indian or American, who wants to indulge in the movies.
To cut a long story short, the turning point of the film is brought about when Haider, brutally and mercilessly stones the two Salmans to death. If you haven’t watched the film and are still reading this, let me assure you that the murders are well-deserved, in the context of the movie, of course (otherwise they aren’t, so umm, don’t do them). The two Salmans are basically sidekicks without a hero, and also without a brain of their own, who go to whichever side is most profitable; within the movie, the tide is the Indian army, and it is most profitable to kill Haider, but they end up dead instead.
I generally don’t tend to make too much of symbolism in a movie but I almost stood up in my seat to applaud Vishal Bhardwaj when Haider *literally* stoned Salmans (who were Salman buffs), to death. The movie, which eloquently discusses, dissects and waxes eloquent on ‘inteqaam’, is essentially Vishal Bhardwaj’s inteqaam on Salman Khan’s brand of cinema; the brand of mindless entertainment, the sidekicks of what ‘cinema’ really is, that cares about little other than profit.
This may just be me – I don’t know if anyone else has brought up this point – and perhaps, like many on social media tend to think so, Bhardwaj *is* in fact paying tribute to Salman through the characters and his songs and film clips. But to think of it, is it a mere coincidence that among the many camps that potential terrorists are taken to, is a camp in which the men in uniform are watching a Salman Khan movie? Where I am concerned, Vishal Bhardwaj has, with Haider, unabashedly made a statement on the condition of cinema in India, and with a film this fantastic, stoned ‘Bollywood’ in the face, to prove that a great piece of cinema can also be pretty ‘mainstream’.
Because Haider is both a defiance of all that is Bollywood, and at the very same time, an ode to it. It’s got the ‘rooh’ of an art film, but the body of a contemporary Bollywood classic. It stays within the parameters of all that Bollywood is – there is at least one forced romantic song, there is a love story that’s trying hard to fit in, among all the nuanced characters there’s still a conventional hero and villain, there’s at least one slightly well-known token Kashmiri actor in Aamir Bashir whose role as the heroine’s evil brother is basically being angry all the time, there’s the most famous Bollywood problem: not knowing how to shorten a great film to a perfect one because you are in love with your product, and the film’s also got its own Salman Khan in Irrfan: the introductory scene of Irrfan basically makes you realise that Irrfan is Vishal Bhardwaj’s Salman Khan! – and yet, the film succeeds on all other levels as a cinematic achievement.
The direction is masterful; every shot has been conceived as a labour of love and it is evident that this was a film Bhardwaj possibly took even more seriously than any other in his illustrious career. The cinematography (Pankaj Kumar) is unbelievably good, I doubt anyone else can claim a better shot Bollywood film this year; the dialogues are exquisite… really, more than the music itself, I found the dialogues to be music to the ears in the way they were written and of course in the way they were expressed. Because every dialogue was expressed by an actor in a way that they owned that dialogue; that those words were written only for them and no one else in the world could perform them any better. Because the acting performances in Haider are possibly some of the best in contemporary cinema, of *any* country. From a newbie like Shraddha Kapoor to the character actors (the two Salmans) to seasoned ones, everyone is remarkable, even in the smallest of roles (Kulbhushan Kharbanda!).
Of course, Tabu and Kay Kay Menon steal every scene they are in because they are just that damn good. The oedipal layer that Tabu brings to her character is disconcerting, and the humanity that Kay Kay brings to a character so rotten is incredible. But that’s to be expected of the two stalwarts. What stands out in the movie, and which is one of the two greatest achievements of Haider – is the rise of Shahid Kapoor as a man amongst the boys.
With this movie, in fact from a single scene – the radio scene, which is bound to go down as iconic in film folklore as one of the bravest, most badass pieces of Indian cinema – Shahid has cemented his place amongst the likes of Ranbir Kapoor, as one of the finest and most terrific young actors in the country. Shahid evidently stripped himself of himself for the movie; he doesn’t just play Haider, he *is* Haider. This is a career defining performance, if there ever was one, and this could very well be Shahid’s McConaissance. Shahid Kapoor is the new Matthew McConaughey, and Haider is his True Detective. If, hereon, Shahid manages to build on the shoulders of Haider, he may well have booked a place among the greats of his generation, but if he goes back to his ‘Gandi baat’, it would be a loss tragic to our cinema.
The other great achievement of Haider – of course – is to bring the Kashmir issue to the front and center of Bollywood, which is the front and center of everything India is. The film pulls few punches and holds up an unflattering mirror on delicate matters like army torture, plebiscite and more – but ultimately, it is wise to remember that this is a film and not a political mouthpiece or propaganda. There is a story of a person and a family being told here, and that story does not necessarily depict all sides of the conflict. I have hence tried not to make this review about the issue as well, because while films are often a commentary on society, Haider doesn’t claim to be one, and the only thing that it tries to be faithful to is Shakespeare and his tragedy, Hamlet, of which it is an adaptation.
Haider should hence be seen only through a cinematic lens and not a political one; because a piece of fiction cannot be held accountable for not judiciously reproducing history. Bhardwaj and cowriter Basharat Peer deserve praise for bravely representing on screen a version of a specific part of history that’s seldom been spoken about in mainstream cinema, and the onus is up to us to understand its background and its reality. The emotional response to Haider by those who feel strongly about the other side of events should ideally be channeled into a discussion or turned into prose or poetry through any artistic medium, and a film like Haider should be welcomed because it means that major Indian studios (DISNEY UTV Motion Pictures) and the censor board are now ready to share such stories, if well made, on the big screen.
The story of, and in, Haider may or may not attempt to give a mainstream voice to a specific, marginalised community, but if the film starts a meaningful conversation about Kashmir in the homes of ‘the masses’, and if its ultimate message – that revenge is never the answer – is the takeaway by audiences far and wide, then Haider won’t just be an achievement for Indian cinema, but an achievement for the Indian collective conscience.
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