Revisiting Vishal Bharadwaj’s ‘Haider’ After Eight Years

One always expects a Vishal Bharadwaj film to be sensible, if not utterly ridiculous. He delivers quality cinema, and, going in to watch “Haider,” an adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet, one knew it would be good. “Haider” was released on October 2nd, 2014, and it has been 8 years since its release. Back in 2014, no one expected how good “Haider” would be. Vishal unleashed a monstrosity so great that it took a day or two to get out of the grief caused by the film. A lot has happened since the release of this film. As an actor, Tabu became the equivalent of a force of nature not to be messed with. Shahid Kapoor became the actor that he is right now because of “Haider.” Irrfan Khan, who played Roohdaar, and Narendra Jha, who played Dr. Hilal Meer, father of Haider, are no longer amongst us in this mortal world.

Vishal Bharadwaj is one of the few directors in the Indian film industry who has successfully adapted Shakespearean tragedies on screen. His trilogy comprises “Maqbool” (Macbeth), “Omkara” (Othello), and “Haider” (Hamlet). Vishal Bharadwaj nails it when it comes to creating an atmosphere of deceit. The screenplay is partly adapted from Basharat Peer’s book Curfewed Nights, which combines the treachery written by Shakespeare with the Kashmir of the 90s, embroiled in an insurgency. Vishal and Basharat merge the two topics and give us this grief-laced tale of an influential family that, in a fleet of a moment, loses everything. Haider comes back to pick up the pieces left of his tattered family, only to find his mother, Ghazala, to have seemingly moved on from his father’s disappearance. Disturbed by the turn of events, Haider goes on a strenuous path to find out what had happened to his father, and on that path, he is faced with love and betrayal, which adds to his deteriorating state of mind. On the other hand, Ghazala is wracked with guilt, which she eventually succumbs to. The physical and mental disintegration of a mother is tough to watch in Haider.

On its first viewing, the film leaves you deeply disturbed, and we’re glad that it does so because that’s how cinema is supposed to be. It makes you question and feel uncomfortable. On more viewings, you find more layers to it. The tale of the tragedy of Prince Hamlet is something many are aware of. This play has been adapted multiple times by filmmakers across the world, which is where lies the beauty of Shakespearean storytelling. It can be deconstructed and rearranged in several multiple scenarios, but the story will still make sense, and the essence of the actual literature won’t shake. There are a lot of factors that inspired us to revisit this film, even when most of us are aware of the pain it inflicts. What is the reason this adaptation still works and has aged well with time?

One key reason why “Haider,” even after 8 years, is a film worth revisiting is the Kashmir angle. The ’90s were a turbulent time in the state. The insurgency was at its peak, and Kashmir was quite literally surrounded by armed forces, who were going after everyone they were suspicious of in being involved in nefarious activities. This is where Basharat Peer’s comes in handy, for the screenplay doesn’t leave any stone unturned in showcasing the horrors of families living in the state that they went through.

Another factor that has kept “Haider” steady as a rock all this while is the overwhelming atmosphere of deceit and tragedy that looms over the screenplay and direction right from the start. Anybody who loves films also loves a good tragedy that potentially rips their heart and soul out. Vishal Bharadwaj throws you into the lives of each Kashmiri who is searching for answers on their existence. In addition to the mood of the film, music by Vishal Bharadwaj and the lyrics by Gulzaar Sahab, adds an element of sadness. The background score and the original soundtrack is filled with poignant lyrics. Vishal Bharadwaj and Gulzaar Sahab toy with emotions with the right words and music. It invokes emotions like determination, resolution, closure, desperation, shock, despair, and sorrow. Jehlum, a song from the album, is haunting if anyone knows the history of that river and its connection with the insurgency of the 90s. The song Bismil needs special mentioning. Gulzaar Sahab beautifully crafted the lyrics of this rendition and smartly turned the lyrics into a screenplay, for it says so much in so little time, sung and directed with perfection.

The camera work by Pankaj Kumar, who helmed the gorgeous “Tumbadd,” gives not just a peek but a full-blown horror shows of what went down in the valley during the 90s at the peak of militant insurgency. The gloomy weather, snow-clad towns, plenty of homes but barely anyone on the roads for people are genuinely scared. There is a constant fear among people of either being taken away by the army or being killed by the militants for supporting the army. A sense of loss, sorrow, and suffering hangs around the people in the film, which can be felt as the movie progresses. The camera does not put across the quaint picture of Kashmir that Bollywood was known for in the 1960s and the 1970s. Along with the gritty camerawork, the Shakespearean story gels perfectly with the insurgency topic. The narrative of to be or not to be in Hamlet is blended perfectly by the writers, and they delicately deal with the Oedipal nature of Haider towards his mother. The writers intelligently introduced the ghost of Hamlet’s father as Roohdar, as it would have been difficult to move the film forward without him acting as the catalyst. The climax, written by Vishal and Basharat, is one of the best endings to have existed in Hindi films. It shocks and pains your system to come to terms with. Two thumbs up to Vishal and his team for the perfect execution of the climactic sequence.

The performances of all the actors are exceptional, which is another reason to revisit the film. Each one of them stands out and leaves a mark long after the film is over. Irrfan Khan’s entry scene is to be cherished for years to come; Tabu’s gut-wrenching pain as Ghazala is for generations to soak in and learn from; Shahid Kapoor as Haider excelled as the man losing his mind over his mother betraying his father; and Kay Kay Menon as Khurram is the cherry on top of the cake, a sly man with a lot of ambition.

There are a couple of cons that have kind of stagnated the film, and one of them is its running time. Two hours and 40 minutes are too long for a feature film. A lot of parts could have been chopped off on the editing table to make the film concise and crisp. The screenplay, in parts, is the culprit, as the writers spend a lot of time on Arshia Lone and Haider’s love story, which honestly wasn’t required since it was established from the beginning that they were both childhood sweethearts. Their relationship does not require a cliched romantic number to amplify it.

After eight years, Haider is highly watchable and manages to sweep you off your feet with its sleek direction and outstanding performances by the actors. The mood created by the writers is for future generations to watch and be in awe of a nearly perfect adaptation of the Shakespearean tragedy. Haider’s pain is palpable, and Ghazal’s guilt is overwhelming. The end was slightly changed and is not as per the original text, but the impact it leaves has a lasting impression, and the horror of the tragedy refuses to leave your mind. Haider is one of those films that is a story-driven drama but received tremendous audience and critical appreciation for the depiction of a state under agony and staying true to Shakespeare’s longest tragic play. A film that leaves you with a feeling of a punch in your gut and a lump in your throat. A must-watch not just after 8 years but also after a decade or two. Hamlet has a new face, thanks to Vishal Bharadwaj.


“Haider” is a 2014 Indian drama thriller film directed by Vishal Bharadwaj.

Smriti Kannan
Smriti Kannan
Smriti Kannan is a cinema enthusiast, and a part time film blogger. An ex public relations executive, films has been a major part of her life since the day she watched The Godfather – Part 1. If you ask her, cinema is reality. Cinema is an escape route. Cinema is time traveling. Cinema is entertainment. Smriti enjoys reading about cinema, she loves to know about cinema and finding out trivia of films and television shows, and from time to time indulges in fan theories.
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