Vantage point

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Thoughts on Haider

Watched Haider. Liked it a lot. But it certainly isn't Vishal Bhardwaj's best as some reviewers have suggested. It wasn't a masterpiece like Maqbool and Blue Umbrella were. It had its problems. And the problems weren't fundamental, but cosmetic. Which makes the problems all the more annoying.

It seemed like Michaelangelo's David wearing underwear because its creator didn't want some people to blush. Or the Mona Lisa with eyebrows penciled on at the last minute because Leonardo didn't want to deal with "but where are the eyebrows?" questions.  

You can see that there was a masterpiece hidden in there, but was robbed of its true form due to lack of total conviction or concerns about propriety. Ironically, it seems like Vishal had his own "to be or not to be" struggle about how much to push the envelope. And ended up undermining the end product. Not too much, but just enough to make it fall short of greatness.

Here are some disjointed thoughts about the movie.

1) The "Anti-Army" charges

Many self-proclaimed nationalists on Twitter have been bashing the film as being "anti-army". Haider isn't nearly as anti-army as Maqbool was "anti-police". Vishal cast two corrupt police officers in the role of the witches from Macbeth, and gave them a lot more mischief to do. Heck, Haider isn't even as anti-army as Hum Aapke Hai Koun is "anti-stairs" because if not for those damn stairs, Pooja would've been alive and Nisha and Prem would've gotten married without Tuffy having to exert himself.

A lot of this "nationalist" outrage against Haider is a by-product of the mass delusion that most Indians have willingly been a part of and ardently sought to perpetuate. The delusion that the idea of India is more inclusive and benign than it actually is. That if some folks in Kashmir or in the North-East don't consider themselves Indian, it's just stupid, their fault, and totally the handiwork of Pakistan and/or China. And....most importantly....that our army can do no wrong. It can't do anything dishonorable or horrible.

But our army sometimes.....often.... does dishonorable or horrible things. Mostly because as Shivam Vij explains, that's the army's job in situations like 1990s Kashmir.

If you watch the movie without having this naive hyper-nationalized romanticized notion of what the Indian army is, Haider actually seems to go somewhat out of its way to be respectful to the army and justify its perceived excesses. When a home is blown up, it is because a bonafide terrorist really is hiding in it. People are are tortured either are or are strongly suspected of being terrorists trained by Pakistan. And if innocent people are being incarcerated or killed, it's not the army's fault. It is due to misinformation from the conniving two-faced Ikhwan types.

2) Excessive Soapbox Usage

Vishal has so far occupied a level higher than other Indian directors because of how nuanced, layered, and yet powerful his scripts are. You're not hit over the head with blatant exposition of irony, tragedy, or even humor. 

Haider was a bit too "speechy". And I don't mean the soliloquies that Hamlet is famous for. In fact most of those were excised. I mean speechy in the sense that Vishal and Basharat Peer seeme to be almost compelled to give us a preachy soapbox exposition of almost every political perspective in the Kashmir issue. 

So you have the speech about Nehru's betrayal, and the speech about Kashmiri Pandits, and the speech about how violence isn't the answer, and the speech about how "azadi" is synonymous with joining Pakistan, and the speech about.......about about about......

To make matters worse, not only were the speeches utterly banal, but they also served as speed-breakers in the narrative. They were less Vishal Bhardwaj and more Mani Ratnam or Aaron Sorkin. 

The most poignant points about the whole issue were actually made in several vintage Vishal scenes, either sub-textually or organically. The chutzpah-AFSPA dialog for instance or the scene in which Basharat himself has a cameo. 

All those soapbox scenes, the movie could have done without. I couldn't help but feel that they were there for Vishal to hedge politically. Every one of those scenes was meant to mollify or assuage one of the stakeholders in  the Kashmir issue. It's like Vishal had a checklist and wanted to make sure everyone got their spiel in and nobody felt left-out. The end result ironically is that you will find several Indian nationalists, Pakistanis, pro-freedom Kashmiris, Kashmiri Pandits, and so on who think the movie is unfair to their perspective.  

3) Shahid Kapoor

Shahid put in a solid effort. He tried hard and stretched himself to the maximum. But it simply wasn't good enough. Especially in the second half when Hamlet in the play really comes into his element, Shahid Kapoor seemed instead to be channeling Sridevi from Sadma. 

The movie would've been better served by casting not Shahid, but an actor who won accolades for playing a guy named Shahid - Rajkumar Rao. At several points in the movie when Shahid's earnest but inadequate emoting was making me cringe, I closed my eyes and tried to imagine Rajkumar Rao in the same scene.