Full disclosure: I love Shakespeare, and Hamlet is my favorite play. I first read it soon after my father died. I was 18, heading off to college. And so I identified with Hamlet, unsure of how to interact with a world that had moved on. I identified with Ophelia. “I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died. They say he made a good end.”
Shakespeare is lauded for his female characters. Ophelia and Getrude as some of his best, most human. Ophelia, spurned by her lover, condescended to and used by her family, driven mad by grief. Gertrude trying to exert some control over her life, marrying a man that perhaps she had loved for many years, finally taking control by ending her life. Sad ends, but fascinating characters.
So, yes, I judge every production of Hamlet by its Hamlet, but by its Ophelia and Gertrude, as well. What do they get to do? Do they get to be human or are they just props for Hamlet?
In brief: Hamlet is the tale of a prince cut out of his inheritance, his father murdered by his uncle, his mother married to his father’s murderer. The play ends with nearly everyone’s death: Ophelia and Getrude’s suicides; Claudius, Polonius, and Laertes murdered by Hamlet; Hamlet murdered by Claudius.
From the outset, then, we can see it’s not a particularly feminist story in that the text revolves around Hamlet, his feelings, and his actions. But the director of a particular version can treat Ophelia and Gertrude with varying degrees of sympathy, and reveal women caught up in patriarchal systems and taking what power they can. Many Hamlet adaptations are period pieces, so the treatment of the women can add an additional layer of commentary. (For example, the 2000 adaptation by Michael Almerayda is set in, essentially, late ‘90s US. Ophelia has her own small apartment and hobbies. She has a degree of independence other Ophelias don’t, which show how extra crushing her treatment is.)
Haider, directed by Vishal Bhadrwaj (who also directed the terrific Shakespeare adaptations Maqbul and Omkara), is a success, in large part because it makes Hamlet’s subtext text.
My only complaint, quite honestly, is that Haider (Shahid Kapoor) lives. How can Hamlet survive? But I suppose the closing shot of Haider walking away from the bloodshed, walking a bleak winter road, shows that while he lives, everything he cared for has been destroyed. His is not an uncertain future, but non-existent future. Still bleak, which is what you want for Hamlet.
The film is set in 1995 Kashmir, at the peak of its bloody conflict. Haider’s father has disappeared, and Haider returns from school to find answers.
Arshi (Shraddha Kapoor), meets Haider when he returns to his hometown. Not a wallflower, Arshi is a journalist and uses her credentials to save Haider at a border patrol. Arshi is dynamic, performing a vital, dangerous job.
Haider is shocked to see his mother Ghazala (Tabu) enjoying herself with her brother-in-law/Haider’s uncle Khurram (Kay Kay Menon). Ghazala is a complex figure; she shows grief, she shows joy at seeing Haider, she shows happiness in being with Khurram. The film shows us her relationship with Haider’s father, Hilaal (Narendra Jaa). Hilaal is arrested because he performs surgery on a member of the opposition. Ghazala had opposed his actions, and she was right to be concerned since Hilaal is taken away and later murdered. Flashbacks show that while Ghazala loved Haider, he always preferred his father. She asks him, “Do you remember when you said you’d marry Mommy when you grew up?” Their parent-child relationship has always been complex.
Haider and Arshi sneak away to an idyllic cabin in a snowy forest. They make love in front of the fire. Later, Haider holds a gun to his head and muses, “To believe or not to believe, that is the guess. To kill or to die.”
Arshi tells her dad what happened and what Haider suspects. Her father in turn reports to Khurram, Haider’s uncle. Khurram reveals to Haider what he knows. And so they are all betrayed. Hamlet’s famous speech was about whether to live or commit suicide; Haider muses on the difficulty of believing anyone, especially in a war zone. And as an audience, who can we believe, especially when the direct presents multiple points of view, not just one character’s.
As must happen, Haider kills Arshi’s father. Mad with grief, she kills herself. Haider kills the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern stand-ins, the Salmans, himself, instead of leaving those deaths to others. Haider confronts her mother, and we realize that she gave Khurram the information that led to Hilaal’s death. Ghazal didn’t want Hilaal to die (“I didn’t hate him,” she says, though their relationship was strained), but Khurram was in love with Ghazal, hence his deception. Haider murders Arshi’s brother–and these are brutal murders, not guns or swords but Haider beating people to death.
The final stand in a graveyard, at Arshi’s funeral. The white snow covered in blood. Haider hides in the gravediggers’ house as his uncle throws grenades. Ghazala tries to talk him down, her hands red with blood and henna. “I won’t surrender,” he tells her.
She kisses him and leaves, removing her cloak. She is wearing a suicide vest. She activates it as Haider and Khurram run to her. The camera does not shy away from the aftermath: Ghazala’s bloody remains, severed body parts strewn apart. Haider has been injured but Khurram’s legs have been blown off. It is easy to think of movie revenge as a simple gun shot, but here we see what revenge and violence really is: blood, destroyed bodies, ended lives.
Khurram begs Haider to finish and get his revenge, but Haider leaves him. The merciful thing would be to kill him; with destroyed legs, with everyone else dead, how will Khurram survive in the cold graveyard? Haider thinks he is merciful, the revenges begets revenge. He won’t kill his uncle in order to put a stop to the violence, but his actions are even crueler. Violence has twisted even mercy. Haider limps away.
The movie is brutal, filmed in washed out colors, particularly white, black, and gray, that highlight red blood, red henna, red clothing. The violence connects and ensnares all of the characters. In the context of war, individual actions both mean everything and mean nothing. On the one hand, Khurram is directly responsible for Hilaal’s disappearance and death. On the other hand, the violence would have swallowed them all anyway, since Hilaal was captured because he was helping the other side.
Universal, maybe. But powerful because it is personal, it is specific, it is this one story. A story connected to so many others, and yet its own.