Cast: Shahid Kapoor, Tabu, Kay Kay Menon, Shraddha Kapoor, Lalit Parimoo, Irrfan Khan, Narendra Jha
Director: Vishal Bharadwaj
Runtime: 162 min.
Verdict: A tad disappointing, but the mother-son relationship is its own film and Mr. Bharadwaj surrounds that masterpiece with stuff a hack could arrange.
In a film where the eponymous character muses over the materiality of death and how it is merely a passage not towards reincarnation but towards re-materialization, as a cup maybe, it is pretty poetic when that very character fails to find even a shred of the person’s body he loves most. I do not exactly remember, but he probably doesn’t even get blood. All there is left is sand and the debris left from the explosion. That person, made to completely vanish from any kind of material existence that could provide a sense of closure, is Haider’s (Mr. Kapoor) mother Ghazala (Ms. Tabu), and her death starkly contrasts with that of the other woman in the film, Arshi (Ms. Kapoor), who despite having shot herself in her head, arrives mostly in pristine condition (except for a mark on the right side of her temple) in that very graveyard so as to facilitate a passionate-bordering-on-the-maniacal embrace from Haider. The climax is set in, of all the places, in a graveyard, and Mr. Bharadwaj is nothing if not poetic, for although Haider might not be a treatise on death it sure as hell is surrounded by it. Or, maybe, it’s like a hallway to death, with no other exit door.
What next after death, then? What is in store, in hell for instance? What treatment awaits to the next of kin of who have been branded terrorists, by the country and its authority? This question of post-death seems to preoccupy Mr. Bharadwaj’s mind the most, and like Dante’s trip into the depths of hell, the narrative here provides for dead people to speak their fate and for sinners to try and atone. What should then be considered Ghazala’s fate, and will she ever be able to tell her side of things? Or, has she already explained herself and maybe even justified her life when she kissed her kid? On his lips. In Mr. Bharadwaj’s universe, where women have their identity hinged on how the men around perceive them (“The girl who can steal from (betray) her own father, how can she be trusted by anyone else”, Omkara (2006)), where women either conform to the society’s norms (Arshi) or stand antithetical to the societal notions of femininity, it is interesting how Arshi dies just as the way she lives, pure and complete. As in, all in one piece. As in, her identity intact. Ghazala, on the other hand, has been defragmented into so many pieces, like T-1000, that it is probably impossible for her to be reconstructed.
But then, here is the interesting part. Unlike Nimmi (Maqbool) or Dolly (Omkara), who along with their identities also had their eventual fates hanging on that perception, Ghazala shapes her own fate and all the events about her. Which is somewhat heartening, in the same way Ishqiya was a few years back, and Dedh Ishqiya is now. Because for all the raised eyebrows that are caused by the mere mention of feminism, as Miriam Bale puts it here so simply, it is at the end of the day a movement borne out of a belief that male supremacy for thousands of years has created systems and values that must be recognized and
destroyed restructured. Ghazala is the one
playing the moves, or reacting to the circumstances with moves, and in her
wake, every male and thereby every social structure about her seems to be lost.
Of course, it could be easily argued that the manipulative femme-fatale
cause-of-everything is a trope that has existed in our mythology since ever. To
which one might counter, Ghazala’s moves, her intent and her emotions were
always tethered to one thing and one thing only –her son.
Although I’m no good at this, here’s where I roughly sketch a mapping between the representational elements of the narrative. There is the father, Dr. Hilal Meer (Mr. Jha), who as the opening events suggest (as if Mr. Meer himself penned them from his perspective) is surely not a traitor but a humanist, understands the separatist sentiment, and doesn’t blink an eye in aiding them. There is Khurram (Mr. Menon), who is mostly about self-preservation and self-promotion and the judgmental negative shades about him are because he seems to have no significant ideological stance. Yet, he dearly loves Ghazala, and when all the men are running away from her in her final moments, he, along with Haider, is the one running towards her. He could be considered as a representation of the pro-authority (India) self-preservation elements.
Ghazala, and pardon me for this mostly eyeroll-inducing mapping, probably represents the soul/spirit/sentiment of the land, and in Haider that land sees the future. The flashbacks show moments where the mother is running behind the son, and where the son is mostly idolizing his father, via polishing his shoes. A simple enough synecdoche for a patriarchal system. The whole oedipal dynamic is hardly the stuff of subconscious here. Her running behind Haider is later mirrored in the present when he walks out of his uncle’s house in search of his father, and as I said, Mr. Bharadwaj is nothing if not poetic. So, the patriarch is always about his ideology and ego, echoing through the judgmental old-testamentesque undertones to “Allah will take care of Haider”, and one might readily and rightly assume that the patriarch would have no apprehensions if Haider would take up the arms for what he believes to be the right cause.
And here, via the mother, whose selfishness is only account of her son, and whose one true love of her life is that son, Mr. Bharadwaj brings home the whole eye-for-eye-makes-the-whole-world-blind lesson into the narrative. The twist, if I could label it thus, is that Ghazala, who all through the narrative seems inclined to do anything for personal gains, and who is provided a mostly gratuitous moment (doubling as a misdirection if you will) during Khurram’s “coronation”, is and always was all about her son and him finding an exit out of the graveyard.
And here’s where I reveal my indulgence, and pull the rug, when I say that this is exactly the kind of problem I have with these kind of narratives and their deification of the feminine form, because in a roundabout way Mr. Bharadwaj has asked of his female character to conform to her role in society and stay true to her representation (as the land). Mr. Irfan Khan has labelled the film as the modern Mother India, and rightly so, but that label to me is some kind of backhanded compliment. As if to say, and this is a classic underpinning of most of our mythology, a woman can never think of herself and still be in grace.
This kind of certainty of both intent and action, especially for an adaptation of a play whose very soul is built upon the indecisiveness of action due to the uncertainty of events, probably robs the narrative of a few pleasures and indulgences that could have been continued in the comments section of movie-boards and blogs. Haider has a brilliant monologue of the uncertainty of his predicament, and it is a remarkably moving moment. The casting of Mr. Kapoor seems a masterstroke, for we feel the confusion of a little boy thrust with the weight of patriarchal responsibility. Yet to squander all of that for reasons I am not sure of (I’m sure Mr. Bharadwaj can think beyond his leftist politics), when several (and needless) pains have been taken to include the mostly useless Salmans and the incestuous vibes from Liyaqat (Mr. Aamir Bashir) towards Arshi, is probably beyond me.
But beyond all the issues with theme, which of late I find mostly uninteresting, I’m disappointed with the overall craftsmanship at hand. I mean, isn’t the low-saturated blue the default for terrorism-prone Kashmir (Yahaan)? There sure are some striking images, but the structure of the narrative is another weak-link. We could indulge in another Bordwell-style analysis when the film is released for home-viewing, but what I felt is that there are quite simply too many scenes crammed together whereby the plot takes precedence over the emotional arc of one moment/scene. I think we might learn on another viewing that any scene that runs for less than say a minute can be edited out, like for e.g. the thing where the two Salmans stop the police van to pick up Haider, so that the dramatic arc of the stronger ones could be prolonged. Also, for a man who made Omkara, where the opening shot of the legs reminded me of the best of Sergio Leone, Mr. Bharadwaj here really seems to be unimaginative on the style-front. Roohdar (Mr. Khan) is given a thunderous introduction (like Mr. Sunny Deol was introduced to change the proceedings in Damini), and then he proceeds to fast lose that thunder by overplaying that background drum again and again, to the point where it becomes a very annoying choice/theme/cue/agent for purpose in this narrative about indecisiveness. I might be wrong here, but I suspect Mr. Bharadwaj of now is more suited for something as crazy and rip-roaring and imaginative as Matru ki Bijli ka Mandola rather than straight-faced Shakespearean adaptations, which he can probably oversee a protégé direct.
Also, now that I think about it, there isn’t really much difference between the two characters who commit suicide, isn’t it? So why the distinct fates? Arshi was a reasonable rebel who would ask “tough” questions about torture to the army but mostly gullible before her father, in which case, I’m not sure the purpose behind her killing herself other than guilt. But, for what? Am I missing something when I brand that act meaningless, as opposed to Ghazala’s which had a higher purpose? I started writing this with these two characters in mind, and now I’m not sure where I am.