Haider (2014): Indian filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj's final chapter in Shakespeare trilogy

A powerful socio-political commentary on Kashmir of the 1990s

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review

By Murtaza Ali

Featured in IMDb Critic Reviews

Haider, Movie Poster, Directed by Vishal Bhardwaj, starring Tabu, Shahid Kapoor, Kay Kay Menon, Shraddha Kapoor, and Irrfan Khan
Haider (2014) By Vishal Bhardwaj
Our Rating: 8.0
IMDb Ratings: 9.0
Genre: Crime Drama | Romance
CastTabu, Shahid Kapoor, Kay Kay Menon
Country: India
Language: Hindi | Kashmiri
Runtime161 min

Summary: Vishal Bhardwaj's adaptation of William Shakespeare's 'Hamlet', Haider - a young man returns home to Kashmir on receiving news of his father's disappearance. Not only does he learn that security forces have detained his father for harboring militants, but that his mother is in a relationship with his very own uncle. Intense drama follows between mother and son as both struggle to come to terms with news of his father's death. Soon Haider learns that his uncle is responsible for the gruesome murder, what follows is his journey to avenge his father's death.

Haider is the latest offering from the renowned Indian filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj. Co-written by Basharat Peer and Bhardwaj himself, Haider is the third and final chapter in Bhardwaj’s Shakespeare trilogy. Having already made successful adaptations of Macbeth (Maqbool, 2003) and Othello (Omkara, 2006), Bhardwaj was left with the choice of adapting either King Lear or Hamlet to complete his trilogy. He opted for the latter because of the presence of a strong sexual undercurrent in the source material—a motif that harks back to the first two films of the trilogy. While Haider stars Shahid Kapoor in the eponymous role, Tabu portrays the role of his mother (modeled upon Hamlet’s mother Gertrude) and Kay Kay Menon essays the role of his uncle (modeled upon Claudius who, in the play, murders his own brother and Hamlet’s father, King Hamlet, and subsequently usurps the throne, marrying Gertrude). The role of Haider’s lover is played by Shraddha Kapoor (based on Ophelia’s character in Hamlet). Irrfan Khan, who had essayed the titular role in Maqbool, makes a cameo appearance. Haider’s support cast includes renowned character actors like Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Ashish Vidyarthi, Narendra Jha, Lalit Parimoo, and Aamir Bashir.

Shahid Kapoor as Haider, modeled upon Hamlet, in Vishal Bhardwaj's Haider
Shahid Kapoor in Vishal Bhardwaj's Haider
The uncanny choice of Kashmir of the 1990s—a treacherous avenue of unparalleled beauty and unfathomable danger where people just disappear, never to return again—as the movie’s backdrop proves to be a stroke of pure genius as it helps Bhardwaj in orchestrating an enchanting mise-en-scène that elevates an otherwise sprawling orgy of histrionics (what else can one possibly say of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet?) to the realms of realism. While the exquisite end product that’s on offer here succeeds in capturing the essence of the Bard’s haunting saga of love, revenge and madness, it doesn’t, not even for a second, seem to be missing Bharadwaj’s signature earthy style, which further adds to the movie’s verisimilitude. While Haider is mostly true to Hamlet in essence, there is one striking contrast. While the latter depicts vengeance as the only means left for redemption, the former, despite glorifying the human desire for revenge, ultimately preaches forgiveness as the path to eternal salvation. It is also one of the underlining differences between the Western and the Eastern philosophies.

Tabu as Ghazala in Haider, Haider's mother, modeled upon Gertrude, Directed  by Vishal Bhardwaj
Tabu as Ghazala in Haider
By the mid-1990s, Kashmir had taken the form of a spewing volcano, a ticking time bomb ready to go kablooey at any given moment. The terrorist insurgency in the Kashmir valley had started to pose a serious threat to India’s sovereignty and the army had to be given a carte blanche so as to guard the country against any possible threat from both within and as well as outside the country. The people of Kashmir started seeing the growing military activity in the region as a violation of their basic rights. The separatist leaders saw this as a golden opportunity to galvanize the masses against the state and started adding fuel to fire as the valley got encompassed in a miasma of mistrust. Although, the situation has improved significantly over the last decade, a lot of work still needs to be done before the conflict can be fully resolved. Nonetheless, Haider, which is completely filmed in Kashmir, ends up doing some serious marketing for the 21st century Kashmir, which is slowly returning to its pristine, blissful state. Bhardwaj’s film also leaves a strong message not only for people of Kashmir but for all humanity that nothing can be gained through revenge and in the absence of trust.

Kay Kay Menon as Khurram in Haider, Haider's uncle, modeled upon Claudius, Directed by Vishal Bhardwaj
Kay Kay Menon as Khurram in Haider
Make no mistake! Adapting a work of Shakespeare is no child’s play. Even the most experienced campaigners can falter if their ambition gets the better of them. The key to adapting any major work of literature is to be wary of one’s limitations. Haider is far from being called a perfect adaptation of Hamlet. But, Bhardwaj, to his credit, gets the job done. There are moments of sheer brilliance but there is also a lot of drivel that could have easily been done away with. Haider has all the makings of an epic but it faces some serious pacing issues towards the second half. Also, the narrative appears to be sketchy at some places. But, that's the price that one must be willing to pay for one’s ambition. Perhaps, succumbing to one’s creative urges is more important to an artist like Bhardwaj than to seek perfection.

Shraddha Kapoor as Arshia in Haider, modeled upon Ophelia, Directed by Vishal Bhardwaj
Shraddha Kapoor as Arshia in Haider
One of the main themes of Hamlet is chaos. This chaos is most evident in the play’s central character who, in many ways, is a personification of confusion and duality. Prince Hamlet's highly complex, fascinating albeit bizarre nature makes his a singular caricature in all literature—a distorted persona endowed with contradictory traits that fade the lines which separate virtue and vice, heroism and villainy, and sanity and madness. In Haider, we get to see shades of their previous collaboration, Kaminey (2009), as Vishal Bharadwaj and Shahid Kapoor grapple with the endless contradictions that define Hamlet’s multidimensional character. Although, Kapoor appears to be struggling at some places, he manages to stretch beyond his normal thresholds, and it’s heartening to see that his efforts don’t go unrewarded.

Irrfan Khan as Roohdar in Haider, Directed by Vishal Bhardwaj
Irrfan Khan as Roohdar in Haider
Oedipus complex is another major theme that runs through Hamlet. Coined by Sigmund Freud, the founding father of psychoanalysis, the term Oedipus complex denotes the subconscious emotions and ideas that focus upon a child's desire to have sexual relations with the parent of the opposite sex. In Haider, as one expects from a filmmaker whose target audience is primarily conservative, the syndrome is both latent and nuanced in comparison to the play wherein the Prince’s attraction towards his mother can be interpreted at both physical and psychological levels. While a lesser filmmaker could have easily botched it up, Bhardwaj still manages to pull it off neither appearing too direct nor too cryptic. And, its efficacy is testified by the fact that after having watched the movie, one just can’t help but wonder what was it that haunted Haider more:  His father's death or his mother's closeness to his uncle?

Haider (Shahid Kapoor) with his mother (Tabu), modeled on Hamlet and Gertrude, Directed by Vishal Bhardwaj, The Oedipus Complex
Haider: The Oedipus Complex
Haider not only serves as a worthy adaptation of Hamlet, but it also proves to be a powerful socio-political commentary on Kashmir of the 1990s. Without the Kashmir angle, Haider would have appeared more empty and existential, with the Shakespearean characters merely playing their parts in a bid to reach the end of the trail. But, with Kashmir as its backdrop, it almost comes across as a propaganda film that aims to serve as a bitter reminder of our not too distant past. This critic is reminded of Salman Rushdie’s 2005 novel, "Shalimar the Clown," which presents the heart-breaking tale of a naïve Kashmiri tightrope artist who ends up as a cold-blooded assassin after coming in contact with terrorist groups in Afghanistan. Like Rushdie’s novel, Haider is a warning of what can possibly become of a country's youth if not properly looked after by the state machinery.

Tabu and Kay Kay Menon, in Haider, based on Claudius and Gertrude, Directed by Vishal Bhardwaj
Haider: Ghazala and Khurram
While the acting is brilliant all around, it is Tabu who steals the show with a multilayered portrayal that would have guaranteed her an Oscar had Haider been a Hollywood production. Here she shows a range that very few actresses have demonstrated in Hindi cinema. In fact, her performance is so complete and thorough that one just can’t have enough of her. Shahid Kapoor’s performance in Haider is not perfect but is easily the best of his career, and it comes as no big surprise as Bhardwaj has a reputation of getting the best out of his actors. Kay Kay Menon plays his detestable part with the desperation of a mangy scoundrel. Menon’s impressive performance reminds this critic of Rod Steiger’s remarkable turn in David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (1965). Shraddha Kapoor serves well as an eye candy, but, beyond that, not much can be said of her performance. Irrfan Khan is brilliant as ever in the limited screen time that he gets. While the entire support cast does a reasonable job, Narendra Jha, who impresses in the role of Haider’s father, deserves a special mention.

Shahid Kapoor and Shraddha Kapoor, based on Hamlet and Ophelia, in Haider, Directed by Vishal Bhardwaj
A Still from Vishal Bhardwaj's Haider
Overall, Haider is a dark, distorted and diabolical work of cinematic art that falls well short of attaining perfection. But, for someone as obsessed as Bhardwaj, creativity is more important than perfection! At regular intervals, Bhardwaj tries to lighten up the mood perhaps to satisfy the cravings of the casual viewers. First, he pays homage to the Bollywood heartthrob Salman Khan in such an ostentatious manner that would have looked cheesy even in a typical Bollywood flick. As if it were not enough, he purposefully makes his characters to repeatedly mispronounce a Hebrew word “chutzpah” (pronounced huuts-pah) for creative reasons. Then he takes a swipe at the inability of Kashmiris to pronounce certain English words correctly. Needless to say, the movie is technically brilliant: cinematography (Pankaj Kumar beautifully captures Kashmir’s poetic beauty through his lens), editing, and music (Bhardwaj, as always, helms his favorite department and does a wonderful job) are all at par with the international standards.  The movie has several memorable sequences but the ones that stand out are: Shahid Kapoor’s monologue, the sequence in which Haider brutally kills his captors (a scene which is highly reminiscent of the blood-cuddling killing sequence in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s A Short Film About Killing), and the final graveyard sequence which may prove to be a real trendsetter as far as Hindi cinema is concerned. Haider is not meant for casual viewers for it will test their patience to the limit. As far as the intelligent viewers are concerned, the movie offers enough food for thought to keep them engaged throughout its run-time and probably beyond. Highly recommended! 

Readers, please feel free to share your opinion by leaving your comments. As always your valuable thoughts are highly appreciated!  


1). IMDb

2). Wikipedia

Haider (2014) Trailer (YouTube) 

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  1. Well, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I must say that liking or disliking a movie is a matter of an individual's taste. As far as I am concerned, I have expressed all my thoughts in the above review as to why I love the movie... I don't find it one bit general or impersona. In the review, I have touched upon both cinematic as well as commercial reasons which make Pyaasa a special film. But, if you are still unsatisfied, then perhaps the best way out is to try and find it for yourself by actually watching the film.

  2. Thanks! Going to watch it tomorrow morning.

  3. Very detailed review that piqued my interest. I will surely watch the movie.

  4. What a well detailed and researched review Murtaza. You have spent so much time in collecting the facts. Very good. Impressive !!

  5. Thanks... glad you liked it! As far as the review goes, Shakespeare has always fascinated me and Hamlet being one of his most complex works is very close to my heart. Also, I have been a huge fan of Vishal Bhardwaj's cinema. He is easily one of the best in Hindi cinema and his work seems to be getting better with each film. Both Maqbool and Omkara turned out to be brilliant adaptations in my opinion and so I had been quite eager to savor Haider from the very moment I first heard about it. As far as I am concerned, a movie like Haider deserves proper analysis... 300-400 word review was never going to be enough and so writhed mentally and finally devised a framework for the review cum essay. Fortunately, it sems to have paid off!! :-)

  6. This looks fascinating. I must keep an eye out for when it reaches the US . . . and in the meantime try to lay hands on the earlier two.

  7. Well, I bet you will love it... the first two films are also quite well made. Vishal Bhardwaj is one of the best filmmakers we have in India... all his films are highly watchable!!!

  8. Murtaza, I simply loved reading this review. Very intriguing & informative take on the movie. Brilliantly written as always. Both your knowledge & cinematic sense are equally admirable. I am planning to watch it soon.

  9. Thanks Aditya... please do share your thoughts once you have watched it!!! :-)

  10. i was skeptical about watching 'Haider', thinking it wouldn`t do justice to the classic. I like 'Hamlet' and its not easy to adapt from Shakespeare`s work.

    Good work on the review Murtaza :) will be watching it soon!!

  11. Glad you liked the review... I hope you will like the movie as well... it may not be a perfect adaptation of Hamlet, but it's definitely a worthy one!!! :-)

  12. Wow, what a beautiful writing for such wonderful film. Kaafi umda

  13. Watched Haider. its really an awesome movie. Shahid has done total Justice to the character... Hats off

  14. I couldn't have agreed more... it's definitely Shahid's best performance yet!!! :-)

  15. I saw the movie. I am sorry to say that it is too political. Forget Hamlet, it becomes a propaganda film against the Indian army. Vishal Bharadwaj tried a cut and paste job of Shakespeare's Hamlet but instead made it an anti-Indian film. No words to condemn this!

  16. Sir, with all due respect, I beg to differ. I don't think that the movie is anti-Indian by any stretch of imagination. If anything, it's anti-war in that it emphasizes on forgiveness vis-a-vis revenge.

    Indian Army has been a silent guardian (of the people of Kashmir) and a protector of India's sovereignty. Obviously, both these roles are not mutually exclusive. And, Haider acknowledges it. The people of Kashmir would be fool to expect the Indian Army to bail them out every time the face danger (the Indian Army has always stood talk and protected them be it the natural calamities or the Pakistani attack post Independence) and keep mum when a bunch of anti-national Kashmiri fanatics (Pak sponsored) start posing a threat to the nation's integrity as well as Kashmir's existence. Such extreme chaos often calls for the collateral damage and that's what the movie depicts in the first half. I, for one, don't doubt, not even for a second, the patriotism of Vishal Bhardwaj, Gulzar Sahab or anyone else associated with the project.

  17. Maybe, I have not understood the movie! But the overall visuals like the showing of detention camps and torturing of innocents, people talking about plebiscite and withdrawal of the army is misleading. If I remember correctly, it was the Pakistani army which was supposed to withdraw and not the Indian army which had saved Kashmir. The director is not clear on this point. Also, if you do not mind, I am very skeptical about left leaning people and I suspect that the director and producer are inclined to that posture. Also, I am amazed that no one even gives a thought to the plight of Hindus who have been driven out of Kashmir. People like Bharadwaj and his friends will be respected more if they make a meaningful film on this subject. That requires guts, integrity and courage! No real Indian will respect people who want to avoid such a topic just because it touches the heart of the problem which is that in any corner of the subcontinent, wherever Muslims are in majority, minorities have no place, no support and no protection. But that is another story!

  18. Sir, I see where you are coming from. But, as I said earlier, the Indian Army is the real guardian of the people of Kashmir... it protects the Kashmir Valley from at least four kinds of danger: Pakistan Army, Chinese Intrusion, Militants, and Nature. And, regardless of the religion, anyone who poses a threat to the nations's integrity and sovereignty must be taken to task. The people in those camps (depicted in the movie), as far as my understanding goes, are not innocent... most of them got arrested because of some kind of an involvement with anti-national elements including the protagonist's doctor father.

    Besides, it's only a fictionalized account of things and need not be taken in seriously. In the West propaganda films are a common feature... the best example of it is probably Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) which is so critical of the presidency of George W. Bush and the War on Terror that it completely makes the latter look like some kind of a conspiracy. In comparison, Haider is far more balanced... if anything, it only tries to highlight the plight of Kashmiris because of the perpetual war that has been going on between India and Pakistan (it's impossible to turn one's eyes away from the collateral damage).

    If you look closely, the movie is about a bunch of opportunistic Kashmiris who victimize their own people out of greed and lust (Bhardwaj has tried to leverage this greed and lust to weave a whole new Hamlet around it). Even the movie's end credits acknowledges the indispensable role of the Indian Army in guarding the people of Kashmir from all sorts of danger. Perhaps, the two of us saw a different film altogether!!! :-)

  19. It is amazingly written review. I liked your references, and detailed analysis of shots, of personalities. Your blog just got one more follower :)

  20. Thanks for following the blog... glad you liked the review!!! :-)

  21. Mr Ali, you have nicely avoided the issues I had raised, mainly the plight of Hindus in Muslim majority Kashmir. So, please treat this conversation as closed!
    Thanks for your time!

  22. Perhaps, one day when I have enough understanding of politics, I will start a political blog... Sir, then I may be in a position to answer all your questions!!! :-) I must thank you for sharing you insightful thoughts... I am sure tasty my

  23. Well, let me start of by saying that it is as beautifully and painstakingly written as the movie itself.

    Onto the movie then.

    I blv that adapting written works brings a huge challenge as written works allow a certain liberty with respect to imagination but movies have to be relatable, and something that could have really happened (unless you arr making sci-fi and fantasy kind of movies)

    And thats where VB really scores in my opinion. To cite an example, In the manner which has handled the spirit of King hamlet I.e. doctor saab. In the most off handed manner he introduces us to roohdaar - 'aap doctor ho?' 'Nahi, mein doctor ki rooh hun!'..

  24. Allow me to thank you for those kind words. Haider is a great achievement for Indian cinema. Shakespeare is the author of 37 plays, 154 sonnets, and several narrative poems, which constitute a body of work that’s regarded as the most consummate manifestation of human expressions known to a mankind. Who says that only the English-speaking world has the right to savor the works of the great William Shakespeare?

    Several great filmmakers (other than the English and the American) like Akira Kurosawa (Ran, The Throne of Blood), Grigori Kozintsev (Korol Lir, Gamlet) and Roman Polanski have successfully adapted the works of the Bard in the past. Vishal Bhardwaj is the first Indian who could muster up the courage to make a Shakespeare trilogy and hats off to him for all his efforts, commitment and resolve.

    Haider may not be a perfect adaptation but it's definitely a worthy one... and that's what counts. Maqbool and Omkara were no less grand in vision... and his Shakespeare trilogy is indeed a great achievement not only for Bhardwaj but for the Indian cinema as a whole.

  25. While vishal bhardwaj may certainly be the first film maker to adapt 3 Shakespeare plays into 3 movies making it a trilogy, he is definitely not thr first one to do adapt the bard's work. Gulzar, another major influence on vishal bhardwaj's work, adapted comedy of errors faithfully into angoor a long time ago.

    And almost every major hindi movie has been inspired by the story of doomed lovers written by the bard.

    And almost every "lala" in the 60s is a play on shylock.

    And may be, with some more time and writing space, I could go on and talk about how almost each "popular" work of the playwright has inspired bollywood.

    So I dont believe anyone ever said that the work of William Shakespeare was to be limited to the English speaking population.

  26. I couldn't have agree with your above thoughts... Shakespeare's works does indeed have a universal appeal.

    Btw, thanks for bringing Gulzaar's Angoor to my notice... I saw the movie a very long time back as a child... it's time I revisited it.

  27. Good job murtaza :) perfectly written :)


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