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In retelling William Shakespeare’s tragedy “Hamlet” against the backdrop of war and sectarian strife in Indian-administered Kashmir, Vishal Bhardwaj’s “Haider” starts off promisingly. It’s too bad that the promise never delivers.
A tense, beautiful 10-minute opening sequence introduces Kashmiri doctor Hilal Meer, who thinks nothing of hiding and treating a wanted militant in his house, and his wife Ghazala. Meer does it for humanitarian reasons, telling his wife, “I support life over death.”
Of course, the Indian Army discovers the militant leader, bombs their house, and the doctor becomes one of the “disappeared”, one of thousands of people who were taken away by the army, never to be heard of again.
Then Haider (Shahid Kapoor) comes home looking for his father the doctor after years studying in “India” (as the Kashmiris refer to that wide expanse to the south, differentiating it from their defunct kingdom). The Kashmiri version of Denmark’s student prince mires himself in turmoil as he witnesses the growing closeness between his mother Ghazala (Tabu) and his father’s brother, Khurram (Kay Kay Menon).
Naturally, this is about as happy as the plot gets. People commit violence, tell lies, trap themselves in misunderstanding and chart their courses by bad stars toward tragic ends. The script, co-written by journalist Basharat Peer, author of a memoir of growing up in Kashmir in the 1980s, “Curfewed Night,” is appropriately somber in tone. After all, Bhardwaj’s Shakespeare trilogy began with two tragedies (“Maqbool” from “Macbeth” and “Omkara” from “Othello”, not the Bard’s lighter fare).