Haider

Haider

Watching Vishal Bhardwaj’s latest film Haider is a visceral and haunting experience, as the gorgeous detail of the film allows every emotion and each drop of blood to be shown in crystal clarity. The story of treachery in Denmark is transplanted to Kashmir at the height of increased militancy in the area in 1995, but still remains tragedy on a grand scale. Bhardwaj and his co-writer Basharat Peer have successfully adapted the bard’s play into more modern-day India, although the pacing is a little inconsistent in places and at times the Kashmiri issue threatens to overshadow the personal drama. The heart of the film is in the performances, and although Shahid Kapoor is excellent in probably one of the best performances of his career, the real stand-out is Tabu who is completely mesmerising in her role as a conflicted mother to Haider and disloyal wife to Dr Hilal Meer. It is compelling cinema and definitely well worth watching in the theatre to fully appreciate the stunning cinematography and spectacular beauty of Kashmir.

Haider (Shahid Kapoor) is a student, safely studying poetry in Anantnag when he learns that his father has disappeared after providing medical aid to a militant leader. Dr Hilal Meer (Narendra Jha) is taken by the army in a truly frightening scene that manages to grasp the sense of hopelessness and terror of a military raid in just a few moments. The grim method of selecting who may go and who is arrested by a balaclava-wearing man in a Jeep is chilling, as is the resignation that makes everyone line up for inspection without any word of complaint. The detail in each frame is incredible, and the performances are very natural, making the film seem almost like a news report direct from the action, rather than a fictional story.

Dr Meer’s family home is also bombed, along with the militant leader still inside, and in a few seconds his wife Ghazala (Tabu) has become a ‘half-widow’ without anywhere to live. As a result, when Haider returns he finds his mother living with his uncle Khurram (Kay Kay Menon), and he is instantly suspicious about their relationship. While rejecting his mother, Haider relies heavily on his girlfriend journalist Arshia (Ahraddha Kapoor) and two friends Salman (Sumit Kaul) and Salman (Rajat Bhagat) as he searches for his father. Since up until this point the film is unrelentingly bleak, it’s a real relief when the comedy appears, and Salman and Salman are an excellent counterpoint to the violence and despair elsewhere.

Haider’s search for his father is heart wrenchingly sad, as he is just another one of many who are searching for their own disappeared relatives. However, interspersed with his search are confrontations with his mother and uncle which fuel Haider’s anger and mistrust. The relationship between Haider and Ghazala is wonderfully nuanced and both actors capture the essence of Shakespeare’s characters and their conflicted emotions well. There is a frisson of sexual tension, heightened since Tabu looks way too young to be Shahid’s mother, but mainly the film focuses on Haider’s sense of betrayal when his mother takes up with his father’s killer. Kay Kay Menon is also effortlessly perfect, juggling Khurram’s political ambitions with his desire for Ghazala and bringing more depth to the Shakespearean character of Claudius than I seem to remember from studying the original play at school.

The romance between Haider and Arshia is also nicely developed, and Arshia has a believable character as a journalist and relatively realistic relationships with her brother Liyaqat (Aamir Bashir) and father (Lalit Parimoo). Shraddha Kapoor is good in her role, particularly in her scenes with Shahid and she’s also credible in her despair when she loses the plot after her father dies. Most of the other characters from Shakespeare’s play appear, although the role of the ghost is changed into a fellow prisoner of Dr Meer who is expertly played by Irrfan Khan.  Most impressive is the ‘play within a play’ which in is depicted as a song. The puppets are wonderful, but even just a glimpse of Tabu and Kay Kay Menon in this clip illustrates just how good they both are in conveying their characters.

Haider’s eventual descent into madness is dealt with better than the earlier scenes where Shahid sometimes appears a little too distant. But as the film progresses his emotional shifts and internal struggles are mostly well represented and he does genuinely appear to be a conflicted personality by the end. Many of the famous lines from the original Hamlet appear in Haider’s soliloquies, although they are also inserted into various conversations (and the subtitles don’t really do them justice), and there is even a brief appearance of the skull before the final, and very bloody showdown. This is passion, vengeance, despair and madness writ large and the scope of the film truly feels epic.

Haider impresses with fine attention to detail and excellent performances from the entire cast. However the shift to Kashmir means the military conflict looms large in the story and as a result the original tale of betrayal and treachery occasionally gets a little lost. The pacing is uneven, particularly in the first half, but this allows time for the complexity of the characters to fully develop so isn’t necessarily a flaw with the film. It is a bleak story and be warned that some scenes are definitely not for the squeamish as the body count piles up and cinematographer Pankaj Kumar illustrates just how well snow contrasts with blood. Overall Haider is a well crafted and novel interpretation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and one I definitely recommend watching for excellent performances and a rather different view of Kashmir.

Shahid

Shahid

I didn’t know much about human rights lawyer Shahid Azmi before watching Hansal Mehta’s film, and I’m not entirely sure that I know a lot more about the real man even after watching.  There is a disclaimer at the start, which flashes past very quickly but suggests that the film is a dramatised version of events in the life of the murdered lawyer rather than a strict doco-style exposé.  But whatever the true story, the film is a fascinating look at a man who refused to back down and spent most of his career standing up for people who would otherwise never have had a voice.  Shahid may be a romanticised and somewhat sanitised account, but it still delivers its message and brings the Indian judicial system squarely into the limelight.

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The film starts with the end of Shahid Azmi’s life, at the moment when he is shot by persons unknown in his office.  It then moves immediately back several years to the early 90’s when a young Shahid is caught up in the violence of an attack on his community in Mumbai.  As a result Shahid ends up in a terrorist training camp, although the why and how he got there is never shown and the whole episode is quickly glossed over during the credit sequence.  However Shahid’s revulsion at the violence of the camp is clearly shown although his escape from the over-zealous terrorists is only briefly mentioned.  On his return to his family, Shahid is arrested and eventually tricked into signing a confession which results in time spent in jail.  Interestingly Kay Kay Menon plays one of his mentors in the jail, which seemed odd since I’m more used to seeing him play a more negative role.  However, he’s very effective in the role of War saab who persuades Shahid to make the most of his time in jail and get an education.

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This he does, finally becoming a lawyer and taking on cases for clients like his younger self – people with no money who have been imprisoned on terrorist charges without any real evidence.  It’s compelling viewing, mainly due to an excellent performance by Raj Kumar Yadav who is charismatic and very believable as the passionate young lawyer.  He starts off small and works for a criminal lawyer Maqbool Menon (Tigmanshu Dhulia) which is where he meets Mariam (Prabhleen Sandhu), a client who needs help with a property case.  In the process of fighting her case, Shahid falls in love and this is the only part of the film that feels in any way filmi, as the two walk along the beach and share some classic Bollywood romantic moments together.

Prabhleen Sandhu starts off well, but after her marriage I expected her to show more frustration with Shahid’s absorption with his career but instead she is very passive.  Mariam also doesn’t show much fear or apprehension about the death threats made to her husband, and the couple’s final showdown feels contrived compared to the rest of the film.  This could just be down to the writers, but her performance was stilted in parts, particularly in comparison to the other actors.

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Mariam is divorced with a young son and Shahid is reluctant to tell his more traditionally minded mother about his marriage.  Baljinder Kaur is perfectly cast here as Shahid’s mother and I loved how she managed to keep her family under control, even when they were all grown up.  Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub is also excellent in the role of Shahid’s brother Arif, and his frustration at always being the one left to look after everyone else is eloquently portrayed. Ayyub is another great actor who seems to have appeared in a number of good roles this past year and has the knack of making even a small role memorable.

Shahid

Although Hansal Mehta makes us sympathise with Shahid by showing his early struggles and his family life, the director doesn’t shy away from portraying his weaknesses.  Shahid’s reluctance to tell his family about his new wife is shown as a flaw and he also has a general tendency to ignore problems by burying his head in the sand and hoping they will just go away.  These failings do make him a more human and vulnerable character and contrast well with his more decisive and determined attitude when in court. Raj Kumar Yadav gets under the skin of a crusading human rights activist in the second half of the film and his passionate arguments are stirring and though-provoking.

It’s another plus for the film that the court scenes appear realistic, set in dingy surroundings with harried looking judges. A case with a suspected terrorist shows the accused under guard in a metal cage,and only the various legal representatives allowed in the room which I can imagine is exactly how these trials are actually conducted. The verbal battles between Shahid and the various prosecutors, including his old employer Menon are also excellent and keep up the momentum of the film without getting bogged down in Shahid’s oft-repeated mantra “justice delayed is justice denied”.

Shahid

This is a well-made film with sensible and mature treatment of its subject matter.  There are a few stumbles with Shahid’s early life and perhaps a little too much time spent on his developing romance, but on the whole this is a fascinating glimpse into the life of a man who took on the Indian legal system on its own terms and won. I do think it would have benefited from a more documentary style approach and additional information on Shahid Azmi’s cases would have made it seem less of an idealised account.  However it’s still a worthwhile attempt at a serious biopic, and with excellent performances, realistic situations and an intelligent script it’s definitely one I recommend watching.

ABCD (Any Body Can Dance)

ABCD

I love this film!  I don’t care that it has a clichéd storyline and watching it feels a little like sitting through a marathon session of Fame episodes. I don’t care that for most of the cast acting is at the amateur end of the scale, while Kay Kay Menon and Ganesh Acharya take scenery chewing to an entirely new level.  ABCD is a movie about dance that really is all about dance. There are actual dancers for a start – people who can genuinely move and they get plenty of opportunity to showcase their skills. Plus Prabhu Deva – I don’t need anything more.

The story is one that occurs regularly in dance-based films.  Rich privileged kids versus the poor underdogs, so no prizes for guessing the final outcome. But Tushar Hiranandani’s screenplay adds in some back story for a few of the dancers featuring romance, drug addiction, parental oppression and a few other issues besides which helps make a connection with the young unknown cast. Although I say unknown, most of the dancers have competed in India’s dance competitions such as Dance India Dance, so I’m sure they are all well known within their home country, but they aren’t household names in Australia.

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Kay Kay Menon is Jehangir Khan, the owner of a successful dance company (JDC) which has just won the TV dance competition Dance Dil Se despite apparently not deserving first place.  JDC’s choreographer Vishnu (Prabhu Deva) is disappointed by the fixing of the competition, Jehangir’s attitude and by the introduction of a new choreographer from the US (Mario Fernando Aguilera) which also means he is out of a job (Not that the JDC dancers look terribly impressed with their new choreographer!).  But before he makes it back to Chennai, Vishnu spends a few days with his friend Gopi (Ganesh Acharya) where he watches a group of kids escaping from the police using their parkour skills and sees them dancing at the Ganpati festival.

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Seeing their potential, Vishnu decides to teach these kids dance for free, and such unimportant details such as how he is going to manage to survive without a paying job never really enter into the picture at all.  This set up for the rest of the story takes a long time, and there are a few too many drunken discussions on the roof of their building, but finally we do get back to the dancing.

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The rivalry between Jehangir and Vishnu is echoed in the initial stand-off between Rocky (Salman Yusuff Khan) and the more streetwise D (Dharmesh Yelande). Also eager to dance is Chandhu (Pumit J. Pathak) who has his own personal demons to overcome while other members of the group include Shaina (Noonin Naem Sha) a bar dancer, and eventually Rhea (Lauren Gottlieb), one of Jeghangir’s dancers who defects after Jhangir gets a little too close and personal at a rehearsal.

I was very impressed by Lauren Gottlieb who looks great dancing, but also manages very well with her spoken Hindi.  In fact she’s so good that I wasn’t sure at first if she had done her own dubbing, and she was much more understandable than Prabhu Deva. Her acting isn’t brilliant, but she’s as good as the rest of the cast, so she doesn’t stand out in that regard and I like that there isn’t any need for an explanation as to why a Westerner is dancing in the group. She’s just accepted as a dancer, and that’s it.

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Once Vishnu has assembled his group, he enters them into Dance Dil Se, despite his insider knowledge that the competition is rigged for JDC to win. Of course he also knows that things will be different this time! This is where the film gets much better with plenty of rehearsals, dance routines, and a fantastic solo from Prabhu Deva at a night club where he easily out dances everyone else.  It’s wonderful to watch, and even if some of the choreography isn’t quite to my taste, it’s hard not to be impressed by the dancers.

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While Jehangir plots and plans, his new choreographer turns the group into ballet dancers (interestingly Mario Fernando Aguilera actually runs a ballet school in Delhi in real life) and Vishnu’s group learn various life lessons while dealing with their own problems.  It’s more inspirational than the trite platitudes make it seem and culminates in this wonderful dance in the rain as the group try to keep their dance studio open and keep D dancing despite his father’s disapproval.

This was ‘India’s first 3-D dance movie’ but I watched it in a conventional theatre so can’t comment on the 3D effects, although I could tell that a number of the shots had been added in solely for that purpose.  The film is beautifully shot and the colours are amazingly clear and vibrant, even on the standard DVD.  The dancers are all excellent and have so much energy that it’s exhausting just watching. They do show a great commitment to costumes as well, but I’m a little disappointed that they didn’t actually perform in any of these outfits!

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Remo is best known as choreographer and knows how to get the best shots of his dancers.  Including so many choreographers in the cast ensures that that the dancing is of a high standard, and pretty much any time there is music there is dancing. All the different dance groups that perform show just as much commitment to their routines and even JDC’s ballet routines are beautifully done.  The final dance off between JDC and Vishnu’s DDR is excellent with just about everything possible thrown in. If you don’t want to know who wins stop watching the clip below at 6 minutes 50 seconds.

High energy dancing, great routines and of course the amazing Prabhu Deva make ABCD a film which rises above the unoriginal story to provide entertainment for more than just dance enthusiasts. Don’t miss Saroj Khan in the end credits when she makes an appearance dancing with Prabhu Deva, Ganesh Acharya and Remo. It’s a perfect end to a film that really is all about the dancing. 4 stars.