159 minutes/Now showing/***1/2
The story: Adapted from Hamlet, one of the most staged plays in the Shakespearean canon, Haider sets its story in India's troubled Kashmir. Instead of a brooding prince, there is Haider (Shahid Kapoor), a young student who returns to Kashmir after getting news of his father's sudden disappearance. While coming to grips with this news, he uncovers the relationship of his mother Ghazala (Tabu) with his uncle (Kay Kay Menon). A tale of love, lies, deceit and revenge slowly unfolds.
Using Hamlet as his inspiration, director Vishal Bharadwaj's new film finally does full justice to India's under-rated acting dynamos - Kapoor and Tabu - without trivialising the larger issue of Kashmir that forms the backdrop.
Set in 1990s Kashmir, the film trains an unrelenting lens on the unrest in the state, the brutality of the police and the armed forces, and the disappearances and deaths of people who are tortured and, sometimes, framed for crimes they are not guilty of. Haider's father is one of those statistics - a good doctor who meets his watery grave at the hands of the authorities. His crime: treating a terrorist.
It is such disappearances and deaths that rip families apart. As they do Haider's.
This film, which is a slow boil in the first half with its focus on the broader Kashmir issue, picks up steam in the second half when the mysterious Roohdar (Irrfan Khan) arrives and reaches Haider through the efforts of his feisty journalist girlfriend, played brilliantly by the young actress Shraddha Kapoor.
Soon, the tale twists at a gripping speed. Haider learns his father is dead and his uncle had a role to play.
Intense drama follows between mother and son as both struggle with not just the story of his father's death, but also that of his mother's brewing romance with his conniving uncle.
Shahid Kapoor gives his Hamlet/Haider character a brilliant, brooding and tortured twist.
To play a complex, layered character who has to act as if he is on the brink of madness, is widely regarded as a milestone for an actor's career and often a theatrical rite of passage.
Kapoor as Haider brings out all those elements of a poetic scholar who is too confused to become a brutal warrior to avenge his father's death.
It is his mother Ghazala, essaying the much shrewder Gertrude, who has the upper hand on him. With her intense yet sad look that stays pretty much the same through the film, she has the audience guessing throughout. Who does she really love? Is she as troubled as she looks?
Tabu pulls off her role with such quiet aplomb that one is left wondering why audiences do not get to see more of her in Bollywood. She truly pushes her character's portrayal right to the edge.
The moment of truth, as in the play, has nothing to do with temperance and Tabu sees it through as only her Ghazala can.
Revenge is always bloody, but what I like best is the director's even-handed treatment of complex relationships and an intense political issue.
It helps that the film is beautifully shot. And that it keeps the song and dance numbers to a bare minimum makes it stand apart from formulaic Bollywood.
This is a must-watch.