5 October 2014

Sons and Lovers, Redux

My Mumbai Mirror column today:

Vishal Bhardwaj's takes on Shakespeare have produced female figures of rare frankness and sexual vitality, but their power is shaped by a constricting masculine world. Haider is no exception.

With his adaptation of Hamlet into Haider, Vishal Bhardwaj completes his supremely ambitious trilogy of Shakespeare tragedies reimagined in Indian contexts. Since this is not a review, all I'll say here is that Haider shares with the two previous films in the trilogy -- 2004's Maqbool and 2006's Omkara -- Bhardwaj's now-trademark accomplishments: stunning frames composed with an eye for beauty that does not preclude terror, pitch-dark humour, and consummate detailing, including an unerring ear for the cadences of both speech and music in each milieu he chooses to evoke. 

Of course, all this detailing would come to nought if Bharadwaj were not able to make Shakespeare's four-hundred-year-old characters seem to emerge organically from his fully-realized contemporary settings. But he does. And he does so by sticking close to the bone of the most elemental fears and passions. What struck me particularly, as I watched Haider, was that Bhardwaj's interpretations of Shakespeare all come to centre on sexual jealousy. In Omkara, the emphasis does not need to be created: Othello's climactic conflict was already about jealousy. Like Othello's suspicion of his wife Desdemona, Omi's niggling doubt about Dolly grows from a speck into a dark cloud that engulfs their whole universe. But in Maqbool and now in Haider, it is Bhardwaj's rejigging that makes jealousy the prime motive force. 

But unlike in most popular cinema, in India and beyond, the jealous rages of men do not erupt over women who are playthings. If anything, their frank expressions of preference make Bhardwaj's women rare. In both Maqbool and Omkara, Nimmi (Tabu) and Dolly (Kareena) must compel their tongue-tied lovers to confess their attraction - and do something about it. [Another Bhardwaj heroine, Priyanka Chopra's Sweety in Kaminey, had to literally draw the words out of the stuttering Guddu (Shahid Kapoor)]. Left to themselves, Bhardwaj suggests, Irffan's Maqbool may well have remained Abbaji's loyal right hand man; Ajay Devgn's awkward Omkara may never have picked up the courage to express his love to the white-as-milk Dolly. These men may embody physical power, but the sexual agency is all women's. As Tabu's Nimmi -- a vision of loveliness in white brocade -- taunts Irrfan's brooding Maqbool in an early scene, "Darpoke ho tum. Hamaare ishq mein gal jaoge, lekin chhoone ki himmat nahi...

By turning the Lady Macbeth character into Duncan's unhappy mistress, Bhardwaj made Maqbool a chilling examination of sexual power. On the one hand, we see, in Nimmi's acceptance of Abbaji's sexual obeisance, a sense of queenliness. She is bound by many things, but the most powerful man in Mumbai is her captive. She is the only person in the film -- other than a foolhardy police officer -- to call the don by his first name, Jahangir. And yet Nimmi is a profoundly vulnerable character, a woman with a million unfulfilled mannats, forced to sleep with a paunchy old man who disgusts her. So her craving for romance is expressed in desperate ways: stepping on a thorn to get Maqbool to bathe her foot, making him say "meri jaan" to her on a Hindi movie cliff at pistol-point, making him search for her lost earring in the dirt by firelight. 

With Haider, Tabu reprises the part of a woman whose unfulfilledness in her marriage sets in motion -- if unwittingly -- a cycle of destruction. Ghazala -- Bhardwaj's take on Hamlet's mother Gertrude -- takes the devotion that comes to her from men as natural, whether her brother-in-law playing the fool to amuse her, or her son Haider, her relationship with whom contains a visible strain of possessiveness. In both films, Tabu plays to perfection the woman of sexual vitality. (In both Maqbool and Haider, the only other female character is an innocent young girl in love.) 

Ghazala is not as morally compromised in the matter of her husband's death as Nimmi was. But Haider, like Hamlet, believes for most of the narrative that she knowingly brought it about. Her compulsions, though not entirely clear, do seem to stem from her desire for sexual fulfilment. And Bhardwaj knows what this means for most of his audience. It is no coincidence that he gives Ghazala a line where she says she will be the villain no matter what she does. And yet Haider, as a film, does not make her the villain of the piece. 

And in this, in their recognition of Gertrude's sexual vitality as something that does not necessarily make her villain, Haider follows in the footsteps of those feminist literary critics who first pointed out that Gertrude's attachment to Claudius was clearly a weakness of the flesh, not of the intellect. "The character of Hamlet's mother has not received the specific critical attention it deserves," began Carolyn Heilbrun in a path-breaking 1957 essay which went to challenge the longtime portrayal of Gertrude as weak, silly, vacillating, sheeplike and shallow. Male critics, wrote Heilbrun, found it impossible to imagine that a woman over 45 could arouse or experience sexual passion, so they ignored what the Ghost, Hamlet, and Gertrude herself tell us in the play, insisting on turning her "frailty" into something more than an admission of sexual need. 

Ghazala is not frail, and she has much more influence in this narrative than Gertrude did. The (masculine) revenge motive remains crucial, but Bhardwaj effectively robs it of pivotal status: "intekaam se sirf intekaam paida hota hai". And yet the sacrificial ending he gives us seems to suggest an identification of woman and motherland that left me somewhat discomfited.

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