Haider is Vishal Bhardwaj’s third attempt to map William Shakespeare's texts, characters and plotting patterns for India’s social and political realities. The English playwright's brooding tragedies have vastly helped the ambitious filmmaker chart new directions for well-travelled themes. Macbeth reoriented the mafia movie (Maqbool), while Othello seemed perfect to explore caste and power relations in Uttar Pradesh (Omkara).

Hamlet initially appears to be the best available guide for Bhardwaj to navigate Kashmir, the favourite setting for romantic interludes and honeymoon bashfulness until the Azaadi movement exploded in the late eighties, marking it forever as a valley of gloom and death. The sweet prince of Denmark is endlessly adaptable, and has been set in situations as varied as Stalinist Russia (Grigori Kozintsev’s Hamlet) and amoral corporate Japan (Akira Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well).

Packed with perfidy, passion and pathos, Hamlet is seemingly the perfect canvas on which to project a fresh perspective of the reality of living in an open-air prison. At least two films have done so already, with half the bombast and twice the clarity on display in Haider. In 2010, Harud, the directorial debut of Aamir Bashir (who has a small role as the Laertes character in Haider), is a deeply felt and credible account of a family coping with disappearance. Musa Syeed’s Valley of Saints, made in 2012, explores the one-sided romance that unfolds between a boatman and an environmental researcher against the backdrop of never-ending conflict.

Kashmir then and now

Haider sets its events in the past, in the mid-nineties, presumably to avoid any controversy in the present. Based on a screenplay by journalist Basharat Peer, and incorporating elements from his superb memoir Curfewed Night, Haider introduces some of its key themes – treachery, oppression, unlawful disappearances, the personal price paid for political leanings – in a pre-credits sequence that sees good-hearted doctor Hilaal Meer (Narendra Jha) come under attack from the army for attempting to treat an ailing militant. Hilaal disappears, setting the stage for the return of his son Haider (Shahid Kapoor), a soulful young man who is attempting a doctorate on colonial-era poets in Aligarh.

Poetry, through visuals (the crisp cinematography is by Pankaj Kumar) and words (Faiz Ahmed Faiz is quoted throughout the film), is a common feature of Bhardwaj’s work, and serves in this movie to prop up scenes that would otherwise have been written off as clumsy and redundant.

Haider arrives to a destroyed home and his mother Ghazala (Tabu), who, rather than grieving, is consorting with her brother-in-law, ambitious politician Khurram (Kay Kay Menon). Polonius is reincarnated as Lalit Parimoo’s venal cop, who manipulates the affections of his daughter, Arshia (Shraddha Kapoor) for Haider. We are firmly in the Valley of Lies, where trust is in severely short supply and absurdism is a useful approach to adopt. But we are also in a Bollywood production that never manages to escape the vice grip of mainstream conventions.

Haider is lovely to look at and beautifully acted and produced, with several standout individual scenes of poignancy, and a progressive and humanist perspective on the Kashmir struggle. But it’s also sluggishly paced, choppily assembled, tonally inconsistent, and awkwardly shoehorns Shakespeare into a short history of Kashmir’s problems over the past two decades. As the tragedy unfolds, songs are sung, dances performed, kisses exchanged, army initiatives explained, documentary footage of street clashes inserted, local rituals of death and marriage enacted, and a thriller element introduced, all of which only bloat the narrative to 161 minutes and take away from what is, at heart, the destruction of one family in slow motion.

Mani Ratnam's ghost

There’s more than one Mani Ratnam moment as Bhardwaj untidily braids together an intimate study of compromised characters with a grandiose statement on the rotten state of Kashmir. Bhardwaj’s skill lies in sparking off chemistry between characters, in putting two actors in the same frame and watching them play off each other. Haider’s most truthful moments are the little ones – Ghazala trying to justify her actions to her son; Irrfan Khan’s mysterious militant Roohdaar, standing in for the King of Denmark’s ghost, remembering his experiences in the notorious prison cells where thousands of Kashmiris have languished and continue to.

Some smart tweaks to the original material help offset the episodes of clunky exposition and earnestness. Rosencrantz and Guilderstern, Hamlet’s duplicitous friends, are reborn as Salman and Salman, identically named video shop owners and fans of the burly actor. The busy screenplay tucks in an oblique send-up of Salman Khan’s brainless nineties hits, which circulate even as men are picked off the streets and tortured.

Ghazala is a sympathetic Gertrude, ambiguous about her motives and choices till the end. Tabu’s fundamentally mournful face, weathered by age and experience, is perfectly suited for the role of a woman whose instinct for self-preservation sets off the familiar chain of events. Haider, is, in fact, Ghazala’s story. She personifies the movie’s central idea, of domesticated counterinsurgency, of the government’s betrayal of its people seeping into a home and poisoning all its members. Kapoor’s Hamlet suffers in comparison – his externalised performance rarely digs beneath the surface, and it’s not for want of trying – he doesn’t have the training or the experience to portray the interiority and pensiveness that mark Hamlet.

But Kapoor does nail one of the movie’s sharpest scenes: Haider’s subversive soliloquy at Lal Chowk, which puts a new spin on the idea of being and not being. The movie might suffer in execution, but there is little doubt about Bhardwaj’s intentions. His boldness in depicting uncomfortable truths about the conduct of the Jammu and Kashmir police and the army is laudable, but Haider suffers from the same issues as some of his previous features – the lovely individual parts, career-defining performances, attention to detail and a firmly liberal stance on political and personal matters are eventually stymied by an inability to keep the eye on the big picture. Like Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s incomplete homage to the oppressed, Intesab, which is quoted at one point, Haider is about what could have been, but isn’t.