The English title for Haraamkhor is “Wretched”, and in the absence of a single chief narrator, several characters contend for that description. Take your pick: Shyam (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), the married school teacher with the wandering eye and hands; Sandhya (Shweta Tripathi), his 15-year-old student with whom he is in a consensual sexual relationship; Sandhya’s shambolic police officer father (Harish Khanna), who is too busy pursuing a relationship with an old friend to keep an eye on his daughter; Kamal (Irfan Khan), a boy who is in love with Sandhya and stalks her relentlessly; and Mintu (Mohammed Samad), Kamal’s partner in crime who encourage his friend to peep through the bathroom window while Sandhya is bathing.
Finally, there is the undistinguished town in which the movie is set. It’s tiny enough to allow characters to move from one location to the next within a span of minutes and large enough to ignore the scandal brewing in its midst.
The two most observant and alert residents of this unnamed lust bowl are the two wriggly brats, and to the movie’s peril, debutant feature director Shlok Sharma examines an affair that the law regards as statutory rape through their jejune eyes.
Sandhya has moved to the town with her police officer father Raghuvir. Their mother left some years ago, which is offered as one of the explanations for Sandhya’s wise-beyond-her-years ways and Raghuvir’s absent-minded air. Though Raghuvir is a law enforcement officer, his observation and investigation skills, as well as his generally disheveled state, suggest that standards in the police force have drastically dropped. He often comes home drunk, and when he is sober, he spends his time with Nilu (Shreya Shah), a government nurse.
As far as psychological shading goes, this is it. What is less clear is why Sandhya loses her heart to Shyam, to the extent of risking her reputation. Does Sandhya have a thing for shabbily dressed men with oil in their hair and an aversion to the shaving blade? Is Shyam a perverse father figure? Does Shyam have a mysterious X factor, a not immediately visible sex appeal? Does his softness and lack of authoritativeness – Mintu and Kamal are always getting the better of him – make him a babe magnet? Or is Sandhya, like the director, interested in taboo for taboo’s sake?
Shweta Tripathi, the talented and petite actress who is much older than her screen character, is barely convincing as a 15-year-old, while Siddiqui is unusually off-key as the unscrupulous teacher. Siddiqui’s lack of conviction and comfort with Shyam’s actions are glaringly evident in the later sequences, when the affair goes beyond flirting and acquires serious overtones. Since every other character in the movie contributes their bit to the situation, Shyam is neither textbook villain nor unwitting victim, but Sharma does not mould Shyam into a complicated man who takes advantage of an existing power dynamic that is stacked in his favour.
Shyam’s poor characterisation takes a bigger knock in the scenes featuring his wife Sunita (Trimala Adhikari). There is little here to suggest that he has a hold over Sunita, whose only job in the movie is to complain about Sandhya.
Cinema is littered with explorations of the forbidden sexual tensions between older men and women and their underage objects of desire. Lolita, An Education and Notes on a Scandal come to mind. But in all these films, outrage and shock eventually lead to introspection. Haraamkhor is too lazily scripted and directed to be invoked in the same breath as these films, and it has to be content with a prize for daring.
The relationship that drives the plot is so poorly developed that the brazenness of the teacher-student affair barely seeps through. Sharma tries to elevate the C-grade movie premise by opting for arthouse-style realism. The ordinariness of the settings and locations, low-budget production values and permanently washed-out frames set Haraamkhor apart from more lurid and disreputable productions. The casual, conversational tone of the dialogue and overall air of calm indicate that the filmmaker is not interested in prurience and voyeurism. The material may be sensationalist, but the treatment isn’t. The crude fumbling between the lovers is hardly going to make it to “Hottest scenes in movies” lists, and perhaps the most indecent exposure is of Kamal in his briefs.
In place of sensationalism, however, there is ineptness. Haraamkhor’s characters are supposed to have shades of grey, but their blandness can never be mistaken for maturity. About the most shocking thing about this major-minor affair is its sloppiness.