Vishal Bhardwaj is among the few filmmakers who writes as well as scores his movies. Bhardwaj, who set foot in the Hindi film industry as a composer with Maachis in 1996, has composed some of his best music in the trilogy of Shakespearan tragedies that he has directed: Maqbool (2004), Omkara (2006) and Haider (2014).

Haider represents the crowning glory of Bhardwaj’s discography. For the movie, which is set in the Kashmir Valley, Bhardwaj delved into the exquisite treasure of the region’s folk music. Those familiar with Kashmiri folk and Sufi music would know that melancholy is the hallmark of this soundscape.

Gulzar’s beautiful lyrics embellish the melodies. The background score and songs carry the plot forward. The mood is consistently despondent, with very few uplifting moments.

Based on William Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet, Haider stars Shahid Kapoor as a grieving young man determined to avenge his father. The cast includes Tabu as Haider’s mother, Kay Kay Menon as his uncle, Shraddha Kapoor as his lover and Irrfan as a spectral figure.

The film is set during the 1990s, when terrorism was at its peak in Kashmir and many innocents suffered. Haider was made between the autumn of 2013 and chillai kalan (peak winter) of 2014, when Kashmir looks like a stark and pristine white sheet. A master of filming songs, Bhardwaj avoided popular tourist spots for Haider, preferring instead untapped locations in downtown and old Srinagar, Anantnag, Pahalgam, Qazigund, Mattan, Sonmarg and the university gardens in Naseem Bagh.

Bhardwaj’s background score is outstanding too. He used traditional Kashmiri musical instruments such as the rubab and the santoor to great effect to convey drama, intrigue and suspense. He blended these local instruments with the Western violin, piano and drums to create a haunting score. Each and every piece of the score, including Haider’s Theme, Graveyard, Execution and Duel, is disturbing and highly effective.

Haider background score.

The background tune Roohdar, which comes just before the interval, is extremely popular with Irrfan’s fans. The tune gave Irrfan a rock star-like entry – unusual for an actor in a supporting role.

Two popular Kashmiri folk songs feature in Haider. Roshe walla myane dilbaro poshan bahaar aav, yoor walo (come soon, my beloved, spring is here) is filmed on Tabu and Menon and sung by Tabu. In this scene, Haider catches his mother and uncle together and is shattered to see them revelling so soon after his father’s disappearance.

The other song, Rasul Mir’s Byetino ye doorer choun zarai, baal maraeyo (I too cannot bear this separation, I will surely die young) is sung by and filmed on Shraddha Kapoor, who is mourning her father’s loss.

Rasul Mir, known as the John Keats of Kashmir, wrote the song in the 1800s. Actor Sumit Kaul helped both actresses with the pronunciation of the Kashmiri lyrics.

Byetino ye, Haider.

The theme of love and loss continues in Gulon Main Rang Bhare, filmed on Narendra Jha, who plays Haider’s father. This revolutionary song was famously written by Faiz Ahmed Faiz in prison.

To impart a unique touch to this epic ghazal, Bhardwaj and Gulzar chose to begin the song with a verse that had never been sung by any artist before, including Mehdi Hassan, who had made this ghazal very popular:

Bada hai dard ka rishta,
Yeh dil garib sahi
Tumhare naam se aayenge gham-gusar chale

(My heart may be poor, but my relationship with pain is rich. Your mention will draw mourners to me for sure.) 

Bhardwaj shared an interesting anecdote about the recording of Gulon Main Rang Bhare. When called for the rehearsal, singer Arijit Singh developed cold feet and disappeared on the pretext of stepping out for a smoke.

Bhardwaj tried to reason with him over the phone but Singh wouldn’t listen – he was afraid that he would never be able to do justice to the song. After a week had passed, Singh recorded his voice and sent it to Bhardwaj, who convinced him that he was ready.

Gulon Main Rang Bhare, Haider.

The other Faiz nazm Aaj Ke Naam was originally composed by Bhardwaj for Naseeruddin Shah’s play Ismat Aapa Ke Naam. Aaj Ke Naam plays during Haider’s end credits, in Rekha Bhardwaj’s voice.

Aaj Ke Naam, Haider.

Arguably the most poignant song of Haider is sung by Vishal Bhardwaj himself.

Jhelum Jhelum dhoonde kinara
Dooba sooraj in aankhon main,
Jhelum hua khara.

(In vain I search the Jhelum from shore to shore; the sun has set in the pools of these eyes; the waters have turned salty with my tears.)

Bhardwaj composed the tune in 1985, when he was studying in Delhi University. The original lyrics were “Badhta jaye andhiyara, doobi saanjh to dil ka samandar, aur hua khara” (As the sun sets, darkness prevails; the ocean of my heart has become even more salty with my tears).

Bhardwaj’s father died on the very day he composed the song. The tune’s association with his father’s demise was so traumatic that Bhardwaj buried it deep in the recesses of his memory. Recording the song 28 years later for Haider was a cathartic experience, the filmmaker told me.

Jhelum Jhelum, Haider.

The tune appears in the film when Haider is consumed by grief after being unable to find his father. During the course of the song, he meets many other families whose loved ones are missing. The pain that you hear in the voice of the singer is real.

The situation of the spirited Bismil (Arabic for “wounded”) is that Haider has found out that his uncle is responsible for his father’s death. As in Hamlet, Haider stages a play to reveal this evil deed to his unsuspecting mother. Bhardwaj used local musicians who were part of a Bhand Pather (folk theatre) troupe for Bismil. The performers play the rubab and percussion instruments on the screen as well.

Bismil, Haider.

Another unique track, So Jao, is sung by a trio of old gravediggers (there’s a Gravedigger’s song in Hamlet too). Bashir Lone, Muzamil Bhawani and Bashir Bhawani, who play the gravediggers, have also sung the song. Bhardwaj was so pleased with how well the track shaped up that he recorded a rock version with Vishal Dadlani .

With Haider, Vishal Bhardwaj undoubtedly set the bar very high for the cinematic adaptation of a Shakespearean drama in a distinct milieu. The unmistakeably Kashmiri soundtrack is the heart of the movie, conveying in its every note Haider’s tragedy.

So Jao, Haider.