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Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Shahid Kapoor and Vishal Bhardwaj is one heady, compelling actor-director duo: ‘He makes me look better than I am’

On Shahid Kapoor's birthday, we take a look at his successful and evolutionary collaboration with director Vishal Bhardwaj, through the lens of Kaminey and Haider.

Written by Anvita Singh | New Delhi |
February 25, 2022 8:17:43 am
shahid kapoorShahid Kapoor in Kaminey and Haider stills. (Photo: UTV Motion Pictures)

Director’s actor, what is it? Usually, the term is looked upon as if it were something derogatory, but it’s the exact opposite. Everyone is, to some extent, a director’s actor. Which is why a movie is as good as the filmmaker’s vision. The captain of the ship is an allegory often used when one speaks of a filmmaker, and this is not without reason. If the ship sinks, we blame the director, largely (and its writing), and if it sails, then too, a filmmaker is lauded to the sky. Shahid Kapoor is a director’s actor. And he has made perhaps two of his best movies of his filmography with the prolific Vishal Bhardwaj — Kaminey and Haider.


Shahid may not have made great choices early on in his career, but things changed quite a bit for him with the blockbuster success of Vivah and Jab We Met (2006 and 2007). His career took an upward swing, but Shahid the actor really got the opportunity to spread his wings when he was offered Vishal Bhardwaj’s dark comedy thriller Kaminey (2009). In Kaminey, Shahid played double role, twins Charlie and Guddu. Charlie lisps, Guddu stutters. Two speech impediments, and it never looked like the makers or the team were in any way making light of the very real problems the characters faced. But they were also not treated with some special reverence, they were given pretty much the same treatment any regular character minus those issues would be given. This made the brothers all the more interesting.

Each had a distinct personality, which Shahid rendered with complete conviction and nuance. To understand that a lisp is a physiological thing, and that a stutter has more to do with your psyche is pivotal in playing these parts. The traumas, battles and the choices Guddu and Charlie make are as different as two people can be. They are their own person at the end of the day. And then for the audience to forget that only one Shahid is donning these roles in turn, this particular willing suspension of disbelief is a significant indication of the work that both the filmmaker and actor in question have done. To make you feel that Guddu and Charlie are two separate people, and not just a clone of each other in every way possible is harder than it looks.

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A sequence comes to mind where Guddu is confronted with the truth about Sweety’s (Priyanka Chopra) real identity. He finds out she is the sister of thug politician Sunil Bhope, and has lied about her stuttering. Guddu is shattered, but the scene is also comical, because Sweety wants Guddu to marry her before the news of her pregnancy spreads. This mix of hilarity and horror is conveyed with such precision on Shahid’s face that you cannot help but feel for him, caught in this mess. Cut to the very peppy, upbeat number of “Raat Ke Dhai Baje” where we get a real sense of Guddu’s mood. He is not happy. He did not want to become a father, he had plans. Now those are dead, and he is afraid that he might be too, post the celebration.


I had forgotten how much I loved Haider when I first saw it on screen. Having freshly read William Shakespeare’s unabridged Hamlet along with companion and critical essays, I was anyway looking forward to watch the drama unfold. And it was such a special experience, seeing the delicacy of the narrative onscreen, which writers Vishal Bhardwaj and Basharat Peer had crafted with such care. They gave an otherwise ambitious Haider a solid ground to walk on, as it dared to raise subjects in mainstream Indian cinema no one has ever attempted since, at least with respect to Kashmir. One sequence which perfectly captures the way Bhardwaj merged Kashmir and the world of Hamlet is the almost three-minute monologue Haider delivers smack in the middle of the road with his uncle, mother and a few others watching. “Hum hai ki hum nahi?” asks Haider. Vishal’s version of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” is a masterpiece in itself and Shahid positively shines in the sequence.

It rises up and crashes down like waves with Haider’s eyes comically bulging. But there is nothing comical about what he is saying, “Hum hai ki hum nahi?” Such a loaded question with so many answers from different people. But making a leading Bollywood star utter these lines as a Kashmiri is, well, something.

But Haider is not provocative, it is only bold and brave. Be it with respect to Kashmir, or to the treatment that is given to the Gertrude-Hamlet rishta. In the movie, Tabu plays Ghazala, the lovely Gertrude, mother to Kapoor’s Hamlet-Haider. Then there’s that sequence where Haider puts itr onto her mother’s neck and proceeds to give it a light kiss, like a lover almost. The subtext of Hamlet suffering from the infamous Freudian concept of Oedipus complex was present throughout Hamlet. But presenting the ‘sacred’ bond of a son and a mother even in the slightest shadow of that incest seemed unfathomable by a desi filmmaker. But Bhardwaj did it, and did it with such subtlety and beauty that you could only squirm in your seats. It would have been the most romantic of scenes, a man rubbing scent on a woman’s neck and planting a lingering kiss on it, had it not been between a mother and son. And so, you rightly felt odd.

In an earlier interview with film critic Anupama Chopra, Shahid was asked what is so special about the relationship he has with Vishal Bhardwaj as a collaborator. Shahid said the best thing the filmmaker did for him was to trust him with such roles, when prior to Kaminey, he had given no indication that he would be able to pull off these complex, layered people. “He makes me look better than I am,” Shahid had said. Even if it is not wholly true, the statement pretty much sums up the care and respect the creatives have for each other. Here’s to more such fruitful collaborations.

You can watch Kaminey and Haider on Netflix.

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