Shlok Sharma’s Haraamkhor possibly marks the worst film viewing experience in a theatre and that is no fault of the film! The extra cinematic aspects of moral policing and censorship, something that has been around for a long time resulting in blurred images, beep sounds and statutory warnings on screen, has been successful in disrupting and in some ways even destroying the whole ambiguity meant to lie at the heart of the film. In the future when film histories will be revised especially in the reception context, Haraamkhor will probably go down as the one most symptomatic of the draconian times we are living in.
The film opens almost right in the middle of a private tuition lesson where almost all the key players are present and in that sense the film comes across as quite conscious of its narrative decisions. At the centre is the Mathematics teacher Shyam Tekchand and surrounding him are his motley crew of students including Sandhya, Kamal, Mintu and a few others including a quirky little kid dressed as Shaktiman. Kamal has a serious crush on Sandhya, probably a few years older than him and is clueless about making his move. Kamal’s confidante is Mintu who hatches up the most elaborate, enterprising and preposterous plans to woo Sandhya. However their only bone of contention seems to be their firm suspicion that Shyam is having an illicit affair with Sandhya. And just in the adjacent room and next to the main thread of narrative is Shyam’s wife Sunita who considers Sandhya to be somewhat forthcoming if not a possible threat to their married life. And all of these take place in a dry and dusty little town of Madhya Pradesh whose conservative societal structure is firmly rooted in a clearly defined set of dynamics and that has been captured in Siddharth Diwan’s cinematographic style quite brilliantly.
Haraamkhor can be considered to be quite a worthy effort even though not a very bold one. One of the biggest triumphs of the film is that it succeeds in creating two distinct worlds for adults and children respectively. And unlike most of the films, children are not being the objects of narrative but in fact it is their very gaze which contribute greatly to the construction of narrative and maintaining its flow. The narrative moves forward with Shyam and Sandhya because Kamal and Mintu are maintaining that idea in their minds and shadowing their every move. And thus their gaze is producing the image of these two characters together sowing the seeds of a romantic/sexual narrative. And interestingly Sandhya, meaning evening, stands at the twilight zone of these two worlds, confused about leaving one behind and trying to find the gateway to another through the means of her sexuality. Compared to the nuanced complexities of the children’s world, the adult world is comparatively straightforward and that is primarily because the nature of most of the crises such as secrets and jealousy, etc. are familiar. If one can put aside the ‘Big Brother’ warnings about children’s rights and sex with minors which pop up on screen from time to time, Haraamkhor is also notable for avoiding the high pedestal or judgmental position and instead apply certain subtle but effective commentary on social issues. For instance, when the kids are looking at the Shyam and Sandhya affair, they accuse the older teacher for wooing a girl her daughter’s age. However when Sunita looks at the same thing, she starts having scathingly hateful feelings towards Sandhya, the typical other woman wrecking a marriage.
While maintaining a steadily interesting first half, the post-interval session of Haraamkhor begins to dwindle in its narration and especially in the rhythm. There seems to be an uneven distribution of time devoted to the various narrative threads. In some of them, there is a hurry to wind up while in others there is an uneasy stasis with nothing new to add. Even the script seemed to be reluctant about exploring certain essential aspects which could’ve surely enriched the film such as the idea that Sandhya is an outsider in the town and thus is an ‘other’ among the natives. It ended up remaining only a piece of information mentioned in the passing without its possibilities fully addressed. More importantly, the entire narrative had a potentially violent side beneath the surface and like a ripple effect it often made its presence felt in a scene or two. However the narrative didn’t seemed focused enough to build up those ‘unconscious’ threads to put it in psychoanalytical terms and hence the violent climax seemed somewhat abrupt and rather a safe way out for a narrative closure. The film appeared to be focused more on building individual iconic images such as Shyam standing in front of mirror wearing the police cap belonging to Sandhya’s father or Kamal wearing Shyam’s shirt awaiting Mintu’s approval instead of the narrative.
Having said that, the biggest share of credit for the film must go to Nawazuddin Siddiqui whose almost shape shifting role as Shyam Tekchand is an ode to his range even within the apparently limited scope of the character as well as the narrative. Nawaz takes even the most seemingly mundane moments and turns them memorable just by the flick of an eye or twitching of nose or licking of lips or maybe just with the perfect timing when it comes to delivery. Not meant as a comparison of skill, but Nawaz has his own technique like a Jack Nicholson or a Robert De Niro, as he doesn’t necessarily has to turn a character likeable just in order to make him humane. Nawaz works marvellously with the drawbacks and flaws and shortcomings of a character. The other cast members are also quite effective and convincing but a special mention must be made of Mohammed Samad whose performance as Mintu is not just a boisterous fun ride but also contribute significantly in establishing the dynamics of the children’s world mentioned earlier.
Haraamkhor finally doesn’t quite make it to the big league of great films but it certainly has some important facets and tendencies which can just be the push in the right direction for mainstream Indian cinema. It is also probably the most commendable debut feature length film from a Bollywood director which certainly leaves considerable room to keep an eye out for his future endeavours.
Arup Ratan Samajdar