Director: Shlok Sharma

Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Shweta Tripathi

At most levels, Haraamkhor is a disturbingly adult children’s film. Its dichotomous gaze is the giveaway. On one hand, it feels like we’re watching kids do their thing, blissfully (and thankfully) unaware of the bleak wrongness of the events surrounding them. On another, a voyeuristic trembling camera attempts to capture all the tinier, more sinister overtones lost upon their infantile minds. 

Two goofy classmates (Irfan Khan and a delightful Mohammad Samad) may as well be watching a satirical cartoon and giggling at it – such is the unsettling lack of “heaviness” director Shlok Sharma equips his material with. His story pivots around an affair between a middle-aged teacher (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and a 15-year-old schoolgirl (Shweta Tripathi, who did this film before Masaan). Though theirs is not a secret tryst, by any stretch of imagination. At one point, we hear some of the students teasing them – in plain view of the two – about how their names (Shyam, Sandhya) virtually mean the same thing in Hindi. This is harmless classroom banter, the kind you don’t imagine being directed at a potentially harmful situation. 

The way these two ignore the obvious jibes and carry on ‘pretending,’ convinced of their elaborate confidentiality, is a stark indicator of their desensitized small-town environment: predators like the man, pedophiles and sex offenders even, openly operate from their positions of authority, but punishing them would mean acknowledging them, which is viewed as more of a crime than their actions. Let them live, as long as it’s not us – is the suggested consensus, an underlying feeling reflected by all the fleeting faces of Haraamkhor

Which is why it comes as little surprise that even Shyam’s young wife was one of his ex-students. It dawns upon us then that his behavior, therefore, must not be perceived as ‘abnormal’ in context of the village’s culture. For them, he is perhaps simply an ‘educated’ touchy-feely man who likes being a “father figure,” with a distinct taste for adolescence. Nothing notorious about it. 

Just like Sandhya’s father, a cop with a drinking problem, who hesitates to inform his daughter about the new woman in his life. One can sense that his reluctance stems not from how society will judge his unconventional taste – the woman is younger and mildly androgynous – but concern for his daughter, who he suspects is a bit too perceptive for her tender age. 

For all its effortless posturing, there’s something not quite right the film. It actually feels like a movie shot in 15 days (true story), in a hurry – less of an achievement and more of an endurance exercise. Most of its scenes feel like they have been cobbled together without a definite sense of continuity.

A 26-year-old Tripathi (in 2012, when the film was shot) embodies this lack of self-awareness, as a consensual ‘victim’ unable to relate to the juvenility of her own bracket. She looks older, feels older, almost condescending on her mates, conflicted by her status, yet betraying her own manner around Shyam. She blushes, snorts and cackles around him, determined to be his equal yet unperturbed if she isn’t.

The two boys, one of who is severely infatuated with Sandhya, seem to be on their own adventure, mischievously chronicling the affair from afar. They discuss it with the air of having caught upon hidden chemistry between two regular schoolmates; for them, Shyam is not a criminal or monster, he is simply ‘competition’ and a source of gossip. “Couldn’t she find someone younger?” they quip, perpetually tracing the couple like entertainment journalists chancing upon the scoop of the year. 

The filmmakers don’t outline and dramatize the magnitude of the taboo-ness. The circus-like playful background theme scoring the boys’ scenes could have easily morphed into a damning string-heavy overture elsewhere – to address the gravitas of the illicit world. But it doesn’t. Silence scores the undercurrents between Shyam and Sandhya, emphasizing on the fact that this is maybe a game for everyone but them.

Yet, for all its effortless posturing, there’s something not quite right with the film. It actually feels like a movie shot in 15 days (true story), in a hurry – less of an achievement and more of an endurance exercise. Most of its scenes feel like they have been cobbled together without a definite sense of continuity. For instance, by the end, the boys seem to be occupying a separate compromised universe – destined to interrupt or fill rather than build upon the story. When the cutting and splicing is so ‘visible,’ it’s not favourable for a film that primarily relies on its mood. 

This “on the go” treatment may have made some portions feel very curt and business-like; if not for the actors, Haraamkhor wouldn’t have merited a discussion. Some of the crucial plot devices remain unclear, thereby lending proceedings an aura of inevitability instead of invincibility. The challenge, I believe, comes from the way Haraamkhor begins with the two already involved with one another. The narrative leaves no real scope for their equation to develop, or diminish, any further. We’re dropped in the middle of something that already exists. This decision of choosing a phase where even the characters aren’t sure of where to go is, in hindsight, not the smartest one for a film deliberately ambiguous about its social currency. 

The final ten minutes resemble a sequence straight out of a modern-day Ramgopal Varma film – plain lazy, copout storytelling with an urgent burst of misplaced music drowning out the overall ambience.

As a result, except for a visible evolution of Sandhya’s home, everything else is stuck in a time warp – of breezy paths, grainy windmills, shifty eyes, tuition classes, cautious intimacy and Nawazuddin’s fiery brown eyes. I mention his eyes because it’s hard not to let his face as Raman Raghav 2.0’s serial killer colour our perception of these subsequent negative turns. Sharma tries to use this pre-conceived unpredictability to fashion one of the most random climax sequences in recent history. It’s one thing trying to jolt your viewers, and another altogether when shock becomes the last resort. 

The final ten minutes resemble a sequence straight out of a modern-day Ramgopal Varma film – plain lazy, copout storytelling with an urgent burst of misplaced music drowning out the overall ambience. Sure, the film ends (?) in the rain, symbolizing the physical culmination of the entire calm-before-the-storm buildup. But this is an absurd I-don’t-know-what-else-to-do white flag of an ending. 

A majority of independent cinema falls into this trap of its own freedom. From telling a tale of brevity and resourcefulness, the makers tend to end up economizing not on its texture but entire form. A pity, because this illustrates a stronger onus on the film getting made than a story being told – and completed.

Rating:   star

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