Director: Akshat Ajay Sharma
Writers: Akshat Ajay Sharma, Adamya Bhalla
Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Anurag Kashyap, Mohd. Zeeshan Ayyub, Saurabh Sachdeva, Vipin Sharma, Ila Arun, Shreedhar Dubey
Duration: 134 mins
Streaming on: ZEE5
Anurag Kashyap looms large over Haddi (“bone”), a gory revenge drama starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui as a transgender character in the urban badlands of the National Capital Region (NCR). Kashyap not only plays the gleeful villain in the film (the kind that plugs in noise-cancelling headphones while his goons go on a rampage), he also defines the highs and lows of its storytelling.
Haddi is the debut feature of Kashyap’s former assistant director, Akshat Ajay Sharma, and looks to be cut from the same fidgety cloth. The influence is stark. For instance, the highs include an idiosyncratic soundtrack that has shades of Kashyap’s early collaborations with Amit Trivedi, Piyush Mishra and Sneha Khanwalkar; a Quentin Tarantino-esque affinity for violence; a striking lead performance; an immersive cast and setting; a plot bursting with cultural and mythological energy. The lows include a narrative that’s too restless for its own good; an uneven screenplay; a fetishization problem; film-making that flaunts rather than explores.
The film starts out by adopting the language of a gangster origin story. A small-time smuggler from Allahabad, Haddi (Siddiqui), moves to Delhi and joins the network run by corrupt politician Pramod Ahlawat (Kashyap). The journey is familiar. Haddi impresses the gang of crooks, earns their respect, climbs the ladder and wins Ahlawat’s attention. But the writers miss a trick by hinting at the protagonist’s ulterior motives right off the bat: Haddi casually kills a colleague on the bus to Delhi itself, prematurely suggesting that the aspirational tone is a front for a tale of calculated retribution (Baazigar with social context, anyone?).
We already know that this person is driven by something other than ambition. Which is why the revelation of Haddi’s true gender identity – where the newbie sneaks out during a crisis and reappears as a decked-up trans woman, with all the guile of a superhero donning a cape – loses its dramatic edge. Given that the film opens with a stray moment from the past (we see the long hair), the ambiguity is lost. Soon, it confirms that ‘Haddi’ is in fact Harika, the last surviving member of a hijra gharana slaughtered by Ahlawat during his landshark days. She has not joined but infiltrated the network, hoping to avenge the murder of her guru, Revathi Amma (Ila Arun). As the film progresses, Haddi exhibits shades of a wronged goddess – she chips away at the connective tissue between the exploitative masters (Kashyap, Saurabh Sachdeva, Vipin Sharma) and the minions (Shridhar Dubey, Rajesh Kumar, Saharsh Shukla) who are unaware of their bone-smuggling empire.
The rhythm of the film is a bit exacting. A lot of Haddi’s time in Noida with Ahlawat’s gang feels rushed and, at times, deliberately vague. It’s designed to make the character’s ‘mission’ more layered, but it’s pretty conventional in terms of all the subterfuge. There are multiple montages, which seem like shortcuts to force-fit the music and simplify Haddi’s journey (including childhood abuse that’s trivialised for the sake of a song). Their work, which involves seducing and blackmailing rich perverts, becomes a footnote. As does the belated description of the underground bone trade, where images of flesh melting off skeletons in corpse-filled factories look like a last-ditch horror short. The hierarchy and loyalties below Ahlawat aren’t entirely clear either. Many exposition scenes are divided into two parts in an effort to keep things interesting. The blood-soaked climax plays out like a second (Bollywood) ending of sorts – the intent is to elevate the story to the realms of fantasy, but it doesn’t quite land.
Occasionally, however, the treatment of the movie trims its haphazard voice. I like that Haddi isn’t in complete control of the plan; she goes from being a sleek operator in the beginning to a desperate individual in pursuit of closure. It’s almost like the story is willed into a mystical space because she fails to get revenge on a human level. The flashback of Harika involves a beautifully worded song (“Beparda”), scoring the castration ceremony as well as her love story with an activist named Irfan (Mohd. Zeeshan Ayyub). It’s the film’s best passage. In an age of ideological posturing, it’s important to pause and recognise the unprecedented nature of these scenes – a Hindu trans woman (played by a Muslim actor) romancing a Muslim man, without faking the chemistry they are supposed to share.
That’s where Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s turn counts for so much, especially in a year where he’s given some very strange performances. There’s no grandstanding in a role that could have easily reduced the character to a vengeful stereotype. His gait as Harika is exceptional – the coyness, physical presence, femininity and gaze are disarming, particularly the way he expresses Harika’s sense of love and belonging with Irfan in the gharana. What’s also fascinating is that Siddiqui plays the protagonist as more of a ‘double role’. Gender dysphoria becomes a weapon for someone whose body determines how the world views her. Haddi looks like a disgruntled sibling of Harika – a trans woman disguised as a queer man, living the lie of a dead name all over again to trick the antagonists. The dissociation is literal.
It’s no coincidence that Harika is weaker when she pretends to be Haddi, an extension of how the marginalised risk self-erasure when they are in denial of their identity. Authenticity is the subtext. Not all of it is smooth, with the film often scrambling to pull off the emotional continuity and clunky transitions. The purpose emerges in spurts, driven mostly by Siddiqui’s grasp of the emptiness that shapes Haddi. At a time Hindi cinema is struggling to marry representation with storytelling, it’s the kind of dual turn that turns representation into the story. The conceit is part of the entertainment. The result might be a mixed bag, but Haddi gives us a lot to chew on, (poor) pun intended. If anything, it errs on the side of flesh.