EXCLUSIVE: William Shakespeare discusses Haider and Vishal Bhardwaj

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Kaku (noun) – a term of endearment used for your father’s younger brothers AND any close acquaintance who is too young to be a Jethu (another avuncular term used for male members older to your father) but too old to be a Dada (older brother).

“So, did you watch Haider?”

He raised an eyebrow. I knew I was disturbing him. Willy kaku was bent over reams of paper, scribbling away on this new play he is working on these days. He refuses to tell me what it is about, lest I use the plot for my next play. He does not trust me at all. I don’t blame him. These days, people don’t believe he wrote all those plays and sonnets. They don’t believe he is a genius. How does a man feel when his hard work and outstanding creativity is butchered for the sake of just another conspiracy theory? Thus, his secrecy is understandable.

I remember watching Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool with Willy kaku. The man did not say a word, but I remember a smile, an approving smile that lingered on his mouth for hours after the film was over. He wasn’t quite impressed with Omkara, so, when he heard me gush uncontrollably about Bhardwaj’s latest adaptation of Willy kaku’s famous tragedy, Hamlet, he frowned. I urged him to go for the film. He looked pensive.

“To watch or not to watch is the question…” He finally sighed.

“Okay, cut out the drama. Go. Watch.”

“What if I don’t like it?” His cockiness is seething.

“Well, no one cares.” I walked out of the room, leaving him in his high back armchair, sheets of paper strewn everywhere, a never-leaving rusty smell of black ink and a smoky haze of the best cannabis.

So, when I saw him trod out for the film, I was elated. And also a tad scared. What if he did not like Haider?

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“So, did you watch Haider?”

He realized I wasn’t going anywhere without an answer.

“Yes.”

“And?”

“And what?”

“And thoughts?” Why was he acting so pricey?

Willy kaku smiled. He peered over his pince-nez and looked straight into my eyes.

“What did you think?” He asked. I breathed in. So he is opening a conversation. That is always a good thing.

“I think it was a fine adaptation. I am glad VB took the story out of an aristocratic setup and narrated a story of common people in the times of pain and despair.”

Willy kaku nodded. “Yes. The socio-political situation of Kashmir was a fantastic foil for the story.”

“And I feel, a contemporary re-telling of Hamlet would require a complex society, a complex background.”

“Why so?” He raised an eyebrow.

“Because, very frankly, the murder of a king, albeit by his brother, is no big deal today.” Okay, I don’t think I put it politely.

“No. Big. Deal.” He looked at me pointedly.

“You know what I am talking about,” I said. I did not want him to think that I was taking his plot lightly. “A regicide AND a fratricide was unthinkable back then, but that is not enough to shock the audience today. So, he killed his brother and married his sis-in-law after wooing her for a long time. Big deal.”

“Big. Deal.”

“I thought you agreed that the Kashmiri problem was a good backdrop?”

“Yes, but did it become more powerful than the plot? Was it too overbearing?” He was smiling again.

I nodded. Now that is a valid point. In Haider, VB simplifies all the sub-plots so that the political situation of Kashmir in 1995 and Haider’s bloodlust takes precedence. His relationship with Arshi (Ophelia) and its unfortunate deterioration is not dealt with. The role Ophelia’s father and brother (Polonius and Laertes) play in the downfall of Hamlet is non-existent. Ophelia’s death and its disastrous effect on Hamlet is not given enough screen time. Like VB mentions in an interview, Kashmir was his Hamlet. The dilemma that the people of the valley faced back then and even today is akin to the dilemma of Hamlet – whom do I trust? Should I take up arms and fight my own battle? Claudius or his father, whom should Hamlet believe? Years of confusion and broken promises make Kashmir an apt metaphor for Hamlet. But, is that a sufficient excuse to boil the narrative down to a one-plot one-mean one-end storyline?

I look up at Willy kaku. He is busy smoking. He finally notices me staring at him, helplessly.

“There, there. Do not be so disappointed. I know you love this Vishal fellow.”

I smiled.

“What else?” I asked.

“The girl who played Ophelia was hopeless.”

“So was Kay Kay. The actor who played Claudius, the brother.” I added.

Willy kaku nodded. “Yes, it seemed as if he was trying too hard…to act. And who is that charming fellow who played Roohdar?”

“Irrfan!” I gushed. “He was Macbeth in Maqbool, remember?”

“Ah yes! And I must commend Vishal. Roohdar! I am sure you young people would not find a ghost believable.”

The strength of VB’s adaptation lies in his ability to interpret the play’s dramatic and creative elements in a modern setting. No one would believe Haider’s resolution to kill his uncle if his father’s ghost appeared, telling him to avenge his death (like it happens in the original play). Therefore, Roohdar, a mysterious figure, who is supposed to have been in the same detention centre as Haider’s father becomes the bearer of his father’s will. Do we believe Roohdar? Is Roohdar trying to fulfill some ulterior motive of his own? Does Haider eventually become a pawn in a larger ploy? Instead of being supernatural, Roohdar remains a mystery who is introduced and shot delectably like a rockstar, but is never completely revealed to the audience. Like Willy kaku’s earlier commentators, even today’s audience asks that crucial question – Should Haider have trusted Roohdar?

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Similarly, the way VB treats the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is pure genius. They are die-hard Salman Khan fans who, even before killing a man, find pleasure in doing a pelvic thrust and mouthing bhai’s dialogue. They bring in the right amount of comic relief and tomfoolery that all Shakespearean tragedies have.

While I would have loved Arshi to have jumped into the river to kill herself (remember how Rishi Kapoor’s body was found in Fanaa, floating in the river, under a transparent sheet of ice? I wish that is how Arshi’s body was found by her brother Liyaqat. Maybe this has to do with my obsession with Millais’s painting “Ophelia”) rather than shooting her head, her psychological breakdown after her father’s murder was beautifully portrayed by the unraveling of the red muffler she had gifted him.

The scene where Haider chances upon Khurram confessing to his brother’s arrest during dua and then decides to not kill him because those killed during prayer go straight to heaven, is an adaptation masterclass. It is a crucial scene which emphasizes on Hamlet’s innate goodness and principles. He could have stabbed Claudius right then but chooses not to. Haider holds the gun squarely on the back of Khurram’s head and is prepared to pull the trigger but chooses not to. The power and palpable energy of the scene make it so memorable.

“The film looked like a painting, didn’t it?” I shake myself back to reality. Willy kaku takes a long drag of his joint and looks at me.

“The cinematography, yes. It was magnificent.” I said. “It was stark and yet, engaging. But again, you can never go wrong with blood on snow. It is a time-tested combination.”

Willy kaku laughed out loud. “You are right. There is a kind of romance in the way a bleeding dead body looks when it lays on show. You feel sorrow, but you also appreciate the beauty of the contrasting colours.”

“Like washing your blood stained hands in a pool of water and watching it turn red?” I mischievously grinned. He knew I was referring to that famous monologue from Macbeth. He knows how besotted I am with that play.

Also, after a long time, a film actually has a commendable literary quality. The dialogues are beautifully written in Hindi and Urdu with strong Pashtu influences. Even segments that have been adapted – Hamlet’s famous ‘to be or not to be’ monologue – acquire an individual quality. This adds another layer to the adaptation, creating individuality and strong cinematic identity in spite of being based on an existing text. And this is achieved even while adapting the characters. While Haider might be a simplistic Hamlet, Ghazala is a wonderful Gertrude. Ghazala is primal, emotional and instinctive. She is a mother who seems to be ruled by a sweet sixteen’s hormones. She is dangerous. It is this characteristic of hers that enriches the sexual tension between her and Haider. VB establishes it early in the film when a young Haider dabs his mother’s neck with ittar and then kisses it. Later, before the film’s climax, a sexually charged moment is created when Ghazala kisses Haider for the last time. When she holds his gaze, the audience holds their breath – Will she kiss him on the mouth? The relationship is emotionally charged with moments of intense love (swinging between maternal and sexual) and fiery hate. A sure shot – and unfortunate – recipe for disaster. None of the other relationships in the film are paid as much attention as Haider-Ghazala’s.

“And what a Gertrude she was! She was a better Gertrude than a Lady Macbeth.” Willy kaku exclaimed. I smiled. Haider might be one of Tabu’s top five performances. The woman allows herself to be engulfed by such animalistic passion and fervour that she scares you. When she holds the revolver to her temple, blackmailing her son to admit to her decision, her eyes express emotions that require a certain depth of human understanding and acting prowess that only the greats can deliver. Tabu is bewitching in Haider and her witch-like evil beauty is haunting. Is she good or bad? Is she the predator or the prey? The criminal or the victim? Tabu’s Ghazala swings between these extremities.

“What do you think about the music?” Willy kaku asked.

“Please, with all due respect and stuff, that’s not your area.” I joked.

“I enjoy music too. I thought Vishal did a fantastic job.”

“The songs had such beautiful Kashmiri and Middle-Eastern influences. Especially Ao Na and Bismil.” I agreed.

“Yes, that gravediggers scene was beautifully executed. I love the way they were introduced. Who knew someone could be so good at dark humour.” He chuckled.

“Are you complimenting VB or yourself, Willy kaku?”

Other than my infatuation with the film’s adept adaptation, I have – yet again – fallen in love with Shahid Kapoor. I have always believed that he is a talented actor who needs a director accomplished and intelligent enough to harness his acting prowess. VB did that successfully with Kaminey. But with Haider, Shahid delivers a performance that should make him proud. It is important for an actor to deliver at least one performance that satisfies him. Haider will do that for Shahid. Shahid creates both method and mania with his madness. He oscillates between suppressed passion bursting at its seams and angry outbursts that lack coherence and pragmatism. He is both thoughtful and careless. Calculative and spontaneous. The prayer scene in which he stands behind Khurram with a revolver in his hand, to shoot or not to shoot, is an example of Shahid’s growth as an actor and his painstaking involvement with the character.

“So, do you like VB?” I asked him.

“He is a brave man, son,” Willy kaku sighs. “He has faith in his content, he does not fall for the usual traps of commerce, he points fingers…He is unafraid to accuse.”

“He changed the ending completely though.”

Willy kaku smiled.

“And that shows how well he understands the need of these times. Like the good ol’ man said, an eye for an eye…”

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Things That Went Wrong With Masterchef Australia Season 6

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There’s something Matt Preston said in season 6 of Masterchef Australia that I will never forget – the chicken is so juicy, it’s almost like it’s weeping in my mouth. Season 6 was pure gastronomical poetry. Cooking was treated like a dramatic art form, with contestants mentored by some of the world’s best culinary artists delivering food that was aesthetic, flavoursome and theatrical in presentation. What was most satisfying was the fact that the challenges had gotten more brutal than ever before and that can only be credited to the skill sets the talented bunch of amateur chefs possessed. You ask a dog to leap through a higher loop because you know he can.

Personally, I don’t think Brent deserved the top award. His growth curve is bumpy which neither showed improvement nor a mastering of techniques. The man was just good at prepping lamb racks – and that’s all he did for all the team challenges in the latter half of the show. He did not master desserts nor did he get a hang of pan-searing and sous-viding meats. He did read books and copied plating styles though. But his obsession with negative space came across as thrifty. Yes, his D-day performance might have been impressive but that cannot be compared to Laura’s, Emelia’s or Jamie’s. While many might complain that all Laura cooked was Italian, let’s understand the facts – She’s eighteen and can cook Italian cuisine good enough to win an immunity pin (you compete against a pro for that). Her prepping techniques are exquisite. She can work with meats and seafood and makes some badass pasta. I will let all those facts sink in now. Jamie displayed growth that was fascinating to watch. He had his share of pitfalls but the fellow nailed it during the top ten challenges. Yeah, he’s a little cocky and does bite off more than he can chew sometimes, but give the guy some credit. He wants to have fun and try new stuff. No one has gone as bat shit crazy with tools and techniques in the kitchen as he. And I’ll say the same for Emelia. Her craft is spectacular. Let me share another fact – Jamie is 25. Emelia is 24. Jamie now works as the head chef of a property in Sydney.

But more than anything else, this season was about trends that will, in probability, continue in the next seasons. Unfortunately, most of these trends are, well, unfortunate.

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Squid ink – Let’s face it: it looks like black food colour paste and it works like black food colour paste. And I like black food colour paste only if I have a Phantom of the Opera themed birthday cake. In general, black is a negative element to have on a plate of food. We connect black with ‘rotten’, ‘burnt’, ‘disgusting’ or just plain ‘what the fuck is that’. Black pasta might work out (just like cocoa pasta. Risqué, very risqué), but caking bell peppers in an inky goop and frying them? No. That is the kind of experimenting that created Frankenstein’s monster.

Lesson for season 7: Don’t get carried away. Some ingredients are just not meant to be mainstream.

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Sous vide – Let’s first understand what sous-viding is: It is a method of cooking food sealed in airtight plastic bags in a water bath or in a temperature-controlled steam environment for longer than normal cooking times—72 hours in some cases—at an accurately regulated temperature much lower than normally used for cooking, typically around 60 °C for meats and higher for vegetables. Yes, I picked that from Wikipedia. So, much like the Indian dum pukht or the Afghani underground tandoor technique, it is a slow cooking process. Now, explain to me, why the kangaroo, would you try to sous vide meats when you have just 45 minutes to cook an elaborate meat dish with multiple elements? Not once was the sous-viding successful on the show (understandably, given that it is meant for longer cooking time) and every contestant had to pan-sear their meats afterwards, leading to overcooked or undercooked meat.

Lesson for season 7: When you need things evenly cooked and cooked fast, take a leaf out of the Indian mother’s handbook – pressure cook it. If you think you’re too cool for that, try something else.

Meat cooking techniques – That brings me to the next point. Meat was grilled, pan-seared or sous-vided. There was just one effort at trying something offbeat – Colin’s duck neck sausage. And the number of episodes featuring fish filleting (particularly snapper and salmon) was mind numbing. Is there nothing else you can do with proteins? What also confuses me is the stress on prepping proteins. I understand that can be a good challenge to put the contestants through during the first few weeks, but forcing amateurs to fillet and de-bone a snapper when you give them 30 minutes to cook? Facts: A) You’ve tested them. They know how to do it. B) You know it takes bloody long to fillet those effing monsters. Why then (just a thought), can you not have fresh cuts and fillets available in the pantry?

Lesson for season 7: Prep less, cook more.

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Liquid nitrogen and foam cans – Boys love their toys. Masterchef loves its foam cans and liquid nitrogen. Freezing a gin and tonic into a palate cleanser with liquid nitrogen – Heston, darling, it’s oh-so-fancy but not exactly ‘cooking’, now is it? There was so much of flash freezing this season! Yeah, Jamie enjoyed his heart out (it was fun watching him dragon breathing) but how necessary was it? They have blast chillers, now don’t they? Also, when Amy tried to flash freeze her chocolate lollipops, they didn’t work. Tut-tut.

Lesson for season 7: We don’t find liquid nitrogen in our kitchen cabinets at the drop of our hats. Get the hint.  

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Indian cuisine – Indian flavours have started influencing Aussie cuisine – this season of Masterchef was more than proof of that. While watching contestants rustle up Vikas Khanna’s avant-garde chicken tikka masala was a treat, most of the Indian attempts were major misses. For starters, Khanna made a boo-boo himself. A rice papad with tikka masala? Are you trying to make a dish fancy just for the heck of it? Because you think Indian cuisine is not intricate and complicated enough? You try making shukto like our grandmothers make in your first try, Khanna babu, and we’ll discuss complicated cooking. Or a plate of sorpotel. Or roganjosh. The Indian contestant didn’t help much either. Deepali, a dentist, can’t cook. She made aloo masala, chapattis and dhokla for her Top 24 selection. I will give you a moment to re-read that. And she got through too. Re-read that too. And she made a Gujarati chicken curry. What on earth is that? Was Deepali there in the competition because Australia has realized that Indians are a vast section of their population AND India is lapping up the show for the last 2 seasons? I wonder. More so, all the other Indian attempts by the contestants were vegetarian. A lot of aloo. A whole lot of blah.

Lesson for season 7: Indian cuisine can beat your broiling and baking asses. And like George, if you ain’t got the stomach for it (not that we are all about spicy curries and chilli powder), don’t bother.

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Fresh produce obsession – See, I love the motto “the more you do to food, the more you take away from it” and don’t mind that for my dinners. But honestly, has anyone realized that not once was a marinade used in the whole season? Meats were mostly just seasoned. Fish was served raw thrice. Salt-pepper-thyme-sage-kale is all that the proteins got treated to. Only lamb racks got spice rubs. There was some baking during the egg episode. Other than the theme episodes and Laura’s dishes, it was all about protien+fancy veggies+jus.

Lesson for season 7: Good food is fresh ingredients cooked well. Let’s see some variety.  

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Reality TV – Sample this: During the risotto challenge, Tash was leading the brood. She had finished her stock and had put in the rice with almost 20 minutes to spare. Everyone got worried that she had put in the rice ‘before time’. Even Tash got worked up. She tried to slow-cook her risotto till the last second, adding water often, hoping the flavours and aromas of the stock will not burn off and the rice won’t overcook and run dry. So, every contestant HAS to race against time because it makes for an exciting episode? That got me wondering. Never, in all six seasons, has any contestant finished plating a dish before the final bell. Now, come to think of it, isn’t that a tad fishy?

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Tear jerking melodrama – Which brings me to the last point – What was with the waterworks?! There was so much of sobbing-weeping-crying-sniffling. Contestants broke into tears at the drop of an apron. They talked about how much this opportunity meant to them over and over again, there were intercuts of them playing with their children and their spouses, a single mother’s trials and tribulations were discussed, a gay couple’s favourite dish, an Aussie girl making her Indian mom-in-law proud, fathers missing daughters, sons missing mothers, grandchildren missing grandparents, grandma’s recipes, nona’s mentoring…So. Much. Duh-rama. And the show’s script was consciously constructed to include these sob fests. Even if the contestants have discussed their sorrows in detail, the judges would make it a point to ask leading questions so that the contestant could narrate his/her story all over again, with tears and group hugs. George will ask the first question – “A little emotional there, Tracy?” Tracy says yes. Gary – “And why’s that?” Who the fafda cares? And these two tear-squeezers gang up, you know. They make you cry and then take you aside and offer pep talks – which the camera films. And the pep talks are impeccably scripted too. They even broke down the stoic Emelia. That girl powered through every single challenge, cooking beautifully, not allowing the stress or homesickness affect her. But no, the tear-squeezers weren’t satisfied. They finally hit bingo and made her weep uncontrollably in Finals week. And no, they weren’t happy doing it just once. Even after Emelia tells us E V E R Y T H I N G about her emotional relationship with her granny during the cook, they make her go through that AGAIN during tasting. AND in the episode after that. For Chrissakes!

Lesson for season 7: Masterchef is not a soap opera. Cut the bullshit about family sob stories and focus on the cooking. It’s a reality TV competition. People with dreams land up. They try to win. Not all of them can. Hopes are shattered. Been there, seen that.  

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Photo courtesy: Google Images