Shlok Sharma shot his debut feature in 16 days, entirely on an iPhone, which, in itself, is pretty remarkable. Haraamkhor is playfully amusing with severely dark undertones, carried completely, and at times kept afloat, by its commanding performances. While Nawazuddin Siddiqui does what he does best, here as a predatory teacher, it isn’t unlike what we’ve seen before from the electric actor. It is Masaan’s Swetha Tripathi, instead, who is the real show-stealer here. Starting with her look which is wholly convincing as a 15-year-old (Tripathi was 27 when she shot the film), to her aura of childish innocence being well capitalised. She heartbreakingly essays the role of a conflicted, complex teenage girl (Sandhya), who wrestles with issues of adolescence, sexuality and coming of age.
Afflicted by a mother who left her and an emotionally distant father, Sandhya becomes increasingly attached to her teacher Shyam (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), in a misplaced effort to fit in and find a place for herself. Shyam is the sexually charged, married man who ultimately gives in to perpetually building temptations, leading to a starkly disturbing and emotionally turbulent relationship between the two. All this while, Kamal, one of the Sandhya’s younger school mates too is in love with her. And together with the help of his friend Mintu, they go about making various hilarious attempts at vying for her affection.
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Sharma’s screenplay offers a well-crafted, ambitious story with many moving parts but one which perhaps had more impact on paper, particularly in its climax. The film is also, at times, quite difficult to follow, especially in its initial portions. It takes a while to fall into a place, not quite providing clarity into what’s really going on. What’s more, the arc of the story featuring Kamal and Mintu felt reminiscent of Bikas Mishra’s Chauranga. It played out a similar angle of providing a naïve child’s perspective of a harrowing bigger picture. Sharma faces further issues in how he balances the narrative between the adventures of Kamal and Minta, with the wider story of Sandhya and Shyam.
Still, Haraamkhor effuses a certain purity in filmmaking. There’s something distinctly commendable and sincere about the idea of just taking a number of actors and a phone. And plodding off into the heartlands to bring alive a film, that relies solely on a story and nothing else. The result is a film that consistently intrigues, and has you, at times, on edge, as you try and understand the mindsets and intentions of various characters.
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The lower production values are apparent. But, you certainly wouldn’t guess it was made within limited resources and conditions that it was, which is largely down to Siddharth Diwan’s smart, effective cinematography. Diwan clearly refuses to be limited by these constraints. And the results are clearly apparent.
Haraamkhor‘s tone oscillates between boisterous humor and severely dark subject matter of a man’s affair with an underage girl. And yet, it is in this tone that I have a bone to pick. The way Sharma presents the disturbing nature of the story felt problematic, to say the least. The lighter tone, at times, coupled with his non-judgemental approach, doesn’t let you fully appreciate the intensity of the disturbing subject matter. It almost somewhere normalises it, presenting the notion of child abuse almost matter-of-factly. Yes, there’ll be those who argue that he just wanted to depict the reality as it is. But I, for one, wish he condemned this aspect far more, as something that’s fundamentally wrong in every way. The film only really focuses on the harrowing gravity of the whole thing in mere moments.
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Of the film’s characters, Shyam is certainly the most curious. He is dominating, controlling, violent and misogynistic, but not overtly so. And yet also a pathetic sort of man you find yourself pitying more than you’d, perhaps, like. I found certain scenes (like him slapping around his female students whilst dishing out ‘humerous gaalis’) particularly disturbing. Scenes like these had sections of the audience laugh, despite the misogynistic violence.
The film is another victory in casting (courtesy Mukesh Chhabra), lending it further credibility. The two young boys, who play Kamal (Irrfan Khan) and Mintu (Mohammad Samad), turned in notable performances. Yet, the role that really struck me was that of Nilu, Sandhya’s father’s girlfriend played by Shreya Shah. She was refreshing and different and just so real.
Overall, Haraamkhor is a fine debut vehicle, and you can’t help but wonder what Shlok Sharma could do with more.
Whilst the film isn’t consistently absorbing it’s certainly intriguing, and raises a great deal of poignant questions.
By Suchin Mehrotra
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