If you had even the tiniest doubt or uncertainty about Nawazauddin Siddiqui’s place in the pantheon of great Indian actors, you only have to watch him in Haraamkhor. He plays a selfish, manipulative teacher who begins a relationship with an underage female student, and it’s a performance steeped in subtlety and complexity.
The film is set in a North Indian village where Siddiqui’s character, a married schoolteacher named Shyam, tutors young boys and girls in his tiny home. Sandhya (ShwetaTripathi), a motherless girl whose police officer father is mostly drunk or too disconnected to notice, develops a crush on Shyam.
She’s not the only one with love on her mind though. Kamal (Irrfan Khan), a scraggly fellow three years her junior, is infatuated with Sandhya. But having broken both his arms, he must rely on his best friend Mintu (Mohammed Samad) for help in trying to win her heart. Their efforts towards this end involve all manner of harebrained plotting, including a plan to trick Sandhya into seeing Kamal naked after he’s spied on her in the shower.
Director Shlok Sharma creates a vivid portrait of life in small-town India. He has both an eye and an ear for detail, giving us characters that look and talk like real people in these parts. There are fathers who’re hiding secrets, and wives nursing suspicion. But the film is ultimately an examination of adolescents and their understanding of romantic and sexual relationships. Kamal and Mintu are the only ones in the village who’ve caught on to the affair between Shyam and Sandhya, and we witness much of it through their immature eyes.
Although perceptive and surprisingly humorous despite the sordid relationship at its center, too often Haraamkhor feels disjointed and choppy. There are blanks you’ll need to fill in yourself, and questions that remain unanswered. At times you will wish there was more depth to the writing.
These hiccups notwithstanding, the film benefits enormously from the convincing performances at its heart. ShwetaTripathi is in good form as the confused, ignored young teenager who can’t help making all the wrong choices, and young Irrfan Khan and particularly Mohammed Samad provide non-stop laughs as Kamal and Mintu respectively.
But it’s Nawazuddin Siddiqui whose brilliant, mostly understated portrayal of a violent predator is the film’s biggest strength. A scene in which he’s begging his wife not to leave him while trying to put on his trousers at the same time is one of the film’s best bits and a testament to his incredible talent.
I’m going three out of five for Haraamkhor. It’s a compelling story and for the most part it’s well told.
Rating: 3 / 5
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