Twice during Haraamkhor, a schoolteacher grabs a student in an ungainly, fully-clothed embrace, and a disclaimer flashes on the screen informing viewers that sex with a minor is a punishable offence under the Indian Penal Code. These, and a similar disclaimer before the film begins, were presumably mandated by the censor board, who had stopped the film from releasing for a while because they felt its subject was "very provocative." They are the only discordant notes in Shlok Sharma's directorial debut. Haraamkhor is a gem of a film, building a world and then breaking it down in the space of 90 minutes.
The lives of three groups of characters collide in this film. Shyam (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) plays a schoolteacher in a village living with his wife, who happens to be a former student of his. Sandhya (Shweta Tripathi) is a 15-year-old student who lives with her father. Kamal (Irfan Khan, a child actor, not the Irfan) is a classmate of Shweta who is also in love with her. He is a mix of a voyeur and a stalker, and is helped in his efforts by his friend Mintu (Mohammad Samad).
The film revolves around the affair between Shyam and Sandhya, but the affair is already at its first point of crisis when the film begins. (Sharma smartly follows that old dictum of starting a film as close to the end as possible.) The director treats us as adults: the viewers are never spoon-fed anything, and the motivations of the characters unfold before us, and aren't in our face. This is not a message film, and none of the characters are shown in a good or bad light--things just happen; people do what they do.
"This is not a message film, and none of the characters are shown in a good or bad light."
The events of the film are sordid. Sandhya is being torn up by jealousy because she realises her father is clearly dating someone without telling her, and this is presumably a factor that drives her towards Shyam. And then she is torn up by jealousy because she discovers, in a slightly contrived setup, that Shyam is still having sex with his wife, contrary to his prior assurances. But she can't tear herself away.
Meanwhile, Kamal decides he is in love with Sandhya, and is resentful of her ongoing fling with Shyam. Kamal and Mintu get up to all kinds of shenanigans, and there is much charming humour in their banter. Indeed, even though the events of the film are fairly disturbing, there is also a lightness of touch that is not in the least contrived. The humour is there not because someone felt that the film needed comic relief, but because life is usually sad and funny at the same time. This is so even at the horrific end of the film, when events implode, there is violence--and still occasion to smile.
Nawazuddin is a world-class actor who can sometimes overact–-he was the only false note in the otherwise brilliant Lunchbox--but he is pitch-perfect in Haraamkhor. He doesn't try to make his character either sympathetic or loathsome, and nails subtle details of speech and mannerism. You know a guy has acted well when you don't notice his acting, and all you see here in the film is Shyam the schoolteacher creep, not Nawazuddin. Imagine, for a moment, Shah Rukh Khan playing this character, and you'll see what I mean.
Tripathi is excellent, though she does look a bit too old and mature for her character. The boys are very good, especially Samad, whose part is scripted well and acted even better. Watch out for the scene where he rolls on the grass with laughter, then looks at his friend and exclaims, 'Chutiye!' That's the joy of cinema for me right there, in that wonderful moment.
The only quibble I had about the film was with the background music. There was too much of it, and it wasn't always appropriate. But I have that complaint about almost every film, so consider that a personal bias. Haraamkhor is a lovely film, and I recommend you go and watch it this weekend. As for me, I'm keeping a keen eye out for whatever Shlok Sharma does next.
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