Following the scent of revenge dramas—the trendy genre of the season, if the record-breaking numbers for Jawan are to be believed—I arrived at the threshold of Haddi, which was released recently on Zee5. Coming from the Anurag Kashyap camp of grit and gore, Haddi is directed by Akshat Ajay Sharma. It is told from the perspective of a transwoman, Harika, played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, out to avenge the massacre of her gharana.
In true Kashyap style, within the first few minutes of the film, someone’s throat is slit. Yet as the plot thickened, the genre of ‘revenge drama’ seemed like an entry point into the many layers of interwoven narratives. The eponymous character, Haddi, is in the business of stealing dead bodies, and smuggling bones.
The film takes a darker route, different from the poignant yet wholesome Taali—the inspired retelling of Shreegauri Sawant’s life. Born in rural India, Harika is abused by both her family and society at large, until she is adopted by Amma (Ila Arun), the leader of her hijra gharana. When real estate developers eye their property and ultimately kill a large number of her chosen family, including Amma, Harika vows to avenge their deaths. She infiltrates the gang responsible for the massacre, by assuming the role of Haddi—a cisgender man—and thus begins a game of cat and mouse.
While in the first act, we are introduced to the cold-blooded Haddi, in the second act Haddi’s mask is peeled back to reveal Harika. A study of contrasts, through the juxtaposition of Haddi and Harika’s lives, is presented to us, the audience. Both Haddi and Harika are adopted by a family. The former is taken in by Inder (Saurabh Sachdeva), while Amma takes Harika under her wings. A clear contrast between the two families becomes visible.
Inder, is a trans-person who has left Amma’s gharana, to de-transition and live as a man, while running a honey-trap business that blackmails men for money. Inder operates out of an orphanage with gang members Satto (Rajesh Kumar), Chunna (Sreedhar Dubey), and Jogi (Saharsh Kumar Shukla). There is no real sense of kinship between them; all of them are looking out for their own interests. A claustrophobic environment pervades this space. Shots of the orphanage home are mostly dimly lit, framed through narrow stairwells and at night.
Amma’s house, on the other hand, is lit in warm tones with shots of the open courtyard in daylight. Amma educates Harika, and provides her with the resources of a community and a career. Amma stands beside Harika during her gender affirming surgery. We also get a glimpse of the joyous ceremonies that initiate Harika into the gharana. Harika finds acceptance here after a childhood rife with abuse.
Besides acceptance, there is a sense of history, an attempt to locate the gharana within a larger tradition. Amma tells Harika, the story of Iravan and Mohini. The warrior Iravan, Arjuna’s son, was required to be sacrificed to win the war at Kurukshetra. Krishna transforms into Mohini, to fulfil Iravan’s last wish to experience married life. After Iravan is sacrificed, Mohini performs his last rites, and laments his death. Later, as Krishna, she avenges him.
The plot leans on the gender-fluidity inherent in Krishna’s myth, when Harika (another name for Krishna) navigates a hyper-masculine world to bring down the ‘Duryodhan’ in this story. The villain, Pramod Ahlawat (Anurag Kashyap), is a deliberate caricature of the forces of hetero-patriarchy and capitalism. Ahlawat is a real-estate mogul, whose actual income comes from the illegal business of smuggling bones. His empire built on violence and corruption reveal the unsustainable power hierarchies and economic inequities that are endemic to the creation of massive wealth.
Bones (haddi) become a leitmotif throughout the narrative. Haddi regales an accomplice with a story about being able to slip out of a noose (and a lynch mob), as a child, thanks to a missing bone. Bones bring structure to the body, but Haddi’s ‘missing bone’ allows fluidity and invisibility. The heteropatriarchy that invisibilizes trans identities becomes Harika/Haddi’s secret weapon.
Throughout the film there are multiple instances of trans-women being questioned, whether they are ‘asli’ (original). It alludes to the transphobic bias that only trans people who have medically transitioned are valid. Several scenes involving surgical procedures, underline this bias. Just when the film veers dangerously close to condoning the bias by overemphasizing it, Harika’s character takes a stance.
In interviews, Siddiqui had said that he is playing a ‘double role’ in the film. This reveals the filmmaker’s attempt to interpret gender dysphoria. When Harika has to become Haddi, she is playing the ‘character’ of a man, and is not a man herself, but essays a separate ‘role’. Later, during the climactic moment of revenge, Harika towers over the dying Ahlawat, proclaiming that she has always been and will be a woman.
Softening the gory proceedings, is Harika’s beautiful romance with Irfan (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub). Their romantic arc aptly captures the nuances of self-doubt a trans person might face in being with a cisgender person. It goes on to give us a wholesome representation of how affirmation from a loved one can heal us.
However, the film borders on glorifying the theme of revenge, with the repeated refrain that ‘badla’ is what makes a trans person fearsome. Revenge while cathartic is a deeply patriarchal tool that justifies violence and war. In one scene, Irfan becomes the voice of reason, reminding Harika that walking the path of vengeance, she is beginning to resemble the very thing she hates.
In the end, the climactic revenge is not half as cathartic as the irreversible loss of Amma and Irfan. Although the audience is offered an epilogue, where Harika occupies a powerful political position, we are not allowed to forget the cost it came with.