Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Haddi. (courtesy: YouTube)
A grievously wronged transgender woman, played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, is out to wreak vengeance in Haddi, a grim crime drama set in and around Noida. In the benighted world that the embattled protagonist inhabits, a gangster-turned-politician (Anurag Kashyap) runs a macabre money-spinning enterprise with the aid of lackeys who do his bidding without being aware of what he is up to.
Siddiqui brings unbridled verve to bear upon the character of the transwoman compelled to fight fire with fire. There will be an inevitable bone to pick over the casting of a male actor in the role. But, tested to the fullest and jumping out of his skin, Siddiqui does everything that he can to prevent the character from turning into a caricature.
Parts of the performance require the actor to flirt with emotional excess in an attempt to bring out the anguish, both physical and psychological, of going under the knife to transition from one gender to another as well as express the abiding pain that attends the loss of dear ones - and dignity.
It is grief that grants the character her steely resolve. "Marta nahin hu main," he says to one of the gang members, consciously concealing his gender identity.
Haddi, directed by Akshat Ajay Sharma and co-written by him (with Adamya Bhalla), isn't the crackling zinger of a film that it had the potential to be. That does not, however, prove to be overly damaging. The film, panning out in the shadows, has a gallery of vulnerable and violent people who eke out a twisted, fragile living on the fringes of the city and survive on crumbs thrown to them by their pathologically secretive, self-serving bosses.
Some of the film's narrative components (especially its forays into the insides of a gharana of transgenders and its significant cross-references to the two Hindu epics in creating a context for the community's standing within a heteronormative worldview) and its technical attributes (the camerawork and the music in particular) are of noteworthy quality.
The first hour or so of the Zee5 film is informed with a sustained sense of intrigue and tension. The nature of the business that Hari/Harika (Nawazuddin) - she is called Haddi by his accomplices - is a part of is shrouded in mystery until the final one-third of the 135-minute film.
The plot begins to stray into a slew of predictable vengeance saga tropes much earlier - at the point of the story when the motivation of the central character is unveiled in its entirety. The shocking revelations about the work that Haddi does for the villain, spelled out in a rather matter-of-fact manner, are not as chilling as they ideally should have been.
Harika/Haddi alternates between his discarded male self and his female identity (the context for the back-and-forth that he does is provided by an allusion to an episode about Iravan and his sacrifice in the Mahabharat). She infiltrates a gang headed by ruthless land-grabber Pramod Ahlawat.
The first words spoken in Haddi are by an offscreen Siddiqui. His voice is a whisper with an emphatic echo: "Pata hai humse log kyun darte hain? Kyun ke humein vardaan hai. Hamara ashirwad bahut shaktishali hota hai aur shraap bahut bhayavah. Aur uss sey bhayavah jaante ho kya hota hai? Hamara badla. (Do you know why people fear us? We are endowed with great power. Our blessings have immense strength and our curses are fearsome. And do you know what is even more fearsome? Our vengeance.)"
The stage is thus set for a tale of blessings, malediction and retribution in a shady universe in the control of those that perpetrate atrocities on segments who cannot fight back. The above lines are repeated a few more times as Harika inches close to achieving her intended goal.
The confrontations between the world of vicious, profit-seeking gangsters (aided by a bureaucrat and a smarmy policeman) and a group of transgenders are exceedingly violent and bloody. Harika/Haddi, she is the only one among the victims capable of resistance, is compelled to go all out in her quest for justice.
Haddi has another group of individuals that is distinct from the cisgender criminals and the transgenders. These are men who cross-dress to lure customers as they go about a nocturnal business that hinges on sex and drugs. Among them are Chunna (Shriidhar Dubey), Jogi (Saharsh Kumar Shukla) and Satto (Rajesh Kumar). They and a government official Bibek Mitra (Vipin Sharma) are an integral part of the clandestine operation masterminded by Pramod Ahlawat.
The villain wants to evict the transgender groups - one is led by Revathi Amma (Ila Arun), a matriarch who stands up for many, including Haddi - from their homes and grab their land for the construction of swanky new condominiums. Trans rights activist Irfan Rizvi (Mohammd Zeeshan Ayyub) takes recourse to legal measures to try and stop Pramod Ahlawat's project.
There is worse that is afoot in the villain's backyard. Pramod also owns a chemicals factory that hides an ugly secret. His trusted aide Inder (Saurabh Bharadwaj) is the only one in thee know until Haddi enters the fray with a plan of his own. Flashpoints abound: the plot crams in several murders, an accidental death and a full-scale massacre that wipes out tens of people in the blink of an eye.
Revathi Amma's home, an oasis of love and tranquility, is targetted by Pramod Ahlawat and his gang. Haddi, who is in a relationship with Irfan Rizvi, a straight man, takes upon himself the onus of dispensing justice when matters go out of hand.
Haddi has been accustomed to violence since 'she' was a boy. Hounded, lynched, humiliated and abandoned, Haddi - her story is told in an information-laden flashback - finds safety in Amma's home. And when that home is attacked, she turns into a killer on the prowl, a fact that the first few sequences of Haddi establish.
While the film is overwrought, several of the characters are underwritten, none more so than the bad guy. Anurag Kashyap does not play it to the bone. As a consequence, Pramod Ahlawat comes off more as a smirking, wisecracking deviant than the unsettlingly menacing figure he is meant to be.
Haddi is a revenge drama with a marked difference - it pushes issues relating to trans people to the fore with broad strokes and delivers an appeal for inclusivity. But despite its strong atmospherics, imaginative use of songs, overall intent and a dazzling Nawazuddin Siddiqui performance, it is more bones than meat.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Anurag Kashyap, Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub, Ila Arun, Saurabh Sachdeva
Akshat Ajay Sharma