What happens when a well-known saga of revenge and intrigue, of complex relationships and personal anguish is situated within the tragic narrative that is Kashmir? After Maqbool and Omkara, Vishal Bharadwaj has come up with yet another Shakespearean adaptation, ‘Haider’, based on Hamlet. Haider remains more or less loyal to the original Shakespearean plot. A young Kashmiri Muslim, Haider Meer, who is a student of literature at Aligarh, returns home when his father ‘disappears’ after being arrested by the Indian Army. It is 1995, and as a practicing doctor in the political chaos of Kashmir, Haider’s father, Hilal Meer doesn’t want to take ‘sides’ between the separatists and India; he just wants to do his job as a doctor, treating all patients who come to him regardless of their political affiliation. Not so easy to do that in Kashmir, and soon Meer finds himself arrested when he treats a ‘militant’ for appendicitis. He ‘disappears’ – which in Kashmir is a euphemism for being arrested, tortured or even killed by the Indian Army – his house gutted, his wife Gazala turned into a ‘half widow’ who like thousands of other Kashmiri women has no idea whether her husband is dead or alive.
If Oedipal relationships are an crucial part of the Hamlet narrative, in Haider too, we find Haider grappling with his deep emotions for his mother Gazala, with his anger at Gazala’s growing closeness to Hilal Meer’s brother Khurram, and at her attempts to find happiness with Khurram. Haider searches for his father in the ‘qaidkhaana’ (jail) that his home Kashmir has become. He is exposed to the overwhelming military presence, to routine curfews and the daily humiliating searches by the police and the army, to having to prove his identity everywhere in the place he thought of as ‘home’. His search for his father leads him nowhere, as the military is protected by the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). And slowly but surely, Haider is sucked into a mire of desperation, anger and a desire for revenge. Meanwhile, Khurram, who is an opportunist lawyer, chooses to enter politics and simultaneously gets ‘elected’ in the elections conducted by India which are mostly boycotted by the local Kashmiris.
Haider then meets Roohdaar (the ghost in Hamlet), a separatist who had been in jail with Hilal Meer. Roohdaar (a character played by Irrfan) tells him that Hilal has been killed by the Army, after being betrayed by Khurram, and conveys to him a message from his father exhorting him to take revenge on his scheming uncle. With Roohdaar’s help, Haider then discovers his father’s body – in one of mass graves that dot Kashmir. What follows is Haider dilemma ‘to be or not to be’, which is brilliantly juxtaposed with Kashmir’s own tensions with India ‘hum hain ki hum nahi hai’. However, after sticking to the Hamlet script, Bhadarwaj ends up delivering a moral homily against the perils of ‘inteqaam’ (revenge), and Haider ultimately decides not to kill Khurram.
Haider is surely remarkable in many ways. The brilliant photography and competent acting by most of the characters (Tabu as Gazala deserves a special mention here) apart, Haider shows us a Kashmir where Bollywood has rarely dared to reveal. In a break from the lakes and shikaraas of ‘Kashmir ki Kali’, and from the portrayal of the India-hating ‘militant’ in the likes of Roza or Dil Se. It is a Kashmir under the jackboots of the military shielded by the AFSPA, the Kashmir of fake encounters, curfews, security checks, mass graves and half widows, the Kashmir where slogans of Azaadi are to be found on the walls and in the minds of people. And moreover, it is a Kashmir where common people struggle often unsuccessfully to live ordinary lives, unable to do what should be normal. In possibly one of the most poignant moments of the film, a young Kashmiri is so overwhelmed by his circumstances that he stands at the entrance of his own home, refusing to enter. So used is he to coercion and humiliation, such a stranger has he become in his own ‘home’ that he needs the humiliating experience of being ‘searched’ and having to show his identity card before he can enter his house.
That apart, Haider unfortunately seems to be too strongly hamstrung by the Hamlet script to be able to do justice to the Kashmir narrative. The experience of the common Kashmiri, or search-and-cordon operations, of crackdowns and disappearances, appear as mere props to lend some authenticity to the Hamlet/Haider narrative – props to be dealt with as soon as possible so that the film can get on with its overarching theme of personal angst and revenge. Where Vishal Bharadwaj really fails is in his attempt to wed a saga of revenge with the Kashmir narrative - because Kashmir is not so much about ‘revenge’ as it is about aspirations, betrayals, humiliation, power and occupation. In his quest to remain true to Hamlet, he repeatedly ends up undermining the Kashmiri experience. So, even after the Indian army ends up destroying everything that Hilal Meer cares for, he tells Haider to take revenge against Khurram rather than directing his anger at the political state of affairs which led to torture and death. As Gazala searches for her agency and happiness in the midst of chaos, her independent choices find little room to show up within the Hamlet narrative. Even as she chooses to marry her brother-in-law, she ends up being the ‘unfaithful’ woman who betrays her son and husband. As it explores Haider’s angst and desire for revenge, the film repeatedly tells Kashmiris that real ‘azaadi’ is only possible when they free themselves of inteqaam (‘revenge’).
Moreover, much like in Mani Ratnam’s ‘Bombay’, one sees an attempt not just to portray “both” sides of a political narrative, but also to equate them. If in ‘Bombay’ the Thackeray figure’s diatribes found ample echoes in the Muslim leader’s fulminations, both of them inciting common Hindus and Muslims, in Haider the common Kashmiri’s experiences are juxtaposed with the Indian Army’s ‘justifications’. While ‘Bombay’ refused to recognize the elephant in the room in the form of organized, state-sponsored communal riot-mongering in the wake of the Babri Masjid demolition, Haider shows an almost equal reluctance to nail the elephant in the Kashmiri room which is the Kashmiri experience of conditional accession and betrayals, denial of freedoms, debilitating militarization and their just aspirations for self-determination. Bharadwaj appears too eager to please all audiences, a tendency which is most visible in his end credits where he praises the ‘return of peace’ and tourism in Kashmir, and the Army’s laudable flood relief efforts.
That said, at a time when in Kashmir the Indian Army boastfully proclaims “catch them by the balls, their hearts and minds shall follow”, any portrayal of AFSPA, of disappearances and mass graves in mainstream cinema is surely a step ahead, however small. As a film which is clearly made not for Kashmiri audiences, but is meant to talk to Indians, it opens up a small window into aspects of Kashmir that mainstream media and cinema usually rigorously block out. One wonders, though, how effective it will turn out to be. Many of us who watched this film in Delhi’s theatres were struck by the complete lack of connect of the audience with the Kashmiri experience. Delhi audiences, therefore, actually found the scene where the Kashmiri man can’t enter his own home without a body-search, funny rather than tragic. The psychological damage caused by the constant experience of militarization was a joke to the Delhi multiplex viewer. The sniggers in the hall at this scene, adding to the tragedy of the on-screen humiliation. Delhi’s audiences fail to recognise and experience the imagery of Haider’s beautiful monologue at Lal Chowk in Srinagar, where he talks of a bank robber who loots the entire bank and then returns to open a legal account in the same bank. It is a long way to go, perhaps, before minds in Delhi can open up to the experience and sensibilities of Kashmiris.