- Haider dir. by Vishal Bhardwaj
In a recent interview, Vishal Bhardwaj stated that even as he was writing the screenplay for Hamlet, the final film in his trilogy of Shakespearean tragedies (the earlier films are Maqbool, based on Macbeth, and Omkara, based on Othello), his wife drew his attention to Basharat Peer’s autobiographical novel, Curfewed Night. Peer’s novel examines the political turmoil in Kashmir, the site of India-Pakistan conflict for decades (see “Kashmir is the Hamlet of my Film,” Indian Express, 5 October 2014, Web). In an act of creative serendipity, Bhardwaj’s Hamlet, initially conceived as an espionage thriller, turned into the story of Haider, a disaffected Kashmiri youth growing up in the heavily militarized Kashmir of the 1990s when both insurgency and the Indian army’s brutalities had escalated. By the director’s own assertion, in Bhardwaj’s Haider (co-written with Peer), Kashmir is Hamlet, not least because “I like to fire the shots from Shakespeare’s shoulders […] that gives me a lot of license” (see “Bollywood Takes on the Agony of Kashmir,” New York Times, 27 October 2014, Web). For Peer, a Kashmiri journalist, it was a matter of taking “stories I had reported on and grafting them onto Shakespeare” (“Bollywood Takes on the Agony of Kashmir”). This somewhat instrumental and incidental use of Shakespeare’s Hamlet as a cover or a template for narrating the story of Kashmir does not always work. But it does convey a sense of excess—the Shakespearean frame often proving inadequate to hold the complex narrative of a benighted world haunted by army surveillance; random security checks; torture; the sudden “disappearances” of men; and the “half widows” who wait for them, not knowing if they are dead.
The film often feels weighed down by stories, almost too many of them. The first half focuses on setting the Kashmir scene while the Hamlet plot is compressed into the second half. The sense of claustrophobia is intensified by the writer-director’s anxiety to flesh out what in Shakespeare’s play is half told, suggested, or gestured at. In a novelistic [End Page 129] overloading, Hamlet’s character is given a “back-story” that pictures his childhood growing up in a house echoing with poetry, listening to music with his father. The film outlines his oedipal relationship with his mother and her desperate attempts to keep him away from guns and radical politics. Even the Ghost is corporealized and given a past in Haider—a doctor in life, picked up by the Indian army for helping “militants,” he returns after death as the mysterious Roohdaar, literally the “soul holder,” a doppelgänger for Hamlet Senior. Played brilliantly by Irrfan Khan dressed in dazzling white with dark shades, Roohdaar is also rendered material and given a narrative: he is a Pakistani agent who has been tortured by the Indian army along with Haider’s father. A witness to the doctor’s death, he escapes using the dead man’s identity papers, and returns to Kashmir to urge the son to take revenge. What in the play has the uncertain status of a ghost’s speech is in Haider turned into a realist narrative with harrowing torture scenes in the flashback sequences reported by Roohdar.
Haider has been both hailed and condemned for being a political film that has managed to ruffle the establishment’s feathers on both sides of the border. It had to go through forty-one cuts in India, was banned in Pakistan, and has run with major sections blurred in Kashmir. Yet the film appears to miss the politics of Shakespeare’s play. Hamlet is a political play not because the protagonist participates in court intrigue but because he refuses to do so. Stalin found the play dangerous not because the hero was a revolutionary, but because he was not one. By questioning the very idea of retribution, Hamlet casts doubt on the patriarchal code of violent action and the norms of masculinity that underpin the revenge genre. His reluctance to act thus challenges the dominant ideology of the play. By making Haider already always a...