Why Haider is no Hamlet for the Valley

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Half-cooked fare Haider fails to do justice to the complexities of character that are so important in Shakespeare’s play
Half-cooked fare Haider fails to do justice to the complexities of character that are so important in Shakespeare’s play

Hamlet is not Haider. Haider is not Hamlet. Denmark is not Kashmir. Kashmir is not Denmark. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is a classic and immortal play written by William Shakespeare sometime between 1599 and 1602. It has been described as the world’s most filmed story after Cinderella and has been interpreted from time to time in different contexts. Sigmund Freud’s analysis starts from the premise that “the play is built up on Hamlet’s hesitations over fulfilling the task of revenge that is assigned to him; but its text offers no reasons or motives for these hesitations”.

The great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky directed Hamlet, his only stage play, in Moscow in 1977 and, just before his death in 1986, was planning to adapt the play into a film. “To me the tragedy of Hamlet is the tragedy of a prince who unwittingly becomes an ordinary murderer,” he said.

The best cinematic adaptation of Hamlet was perhaps the 1964 film directed by another Russian filmmaker, Grigori Kozintsev, based on the Russian translation by Boris Pasternak. “The society portrayed in Hamlet is frightening neither by its resemblance to the savage existence of beasts of prey nor by the particular cruelty of bloodthirsty fiends, but by its callous emptiness. The noble and the spiritual have vanished from life. It is not bestial crimes that arouse horror; it is normal human relations that have lost their humanity,” said Kozintsev.

It is claimed that Haider, the film directed by Vishal Bhardwaj, is a modern-day adaptation of Hamlet, set amid insurgency-hit Kashmir of the mid-1990s. Bhardwaj initially wanted to make a “political thriller” in the backdrop of turbulent Kashmir. After reading Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night: A Frontline Memoir of Life, Love and War in Kashmir, he engaged Peer to co-write the screenplay of Haider. So, what is it that dominates the film: Shakespeare’s vision or Peer’s politics or Bhardwaj’s knowledge of cinema?

Bhardwaj’s obsession with Shakespearean plays is well-known. Before taking on Hamlet, he had adapted Macbeth in Maqbool (2003) and Othello in Omkara (2007). The ways he handles Shakespeare shows that he does not understand the text of the plays.

Other Indian filmmakers have tried to deal with the Kashmir issue in the past. Mani Ratnam’s 1992 Tamil film Roja combined political drama with romance. It was subsequently dubbed in Hindi, Marathi, Malayalam and Telugu. A major box-office hit, it reflected India’s official position on the Kashmir problem and glossed over the ground realities in the conflict-ridden state to focus on individual bravado instead.

Mission Kashmir, a Bollywood action thriller directed and produced by Vidhu Vinod Chopra in 2000, is based a cock-and-bull plot that does not do justice to the political situation that prevailed when militancy in Kashmir was at its peak. An out-and-out Bombaiya film depicting an unrealistic, action-packed cat-and-mice drama between the protagonist and the antagonist, it entirely ignores the reality of Kashmir.

The romantic relationship between an Indian Army officer and the sister of a dreaded militant is the subject of the 2005 film Yahaan, directed by Shoojit Sircar. The film ends with the militant having a change of heart and giving in to his sister’s wishes. The director carefully avoids trying to provide any overt “political message” through the film.

All three films try to address the issue of militancy, but end up side-tracking the political realities of Kashmir. How is Bhardwaj’s Haider different from these?

Haider is the first film where we see Kashmir from the inside. I don’t think we have made a mainstream film about the issue,” claimed Bhardwaj. But I don’t think he is right in making this claim.

The American linguist and political thinker Noam Chomsky had once said: “All over the place, from the popular culture to the propaganda system, there is constant pressure to make people feel that they are helpless, that the only role they can have is to ratify decisions and to consume.” One finds this brief observation relevant and interesting in the context of Indian films on terrorism and violence. The wanton violence displayed in the films is not only for making money but also for terrorising audiences into a state of despair and helplessness. Haider, unfortunately, is no exception.

There is inherent violence in the plotline of Haider. Was there any need to package it with such graphic violence? The film desperately tries to send out a hidden message that the armed forces in Kashmir are an army of occupation just as the erstwhile Soviet Army was in Afghanistan. The film also talks about human rights’ issues. But it steers clear of showing the role played by the political elites. The director carefully avoids touching upon the controversial role played by the Central as well as the state political leadership during those days.

On the other hand, he readily sandwiches the plotline between the violent situation in Kashmir and the moral tale of Haider. Haider becomes the story of a hesitant intellectual (Shahid Kapoor), his mother Ghazala (Tabu), his ambitious uncle Khurram (Kay Kay Menon) and his lover Arshia (Shraddha Kapoor). Dr Hilal Meer (Narendra Jha) replaces King Hamlet, who is mainly responsible for Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be’ attitude.

The absence of King Hamlet as the ghost makes Haider structurally weak. In the play, the supernatural element of Ghost Hamlet backs up Prince Hamlet’s unquiet mind. But in Haider, there is no such supernatural element. Most of the protagonist’s actions remain at the superficial level. In the play, in his overt anxiety to embrace the message of the ghost, Hamlet assuages Horatio’s wonderment with the analytical assertion: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” But there is little scope for Haider making that kind of assertion.

Haider is politically a rather ambivalent and confused film. It neither supports nor opposes the “liberation movement” in Kashmir. For Bhardwaj, it is as if the liberation movement is a battle only against the Indian Army. But what is the role of the Indian State? That is not even remotely indicated in the film. Moreover, Haider’s search for his father’s assassin is an individual one and thus definitely not against State power.

The censor broad has been very generous with Haider. It passed the film after 41 cuts agreed to by the producers. It is interesting to note that it was censored after the BJP government took power at the Centre.

The separatist leaders and their supporters in Kashmir may appreciate the content of Haider. Perhaps, they have been bought over by its surface value. A deeper analysis, however, would reveal how deceptive the film is. This is so because Bhardwaj never tries to understand the complexities of characters in Shakespeare’s plays. Nor does he actually attempt to comprehend the fallout of the Kashmir issue on our national life. Therefore, he has audaciously mixed two texts in Haider. One is the literal text that is Hamlet and the other is the predominantly political text that is Curfewed Night. To me, Haider is like half-cooked biryani. It is little more than an assemblage of a series of coincidences without any coherence.

Deepak Roy is a New Delhi-based documentary filmmaker

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