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Haider: Of Hamlet and Kashmir

Haider may be the first film in Hindustani Cinema that portrays Kashmir not just for its aesthetics but for the difficult truth that lies therein and the tragedy of its people. An adaptation of Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ and based on Basharat Peer’s memoir ‘Curfewed Night: A Frontline Memoir of Life, Love and War in Kashmir’, Haider remains for many – a cinematic masterpiece.

Written, produced and directed by Vishal Bhardwaj, the 2014 film Haider concludes the filmmaker’s Shakespearean trilogy after Maqbool (2003) and Omkara (2006), which were based on Macbeth and Othello respectively. Bhardwaj films are rooted in realism; they have elements of gloom, remarkable music and strong women characters. Haider has all of them and more. The film starts with a sombre scene, with crows cawing and a faint sound of the Azaan in the background. Along with the intense music, this creates a somewhat suspenseful prospect and draws the attention of the viewers that remains till the end. The film’s name is introduced with a very compelling and painful background music theme, indicating that the story will be sorrowful.

Credits: Vishal Bhardwaj Pictures

The story of Haider is set in Kashmir of 1995 and outlines the prevalence of militancy; civilian disappearance and torture by the armed forces, and the political and psychological divide that people have experienced. At the centre of the tale is the tragic hero Haider Meer. This interesting character of a redesigned Hamlet is played by Shahid Kapoor whose acting is phenomenal in the film. Haider’s mother Ghazala is played by Tabu, and his uncle Khurram, the antagonist, by Kay Kay Menon. Both of them have very aptly portrayed their roles. An appealing aspect of most characters is that their names are made similar to that of the original play: Polonius is changed to Pervez, Laertes to Liyaqat, Gertrude to Ghazala and so on.

Too much is packed in the film – from Haider’s struggle in trying to find his father Hilaal, to the broader picture of revenge, politics, counter-insurgency and fake encounters. The beauty rich and snow-filled Kashmir is displayed along with frequent barbed wires. The contrast of lives is shown clearly – a beautiful shot of the Valley is followed closely by a scene where the army advances for a crackdown to conduct security checks. The overall cinematography adds depth to the narrative being presented on the screen. The song ‘Jhelum’ is played along with montages of Haider and other people trying to find their lost kin and later a scene of a truck filled with bloodied dead bodies is shown. The tone of the song symbolizes Haider’s ineffectual search for his father.

The characterization of Haider actively develops throughout the movie and the character moves towards a more disturbed psychological state. In a short scene, Haider is shown sitting in his charred house polishing a shoe. His mental chaos is complemented by an unsettling humming as the background music. Just after this shot, the character of Roohdar (played by Irrfan Khan) is introduced by an upbeat tune signalling a change in the upcoming plot. This character has some of the amazing dialogues in the film along with Haider’s.

In a soliloquy, Haider’s dilemma and contemplation are verbalized with Shakespeare’s famous line “To be or not to be” as “Mai rahoon ki mai nahin?”. Moreover, Haider’s long monologue in the famous Lal Chowk of Srinagar offers not just a startling performance but food for thought. The film extends the Shakespearian question about the existence (that Hamlet asks himself). The monologue is applied to the whole of Kashmir with the question of “Hum hain ki hm nahin?” (Are we or are we not [in existence]?). The monologue details the harsh truth about the arbitrary AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) and Haider critiques the opinionated notion of what is called the ‘Kashmir issue’ in the common vernacular by stating: “Arey koi to hmse bhi pooche ke hm kya chahte” (Oh will someone ask us too about what we want?) to which his audience replies with a chorus of “Azadi!” (Freedom/Liberty).

Credits: Vishal Bhardwaj Pictures

This socio-political setting of the narrative adds more layers to this unforgettable adaptation. Kashmir itself may be seen as the tragic hero of the story, struggling in its state of being, suffering in the idea of revenge (that begets revenge) and the trauma of violence.

The songs in the film too are of an excellent choice. ‘Gulon Mein Ran Bhare’ and ‘Aaj Ke Naam’ are written by the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. A part of another revolutionary poem that is sung by Hilal in the ‘Mama 2: Detention Centre of Security Forces’ is Faiz’s ‘Hum Dekhenge’, a powerful poem against authoritarianism and for freedom. Gulzaar’s narrative song ‘Bismil’, its choreography, Shahid Kapoor’s expression during the performance, the release of emotions and its relevance to the adaptation makes it one of the best moments in the Hindustani cinema.

The film Haider overturns the major cinematic depiction of Kashmir; through the character of Haider, it may as well represent the moral conflict of the people. It displays the psychological effects of regular frisking, the violence, and the endless trauma and despair that has surrounded the region. The film concludes with a gross and woeful faceoff in a graveyard, with a tragic end where Haider’s insanity seems complete.

Farzan Ghani is a student pursuing English Literature from Jamia Millia Islamia.

Edited by: Malaika M Khan

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Written by Farzan Ghani

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