Haider sans Hamlet

I haven’t read Hamlet. The only work of Shakespeare that I can claim to know of (and that too an abridged version) is Julius Caesar, only because it was part of my high school English syllabus. So how must one react to Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider?

The past few days for me have been a steady diet of reviews of the movie, most of which painted a reasonably good picture of it, though I did manage to find one very critical piece. Almost all looked through the lens of the play set in Denmark and drew parallels or noted where the director took artistic licences to deviate from the original text. What of the cinema goer who has never had a brush with Shakespeare? What would one see and learn through fresh eyes?

Kashmir is truly paradise. The valley looks stunning whether it is dotted by yellow-leaved trees in autumn or is capped by snow. Each house is worthy of being an art piece by itself — one look at the bedsheets, carpets and the cups they use to serve hot kahwa will tell you why. Which is why you will cringe when gunfights result in bullets searing through the wooden windows or worse, when bombs disfigure them altogether.

The Indian Army is making sure Kashmir stays in a state of limbo. People are routinely made to walk in hordes, holding up their identification cards. A hooded army man inspects them, one by one. If they look suspicious, he honks his vehicle, the suspect is taken into custody and tortured behind closed doors – gruesomely enough so that his cries can be heard, to strike fear into whoever may be guilty of hiding something. Suspected insurgents disappear as a matter of fact. They languish in secret prisons, are tortured even more (nails tweaked out, wires inserted into bodies), shot in the dark and thrown into the Jhelum from where bodies are regularly fished out. A sense of “everyone-knows-but-won’t-talk-about-it” attitude prevails. A State police officer says filing an FIR will only cause more personal troubles. People who save you from knotty situations quickly turn informers. Even a lover can blurt out things one confides to her. Referring to Srinagar as Islamabad — considered normal for a lot of people — is the something the security forces don’t take lightly. For them there is only one Islamabad, on the other side of the border. And what’s with most of the top army brass being Tamilians? (Nagraj & TS Murthy, their badges proudly display)

This is the situation which our poetry-writing protagonist comes to face with when he returns home from college. If this was not enough, his mother and power-loving uncle seem to be happier after his father’s disappearance, and even finding solace in each other. As Kashmir turns wintry, Haider’s beard grows long and so does his quest for answers. As inconvenient facts are unearthed, madness starts to creep into his mind and results in one of the most memorable scenes in the movie: an energised solo recitation of the dreaded Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) bang in the middle of Lal Chowk, an area where Jawaharlal Nehru supposedly once pledged the plebiscite promise to Kashmir.

The premise is simple enough. Haider learns of his father’s dying wish to take revenge, to pop two bullets into the eyes of his wily uncle. In the process, we see how daily life is in Srinagar. The film’s co-writer, Basharat Peer, has lived up to his promise of depicting Kashmiris as people who are not necessarily fanatical about everything in life (Peer himself makes an interesting cameo just before the halfway mark). He is sort of right when he says that previous commercial directors have always overlaid the theme of unhindered patriotism in the valley’s backdrop (Roja, Lakshya et al.) or used it simply as a pretty setting for songs (Jiya Re from Jab Tak Hai Jaan comes to mind). What sets Haider apart is that it unabashedly shows the armed regiments as unethical, something you can least rely on for safety and as a tool used to gain political mileage. It was flagged as fodder for controversy earlier this year. Vishal Bhardwaj reportedly made 35 cuts to tighten the screenplay, while the Censor Board made five so that it would be appropriate for children under adult supervision. Given the present circumstances under a potentially sensitive, right-wing government, I’m thankful there have been no protests to stop its screening yet. Time will tell.

As far as the process of film making goes, some quick observations: the cameraman Pankaj Kumar’s eye has rightly captured what it considered a visual feast and Vishal Bhardwaj sits right up there with our best music directors. Bhardwaj has also, in a way, taken a step back and forward in making Haider. Some actors have crooned to his tunes — a practice that was commonplace long time ago — and the songs are strictly slotted in only if there’s reason for them to be there. This adds a much-needed element of realism. Lastly, we have properly mastered the art of how bullets hit and instantly kill people as well as how flesh splatters around after an explosion — at least this gets the desired effect of cringing.

A bit of nostalgia: Shahid Kapoor in portraying a Kashmiri who picks up his gun for revenge reminded me of his father who played somewhat a similar role in Mani Ratnam’s Roja. Both films are interestingly, set in the same time period.

One element that threads the film together is Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry, especially the song Gulon Mein Rang Bhare (Let The Blooms Fill With Colour). It is the bond that father and son share, the thing that a mysterious informer uses to show Haider he knows of him and something that was given a new life by Vishal Bhardwaj, the composer, but disappointingly not used in the main film. More importantly, it signals hope in a rotten environment and presses us to ask the most important question. Will, as the lyrics go, the garden of Kashmir ever get on with its daily business as it once used to?

Gulon Mein Rang Bhare (Mehdi Hassan version)

Gulon Mein Rang Bhare (Arijit Singh version)