When my brother, his partner, and I decided to catch a late night show of Haider, a film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet set in Kashmir, we made sure that we arrived a solid twenty minutes late. None of us wanted to endure the possible mandatory stand-and-salute to the national anthem which often plays in Indian cinemas at the start of films. Some of us who’ve tried to stay seated in the past have had to endure many a self-righteous aunty berating us for insulting India or argue with some chaat-loving corporate exec languishing in sheeplike patriotism on his night off. This is India, after all, and this was the week of Diwali where even the most questioning types let Hindu sentimentalism get the best of them. Haider had been advertised as one of the first commercial engagements with the long-standing Indian army occupation of Kashmir and, that evening, we did not want to get off to a bitter start.
There was a lot at stake here. Firstly, would it be possible for Bollywood, a film industry prone to a poor depiction of Muslims and unabashed glorification of the Indian army, to turn out a politically committed film about a region which has endured the worst of intra-state violence and a relentless Islamophobia? Secondly, is it possible to render Shakespeare’s most introspective and navel-gazing character as being caught in the throes of a gruesome postcolonial conflict that begs to be represented with documentary realism?
Fortunately, the first half of the film is pure mastery. Moving, terrifying, and epic in scale, director Vishal Bharadwaj offers an extraordinary representation of “something is rotten in the state of…” well, India. It's 1995 and the film opens with an Indian army crackdown as young boys and men are forced out of their homes. Some are inexplicably singled out for torture and imprisonment. The contrast between the breathtaking beauty of the region is offset by men in army fatigues and close-up shots of concertina wires everywhere. The main internal structure of the original Hamlet is carefully put in place. We meet the moody Haider (Shahid Kapoor) and flashbacks show the privileged prince-like upbringing he has had. The incestous mother-son relationship is also revealed through delicately sexualized scenes of affection between the two. Haider returns to a home destroyed and a father that has been disappeared, and soon begins a personal and political quest which becomes the pretext for signposting spaces of violence and occupation. Through him, we witness unmarked graves, protesting half-widows, massacred bodies in bloody heaps in the back of trucks, unrelenting checkpoints, macabre camps, and also horrific torture scenes in Mama-2, a play off of the actual interrogation site called Papa-2. Bharadwaj is unsparing in his representation of Indian army atrocities. He also offers very sensitive scenes of a choral protaganist either through scenes of protests using real news footage or through shots panning past the eyes of innocent bystanders as searches or brutalities are being enacted.
Once the fate of Haider’s father at the hands of the Indian army is revealed, Bharadwaj finds himself at the crossroads when it came to narrative choices. And this is where the film’s Kashmir commitment completely falls apart. As the intrigue between Haider, his mother Ghazala (as Queen Gertrude), and her lover/brother-in-law Khurram (as Claudius) deepens, an entire range of plot machinations are introduced that are completely inorganic to the politics of Kashmir. Collaborators who have sold out Kashmiri resistance fighters to the Indian army take center stage. Furthermore, Bharadwaj suddenly pushes his script to become overly loyal to the original Hamlet. Now having abruptly transitioned from the political to the psychological, the Indian army is erased from the equation and instead Kashmiri Muslim characters suddenly appear to be destroying themselves without any particular motivation. In order to portray the corrupt character of Khurram, the overall depiction of the Kashmiri struggle turns into a parody replete with scenes of stereotypically bearded men in prayer caps stocking and stowing Kalashnikhovs and grenades. It turns out that the Indian army is only gaining ground because of the heavy-handed betrayals by Kashmiris themselves who are quickly selling out their comrades.
Haider’s soliloquies about Kashmir’s Azaadi (freedom) struggle to leap off the screen, eventually falling flat due to actor Kapoor’s exaggerated and unbecoming portrayal of Haider/Hamlet’s phase of madness. This was the perfect opportunity for Bharadwaj to show a hero struggling with the nuances of a political quest, but the sudden turn toward narcissicism feels forced and inorganic for what has so far been a sophisticated postcolonial Shakespeare.
Hamlet literally gets in the way of Haider.
A synchronized dance sequence, which is meant to be an adaptation of Hamlet’s powerful dumbshow scene where there are major plot revelations, only appears ludicrous in light of the film’s realism and spare tone. This shatters a feeling of an almost sacred and melancholic hush. Even the iconic gravedigger scene is depicted through synchronized song choreography. Bharadwaj recreates scene after scene from the Shakespeare original even when unnecessary. This is especially apparent when the tension between political realism and psychological introspection becomes jarring, unsustainable, and messy. I suspect there were far too many script writers and far too many rewrites, but I have no proof of that.
The loss is, of course, Kashmir’s. The region's violent turmoil and gorgeous autumn and winter landscape becomes nothing but a foil for one family’s idiotic misadventures, putting us squarely back in the Bollywood realm wherein Kashmir has historically acted as a backdrop either for vengeful terrorist dramas or for sizzling dance sequences on snowy peaks. As we look to Haider to emerge as a man that is decolonized and revolutionary, he instead ends up representing the Kashmiri populace as disempowered, one-note, and without any strategically resistant modes.
On a different note, lovers of Hamlet may find Bharadwaj’s many subtle as well as unsubtle nods to the original play delightful and satisfying. As someone who studied English literature in India, I am aware of the embarrassing levels of sycophancy that exist when it comes to Shakespeare studies. Bharadwaj certainly plays to that crowd. Actor Tabu as Ghazala/Gertrude is pure genius alternating between devotedly loving and surprisingly conniving. So is Kay Kay Menon as Khurram/Claudius who plays sleazy, false, and obsequious with great ease. Meanwhile Shraddha Kapoor’s Arshia/Ophelia is uneven and disappointing. Bharadwaj’s use of intertextuality and film-within-a-film through the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Salman and Salman) characters who are shown to be movie-obsessed also creates a textured understanding of that particular year in Indian history.
It is reported that Bharadwaj had to endure 41 cuts from India’s utterly ridiculous censor board. The film’s controversial and apatriotic content also led to the hashtag #BoycottHaider which was apparently tweeted 75,000 times. In light of all this, I would have liked to laud Bharadwaj’s efforts to make an honest film about a terrible occupation. However, this good feeling was washed away when the end credits appeared which claimed that the situation has significantly improved in the region and that tourism is booming. Bharadwaj also offers thanks to the Indian army for saving lives during the recent Kashmir floods. News from the ground has revealed that Kashmiris resented suddenly being saved by an army that has not spared their bodies, minds, and homes for the past many decades. There were even incidents of army personnel being pelted with stones during the relief efforts. It speaks to the fierce pride of a people who resented being pawns in an army PR game. Perhaps Bharadwaj wanted to placate the folks opposing the film, but it completely belies the boldness and commitment that may have existed within the project. Sadly, it proved that no matter what, commercial cinema whether Bollywood or Hollywood can never contain resistant or radical narratives. Maybe it's not even worth an attempt if the truth is only going to be distorted by the form within which it is contained.
Bhakti Shringarpure is Editor-in-Chief of Warscapes magazine.