Vishal Bharadwaj's Haider isn’t just 'cry freedom', it’s Gandhian plea for peace

  • Nivedita Mishra, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Oct 10, 2014 15:51 IST

This Friday that went saw the release of Vishal Bharadwaj’s Haider, arguably one of the most important films this year. Given its subject and its treatment, the film has landed itself in controversy with people either liking it or denouncing it.

For those who loved it, its searing portrayal of human drama is worth a million words of praise. For those opposed to it, this film should not be patronised as it shows the Indian Army in bad light.

Between these polarities, lies a work of fiction which mirrors reality from the prism of an underdog. But given its complexity, intensity and relevance, it makes for a compulsive viewing.

Is it anti India? It is anti Indian Army? Well, the simple answer is no. What it does is show us the mirror. The picture isn’t exactly pretty but therein lies an opportunity for change.

5 reasons why we must watch Haider.

1. Haider is Hamlet... well, almost

Hamlet remains one of the best known works of the Bard and possibly his most difficult. While there is no dearth of adaptations, what makes Vishal’s Haider so special is its seamlessness with the setting, sounds and moods.

Of course, Hamlet is a classic because it remains relevant beyond the realm of time and age. But it takes talent to see a fit and Vishal does that well. What's better is Vishal convincingly gives its Bollywood makeover.

Hamlet works on two scales – its internal conflicts and the disturbed state of existence in which the story unfolds. In choosing to set his Haider in Kashmir, Vishal has cast the dice right. He could have chosen Manipur but given his Hindi-speaking audience, he chooses wisely.

It brings out Hamlet’s core emotions well – revenge, betrayal, abuse of power, justice and espionage. The internal conflict is adapted well, if possibly underplayed at times. The Oedipal complex, for instance, has been toned down to suit Indian sensibilities.

The sexual conflict is hinted, never explored. Haider is not merely seeking ‘intequaam’ for his father’s death, he is clearly unwilling to share his mother. He possibly lusts for her too. In a scene where she is getting dressed to be a bride again, Haider kisses his mother (and no it isn’t exactly a son’s peck) and exclaims (Zeher khoobsurat hain aap…).

Khurram as the ambitious and manipulative Claudius gets the tone right. Ghazala as Gertrude undergoes changes from the original. Here, her choices are more circumstantial than in the original. Roohdaar as his dead father’s ghost makes way for a shadowy character as a separatist. The Indian State, Pervez Lone and Ikhwan (the pro-government militia) are naturally the ‘rotten state of Denmark’.

Shakespeare’s famous lament: Something is rotten in the state of Denmark is perfectly reflected in the ugliness of the conflict as it unfolds in 1995.

2. Less a Shakspearean tragedy, more a political film with Gandhian plea for peace

This is Vishal Bharadwaj’s most political film. In choosing Kashmir, he was making a conscious attempt to bring the conflict into our homes. In setting his tale in 1995, he decides to debate the conflict in its darkest hour.

Cry freedom: In choosing Basharat Peer to script his tale, Bharadwaj has chosen to put before us the insider’s perspective – the good, the bad and the ugly. All the characters are Kashmiris and are not cardboard cut-outs.

Kashmiri identity: The over-arching desire to reclaim one’s identity is all too apparent. The 'chutzpah’ dialogue and the street scene where an almost-deranged Haider delivers a monologue on ASFPA {Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958} is a case in point.

AFSPA: Because it is an insider account, for most parts, AFSPA is a demon which is quite natural. While Indian Army are shown as those who abuse power, Vishal Bhardwaj stops short of pointing fingers.

Civilian disappearances: The film does bring to the forefront what conflict does to common people with too many cases of missing persons.

Gandhian pitch: In the ocean of negativity, Bharadwaj certainly doesn’t forget to give us a Gandhian insight. It may be fleeting, but there is a clear message that violence begets violence. In Haider’s final renouncement of violence lies the moral rectitude of the film.

3. The Kashmir tragedy is all too palpable if flawed

Haider’s biggest drawback is it gives only one perspective and generalises it. In presenting a ‘majoritarian’ Kashmiri perspective, Bharadwaj has completely ignored the Kashmiri pandits. Do the 3 lakh pandits (conservative estimate) who fled the valley have no rights to the land of their ancestors? Why is the Indian perspective so skewed?

Kashmir with its Muslim present, Buddhist and Hindu pasts has an umbilical chord relationship with India. Why should that be merely a Indian nationalistic perspective alone? Then, there is the Pakistani angle, which sees Kashmir as an unfinished agenda of partition. Even the much-disliked Ikhwan (pro government militia) might have a story to tell.

However, despite its restricted perspective the film makes a strong pitch for the relevance of AFSPA today. Should a law this harsh still be around? Is there a need to lower its severity depending on the threat perception? Should the law be relaxed in urban areas, just a bit? These are points the Indian administration ought to reflect upon.

Ditto for civilian disappearances. It is hard to imagine how a conflict will not throw up such challenges. The onus of avoiding such situations should also lie with people who form the genesis, its core constituents. Having said that, it certainly affords an opportunity to the establishment to see if anything could have been done differently to minimise the human cost of the conflict.

Must a sympathiser be meted out the same treatment as a hardened criminal? Should the quantum of punishment be the same for a terrorist and his support system? These are some difficult questions that Haider throws up.

Book versus film: Book lovers will sulk; they might not fancy ‘seeing’ Hamlet as much as they'd love reading it. Given that the medium is different, many of the famous soliloquies and monologues give way to empty stares and song and dance sequences. That might not work for many.

4. Because sterling performances bring alive conflicts

The film works for its brilliant performances. Shahid Kapoor as Haider sinks his teeth into the role, reflecting the confusion, pain and its madness with palpable passion. His Haider veers dangerously between doubt, despair and delirium with effortless ease.

Tabu’s Gertrude isn’t as guiltless as Shakespeare’s heroine. Ghazala is as much a product of the conflict as she is driven by her differences with her former husband and son. As a woman desiring nothing more that sliver of normalcy in a strive-torn state, Ghazala isn't as opportunistic as Gertrude is. Tabu packs an ace as a woman torn between her own desires and her over-arching love for her son.

KK Menon as Claudius brings all the shades of the grey to his character. His Claudius isn’t easily despicable yet the viewer’s inner loathing for a slimy character with dishonest intent is all too apparent.

5. Not such a picture perfect Kashmir, but no less striking

Haider’s Kashmir doesn’t cut a pretty picture. For most part it is dull and grey and works pretty much like another character. The Dal lake looks murky, the snow is blood-stained and there’s hardly any sunlight. Beauty couldn’t have been more harsh and painful. Srinagar isn’t the town of shikaras and gardens. It’s dirty lanes are slippery and dangerous.

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