Up Close with Haider's scriptwriter, Basharat Peer

  • Poonam Saxena, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Oct 12, 2014 12:41 IST

At first glance, journalist and author Basharat Peer may seem an unusual choice for a Bollywood screenplay writer. But not when the filmmaker is Vishal Bhardwaj, one of Hindi cinema’s most luminous talents, and not when the film in question is Haider, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, set in Kashmir in the turbulent Nineties.


Peer’s Curfewed Night, a compelling, disquieting memoir of growing up in conflict-torn Kashmir, made him the perfect, if slightly unconventional, choice for the film’s co-scriptwriter. Let’s say it showed chutzpah on Bhardwaj’s part. Haider recently released to tremendous reviews and an audience reaction which could variously be described as stunned, awed, shaken and saddened. Peer himself has been inundated with messages, mails and phone calls after the film’s release.

When we meet on a hot afternoon over coffee, he appears a bit exhausted, a bit overwhelmed by the huge response. Excerpts from the conversation:

How did you end up collaborating with Vishal Bhardwaj on Haider?
Vishal said he was thinking of adapting Hamlet and setting it in Kashmir. He asked me what I thought of the idea. I thought, ho sakta hai. But I told him, let me read the play. So I read it many times, all the while making notes in the margins. To put the characters in a new setting, to get the dynamics of the place, weave it all together, it needed a lot of reimagining.

Also read:A character called Vishal Bhardwaj

Then Vishal and I met in Mumbai, spent a few days together. For almost 12 hours every day, we would discuss everything in detail. He has a small kitchen in his office with a wonderful cook who made the best vegetarian food ever. I’m a hardcore non-vegetarian, but I enjoyed eating the daal and everything else.

Vishal said we should do the storyboarding first, so that’s what we did. We made little cards and went scene by scene, shuffling the scenes sometimes. Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s longest plays, and a performance can go up to four-and-a-half hours. We were not filming the play in any case, but adapting it. Add to it a subject as complicated as Kashmir.

It was a very exciting but very difficult process. We discussed, we argued, we went over every little line – ‘Is this plausible?’ ‘Should we do that?’ – It was a very intense collaboration. I was arguing for some things, he was very keen on some other things. But you have to respect the other person’s point of view.

I learnt a lot from him. He was the filmmaker so he did have the final say. Also, there’s a difference between a literary and a cinematic image. A whole page of commentary in a book can be just a static shot in a film. For me, it was a learning curve. At first, I found it difficult to read a screenplay, then I got used to it after a few days.


Bismil, Bismil: "This song in Haider is a very dark political statement about extra-judicial killings, in the words of Gulzar," says Basharat Peer

I went to Mumbai on several weekends and spent time with Vishal. Then he told me, ‘now go and write’. So I came back to Delhi and worked. I was working with New York Times India Ink that time, which was a crazy job. I would work all day, then come home late at night and work on the script.

I’ve always written in English, so I would do that. Then rewrite it in Hindi. I did multiple revisions. There was also a certain amount of pressure. The script was being written around April-May and Vishal wanted to shoot in Kashmir by autumn, to get the season right for the film.

Also, in a book, it’s just you and your brain. Here, there was the entire infrastructure of Bollywood, the whole political economy of films. You have to think of the audience, many of whom may know nothing about Kashmir. A few thousand people read your book, but here, there’s a mass audience. But I’m quite happy that many images, stories made it to the film.

How are you feeling, now that the film has opened to this massive response?
There’s a constant throb in my head. I have this permanent mild headache. I feel tired. Book launches are easy. This is on another scale altogether.

But I’m very happy that people are watching the film. It’s not as if most people spend their time thinking about Kashmir. These are very conservative times, and at the end of the day, it is the story of a family, of characters who are heroic as well as flawed.

So much is from my own experiences and reportage. I have written about bodies being thrown into the Jhelum... And so Shahid [Kapoor] shows a boatman a photo of his missing father and tells him, when you’re digging the sand, let me know if you find something. Because they used to find body parts in the river.

What is your reaction to people who say that the film ‘vilifes’ the Army?
The film opens with a crackdown. Ask any Armyman and he will tell you that that is exactly what used to happen then, not once, but a thousand times. It’s just that it has been shown on the screen for the first time.

The Army is not in Kashmir to make a tulip garden! But if you bring a degree of realism in a film, it unsettles people. They are like children, who have been shielded from these realities, from the darker parts of the story. Unko jhatka laga. But I have seen those scenes with my own eyes.

In the film, there is a long line of people being scanned by a masked Army officer – I have been in a line like that. I was a class 8 student then. It was a very normal thing in Kashmir those days.

Anything in the public domain is up for criticism. But I expect some considered opinion, including how difficult it is to make a film like this in Mumbai. No film can have everything for everyone. This is not a history of Kashmir or a political manifesto. It is just a film that tries to tell some stories.

The other Hamlets
Hamlet has been adapted for screen dozens of times. Two standout versions:

Directed by Laurence Olivier, 1948
Olivier acted in the film too and this classic Shakespeare adaptation picked up two Oscars (Best Picture, Best Actor). Often rated as the ‘greatest’ Hamlet, Olivier’s performance was seen as virile, passionate and physical.

Directed by Grigori Kozintsev, 1964
This sombre Russian black-and-white version is probably the grandest of them all. The charismatic Smoktunovsky gave a memorable, layered performace as Hamlet. The film had strong political overtones.

After the release of the film, I have heard from so many people… people I haven’t seen in 15 years! The film has made people think of Kashmir in a different way. I don’t expect the world to change in a two-and-a-half hour film. But if it makes you think… that’s enough.

The scene with the child who jumps out of a truck laden with corpses… that too happened. I can footnote the entire film. There is a lot of irrational criticism, people abusing you and calling you names. The reactions are from one extreme to another. But we live in an imperfect world.

One of the triumphs of the film is its incredible casting. The lead actors of course, but even the smaller roles…
Oh yes. Narendra Jha, who plays the doctor – the dignity and the pain he was able to project! Bashir Bhawani who is from the National School of Drama and runs a theatre group in Kashmir, he was wonderful as the gravedigger.

My father was in the government and back then in the ’90s, there were always lines of desperate old men who would come, saying, my son is missing, please do something. ‘Koi na koi sifarish kijiye.’ That’s where the character of the gravedigger came from. You first see him earlier in the film. He was one of those old men who had lost his son. That’s why he became a grave digger.

You wrote the script along with Vishal. So you knew the film. But still, what did you feel when you finally saw it on screen?
When I saw the film, I was looking at those images, those people. I knew them, I knew every frame. Behind every frame, there is a story. It was like re-living that time for me. I felt a lot of sadness. It was painful.

You did a little cameo in the film too..
In the credits, there is a thank you to Akhtar Mohiuddin. He’s a very well-known Kashmiri short story writer. I had translated one of his stories, New Disease. A man is taken to the doctor by his family. The problem is that every time the man comes to a door, any door, he stops. Until he is asked for his ID and searched, he can’t enter. This was the ‘new disease’ in Kashmir.

Vishal got the rights of the story and incorporated it in the film. He asked me to do the cameo of the man. I can say I made my debut with Irrfan Khan! It’s a very powerful scene in the film.

What are you planning to do now?
Right now, I am going away to New York for three months to work on my book. It’s a political travelogue in South Asia, about religion and politics. I’ve been on the road this entire year, researching it.

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From HT Brunch, October 12
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