A doctor who stops in his stride to deliver memorable lines, usually to someone behind him; his wife, who like many wives, is not that into her husband; and their adorable son who polishes his father’s shoes and sniffs the fragrance on the nape of his youthful mother. They are a somewhat happy family, but their happiness is a foreboding because they live in Kashmir in the nineties. They are doomed for another reason--they are inside a re-telling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
That Vishal Bhardwaj bases some of his films on Shakespearean dramas often elicits the dull question, ‘Why?’ To this he has dull answers. The appropriate question is, 'So?'
The most unremarkable fact about Bhardwaj's Haider is that it is an adaptation of a lowbrow Elizabethan play whose vaunted timelessness is in reality an exaggeration of tribute. Nothing is timeless, literature especially. Like science, the art of the story is a ceaseless collective human progression, and there are excellent reasons why the ancient is not new. Yet Bhardwaj persists with adaptations. Amusing then that a filmmaker in the know should tell me that Bhardwaj is not the kind of man who reads Shakespeare. He reads the abridged versions, if at all. I could not verify this but there is crucial evidence to support the hypothesis. It can be empirically proved that no person in this age who reads Shakespeare, (or for that matter who employs the word ‘metaphor’) has made great Hindi cinema. And Bhardwaj has made exceptional movies.
Haider is more inextricably, and profitably, set in Kashmir than Hamlet is in Denmark. Bhardwaj shows a Kashmir where India is an illegal occupier, which it still is; and a brutal oppressor, which it once was. Bhardwaj shows soldiers pulling out the nails of terror suspects, electrocuting them and carrying out extra-judicial killings. It is unprecedented for a mainstream Indian film to portray this. That the State cleared Haider for public viewing, notwithstanding the many cuts enforced by its censors, is extraordinary. What can explain this uncharacteristic generosity? Could it be that the State has demonstrated that it is finally willing to experiment with maturity? Or, is it just that India has no choice anymore but to resemble a true, major democracy?
Is it time then for the fellowship of paraliberals, too, to come of age and shed their allegiance to their cabal? The Fellowship is a network of writers, documentary filmmakers and academics, with a uniform set of values. The Fellowship’s community mind finds it morally aesthetic and appealing to all its constituents to promote the point of view that Kashmir is and will be in a state of perennial unrest until India miraculously quits the place.
It is a view that is dear to a section of Kashmir’s elite, and its diaspora--to be precise, people who have the means to get on with their lives. But, in a changed Kashmir flanked by a transformed Indian economy and deteriorating Pakistan, the poor and the villagers speak of an aspiration that is very different. Their priority is a decent life, which is usually about things that make very bad poetry--jobs, education, roads, electricity. They have contempt for India but they also wish Kashmir's economy to move on. This, a section of Kashmir’s relative rich and the Fellowship they are a part of, find repulsive. Because they have the luxury to find it repulsive.
They couch all their arguments as the fight of the oppressed against the oppressor, but fall mute about the rights of Kashmir’s Hindus, who were forced to flee their homes at the height of the insurgency, to return. In the wounded spectral space of Kashmir, the encroached are encroachers too.
Unlike the State, the Fellowship does not have the power to ban or censor journalistic or literary works or statements that it deems offensive. If it had the powers it would have, but as it doesn’t it resorts to sustained defamation of those whom it does not agree with. As it has done to Shah Faesal, who in 2009 became the only Kashmiri to be ranked first in the civil services exam. Faesal, whose father was once assaulted by the Indian army and forced to chant, “Ram, Ram”, and later killed by ‘unidentified gunmen’, told me in 2012 that the period of calm in the Valley in the preceding months was proof that, “Common sense is finally winning.”
He faced severe abuse on the social media for the comment, chiefly from non-resident Kashmiris because from the safety and comfort of distance, they found peace in Kashmir offensive.
On his Facebook page, Faesal said about the long-distance lovers of Kashmir: ‘…the crop of burger-fed, Armani-attired pseudo-revolutionaries has actually harmed Kashmir, more than anyone else.’
Among Kashmir’s modern educated youth of modest means, who live in Kashmir and hence have a direct stake in peace, there are many who can see how the arrival of stability and as a consequence corporations can transform their lives, but they speak of this discreetly because they fear the abuse of the apparent patriots.
About two years ago I had interviewed two such young men, who worked for Aircel in Srinagar, and had presented their views in this paragraph: They say what many educated young people in Kashmir say — can we move on? Can we have development first instead of waiting forever for the Kashmir issue to be solved? We want industries to come here, we want MNCs and malls. We want to watch a cricket match in Srinagar. “We want KFC,” one of them says, and they burst out laughing.
At the time of the interview I had tried to persuade them to allow me to identify them because I had imagined that what they had said was innocuous, even obvious. But the outrage that followed the publication of the article informed me why they wished to be discreet. Faesal’s “burger-fed pseudo-revolutionaries” framed the story as though it had suggested that KFC would solve the Kashmir problem. Ideology, it appears, greatly impedes reading comprehension.
The two young men were considering a move to Bangalore in search of prospects. There was only so much you could do in Kashmir if you did not write poetry. The years were rolling by, and they wanted to make something of their lives. India did occupy their home, but it was economics that was going to evict them.
(Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel The Illicit Happiness of Other People. The views expressed in this column are personal.)