Revisiting the Shakespearean Kashmir Files

‘The Kashmir Files’ claims to correct misconceptions propagated by “the Left Bollywood ecosystem”, which made films like ‘Haider’ to portray the victimisation of Kashmiri Muslims. Farzana Versey looks afresh at the 2014 film in light of the huge success of TKF
Haider (2014) starring Shahid Kapoor has lately been held up as an example of cinema created by the “Left Bollywood ecosystem”. (Haider publicity still) PREMIUM
Haider (2014) starring Shahid Kapoor has lately been held up as an example of cinema created by the “Left Bollywood ecosystem”. (Haider publicity still)
Updated on Apr 06, 2022 09:52 PM IST
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ByFarzana Versey

“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” could well be said about Kashmir. A state under siege for decades and yet again each time old wounds are scratched, not to draw attention to them but to create more fissures and profit from them.

The Kashmir Files captures the Kashmiri Pandit exodus (The Kashmir Files publicity still)
The Kashmir Files captures the Kashmiri Pandit exodus (The Kashmir Files publicity still)

The Kashmir Files has become a blockbuster; it claims to represent the whole truth behind the Kashmiri Pandit exodus and to correct the misconceptions propagated by “the Left Bollywood ecosystem”. At the top of the list of this system, apparently, is Haider that the makers of TKF believe was designed to portray only the victimisation of Kashmiri Muslims.

It was interesting for me to revisit the film, based on Hamlet, to see how authentic it is to reality as well as to Shakespeare, and whether authenticity is truth.

In Haider, Hamletian ideas are used as set pieces rather than as the kernel. Hamlet-Haider’s reality had to stand out against his bouts of madness and impotent rage. Life had to stand out against death and decay, “perchance to dream”. In Haider, the cusp between the mortal and the dream is lit by the brilliance with which the monologue “To be or not to be” transmogrifies into “Hum hain ke hum nahin”, that can be perceived as “Am I or am I not”, and also as “Are we or are we not?” The political is subsumed into the personal.

“Whose side are you on,” Ghazala (Gertrude) asks her husband, Dr Hilal Meer.

Zindagi (life),” he says. It is a professional duty statement of a doctor. More importantly, it politically establishes whose side the director is on, despite his claims of being “an objective observer”.

Does subjectivity rob a work of its neutrality? Is objectivity always true to facts? If the work is an adaptation of a literary text on the subject, then wouldn’t that make it second-hand knowledge of the truth?

It isn’t the lack of objectivity that’s problematic, though; blankness is near impossible when films or books are located physically, politically and emotionally in strife-ridden states.

Anupam Kher in The Kashmir Files (A scene from The Kashmir Files)
Anupam Kher in The Kashmir Files (A scene from The Kashmir Files)

The problem is how does one judge whose reality is true and complete, especially if it is not consistent. Rahul Pandita, for example, had written a personal account of his community’s trauma in Our Moon Has Blood Clots. Yet, as one of the screenplay writers of the 2020 film Shikara about a young Kashmiri Pandit couple, he was accused of copping out to box-office Bollywood and whitewashing the struggles of the Pandits.

But, sloganeering does not always convey much. Not in cinema or literature. Or in life.

Life in Haider is not the opposite of death, but the affirmation of it even in the face of death. And the state of Jammu and Kashmir has seen too much death – death in custody, death in the streets, death in homes.

The political Azaadi is also about emotional freedom, even more pertinent today (what with the abrogation of Article 370 and attempts to mainstream Kashmir by, ironically, denying its people access to communication for months). The song Jhelum Jhelum poignantly makes the river – mostly seen as a tourist magnet – into a wayfarer:

Dooba sooraj, kin aankhon mein

Sooraj dooba, kin aankhon mein

Jhelum hua khaara”

In whose eyes does the sun set

That the waters of Jhelum have turned saline

This is a life-giving thought, a need to purge the soul, for the common Kashmiris have been forced into numbness rather than aggressiveness. The scene where a man hesitates before entering his own house – as he is so habituated to being frisked and pushed before he can go anywhere – conveys just such a sense of stasis.

Haider’s Hamlet is not the, or a, hero; he is the sutradhar – the chain that connects events and places. His relationships define the state.

While Hamlet is revolted by his recently-widowed mother marrying her husband’s brother and announces, “Frailty, thy name is woman!”, Haider’s feelings for Ghazala are less obsessive and more desperation. Ghazala as mother(land?) is poisoned beauty (“zeher ki khubsoorat” - beautiful like poison, he says, as he sniffs the fragrance she applies on her neck). The sensuality and hint of incest (taken from the original) is a metaphor for the strong sense of identity that has to slake its thirst with such passing moments. Kashmiris believe with such finality in their Kashmiriyat and yet feel displaced in the land.

As Hamlet says,

“…though I am native here

And to the manner born, it is a custom

More honoured in the breach than the observance.”

Shahid Kapoor in a scene from Haider. (Haider)
Shahid Kapoor in a scene from Haider. (Haider)

All he shares with his “disappeared” father are memories. The doctor who treats a militant is taken away during the mandatory identification parade, and it establishes without any obfuscation how the army operates in J&K. Had there been no torture scenes, this one sequence alone would have sufficed to damn the manner in which authority is asserted and abused.

More pertinently, the ghost of the army hovers throughout. Even as the grave-diggers sing about sleeping in the graves, they are fired upon. In a state where homes are also graves, their song is a most potent analogy.

“Bewajah yahaan naa raho miyaan

Chalo miyaan, sabr le lo

Qabr le lo

Ghar mein aao...”

Do not linger here without reason

Come on man, take patience

Take a grave

Come home.

Arshia – Ophelia redux – is the polity: helpless, supportive, craven, and ultimately tragic. It is the little touches of her brother working for a multinational firm and the two Salman Khan fans as jesters that convey the role of the mainstream in the state. They all let Haider down.

Roohdar, the ghost, is a secessionist here, carrying the message of the presumed-to-be-dead father. That Haider is by turns suspicious and attracted to him forms the crux of displacement.

Faiz plays in the background, most tellingly in the voice of the uprooted father:

“Gulon mein rang bhare baad-e-naubahaar chalein

Chale bhi aao ke gulshan ka karobaar chalein”

Let there be colours in the flowers

For the breeze of a new spring would arrive

Come, so that the garden

Can continue to thrive

Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer. She tweets at @farzana_versey

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Tuesday, July 05, 2022