Bright Lights Film Journal

Introducing Kashmir: On <em>Haider,</em> Vishal Bharadwaj’s Riff on <em>Hamlet</em>

“Something is rotten in the state of Kashmir” – Improvising Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

It has taken rather long for a feature film set in Kashmir to get critical acclaim for its political content. Kashmir, besieged paradise, Partition’s double-crossed rose, icy bone of contention between India and Pakistan, under the longest stretch and stress of military occupation, is a place torn by multiple conflicts. For decades it has been a touristy fantasy in Bombay’s films, as a land of flower-strewn lakes, ornate houseboats, and pretty women. The Indian audience at large consumed this banality with their stupendous appetite for fantasies. And the real Kashmir, dying to tell its own story, was never featured on celluloid: stories we know and yet never know enough, the endless disappearances of young and old Muslim men, mass exodus of Pandits under threat, outraged Muslim women, their homes vandalised by the army’s search operations, the cat and mouse games between the army and the militants, and proliferating dead bodies in the Valley.

Director Vishal Bharadwaj gets the credit of introducing – from the world of Hindi cinema – a side of the real Kashmir to the world. Credit also goes to his co-scriptwriter –well-known writer and journalist Basharat Peer, whose sensibility speaks through the disconsolate streets and gallows humour, the elegiac graveyards and sardonic old gravekeepers of Kashmir’s challenged lifeworld. Haider, a creative adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, is Bollywood’s first meaningful portrayal of a place popular filmmakers from Mani Ratnam to Vidhu Vinod Chopra have caricatured by crude, populist representations that pandered to nationalist sentiments rather than the critical demands of art. The last such offering from Bollywood, Mission Kashmir, could have been named Mission Mars to capture the bizarre drama concocted by the filmmaker. One realised after watching that film, even old residents could suffer a sense of unreality about the place once childhood memories turned haywire, intercepted by Bollywood’s pure nonsense.


Haider, the Kashmiri Hamlet, a revolutionary poet returning home to Srinagar after years of education in Aligarh, learns of his father’s disappearance from a detention camp, finds the cozy house of his childhood in ruins, and his mother, Ghazala, in the thick of an affair with his uncle, Khurram. Haider is political enough to use the currently popular name “Islamabad” for the city of Anantnag, to irk the military at the check post. But once he enters the intrigue surrounding his untraceable father, Haider recedes from the larger politics of the place to the narrow politics of the family. This shift may have been a bit inexplicable if not for Haider’s intense sense of familial attachment, evident in his resolve to find out about his father and his almost incestuous love for his mother. A Kashmiri mother can be breathtaking, and as Ghazala exemplifies, also imposing and tempestuous. The mother is sometimes a powerful figure in a Kashmiri poet’s life. Agha Shahid Ali’s poetry is testimony to it.

As the story of Haider’s sojourn into the world of foul play and betrayal thickens, the story of Kashmir unfolds simultaneously. We witness a place cordoned off by barbed wires of fear and persecution. A “crackdown” is part of ordinary vocabulary and possibility. The ordinary is extraordinary in Kashmir. People are charged guilty until proven innocent. The trial of guilt and innocence, as shown in Haider’s father’s case, is often maneuvered by sinister rivalries among local inhabitants. Haider’s uncle, a collaborator with the local police, turns in his own brother (and Haider’s father) to assure his successful wooing of Ghazala. Khurram, Shakespeare’s Claudius, is not only the villain of the story but the film’s central problem. The collaborator is Kashmir’s intimate enemy, whose double dealings have divided the society from within, creating a thorny state of relations within the trauma of occupation. The Indian army is predictably hostile to anything and anybody resembling a question mark or challenge to its patriotic signifiers. But it is the collaborator who raises the ethical question in the film: How can a Kashmiri betray his own people in the midst of terrible sufferings? It is an ethical question that is posed through the character of Khurram and his armed band of Kashmiri youth who are the middlemen of this violent saga. Khurram has political ambitions as well, furthering the logic that collaborators are people drawn by purely selfish ambitions. Such exploiters are, however, proof of an old economy and logic of occupational rule, where people with devious motives are picked by the state to perform the role of its agents. The ethical question regarding the role of these collaborators is a crucial one in all emancipatory struggles, and the film is centrally focused around this concern apart from the impossible presence of the occupational army.

But instead of probing deeper into the logic that makes Khurram and others like him trade their ethical responsibility for safety and profit, the film falters by issuing a highly moral-psychological answer to the problem. First through Kulbhushan Kharbanda, as Haider’s grandfather, and later through Ghazala, the film short-circuits the complex political problem of Kashmir’s occupation by offering a moral choice. The question to be (free) or not to be (free) is circumvented by the question to forgive or not to forgive. Implicated in the question of forgiveness is the question of revenge. The message is: forgive the collaborator, for he knows not what he does, and he needs to be given the opportunity of repentance. This is the prime sentiment that overpowers Haider in his moment of revenge and allows an infinite hope of redemption to enter his own and his uncle’s lives. It is the film’s most key departure from Hamlet’s script. He replaces (natural) instinct with morality, revenge with forgiveness. As if Kashmir’s torn heart depends on it.


Ghazala, as Gertrude, is the mystique par excellence in the film, the character controlling the narrative from beginning to end, with an air of amorality. She wastes no time in turning her attention to her brother-in-law once the husband is taken into custody. Her reason, very straightforwardly put to her son in the end, being the age-old one of sexual neglect. There is a suggestive frivolity in Ghazala, paradoxically matched by her intensity. Perhaps she was more naïve than frivolous, merely a believing victim of a collaborator’s amorous intentions. But her love for her son reigned supreme in her heart, the son who as a child was jealous of his father touching his mother. That incestuous cord between mother and son is wonderfully woven by Vishal, with all its awkward suddenness in place. The few instances when mother and son come close, the son breathes in the mother’s fragrance with a hint of primal temptation against the forbidden figure. Ghazala and Haider were not the puppets of a script, but two characters who dictated the script to bend it to their will from a position of power. Ghazala’s end was an unforeseen tragedy only because her secret wasn’t understood enough. She had separated three men from each other, and in the end her body was separated from itself, in the most violent manner possible. The film’s avowed moral option, repeated through Ghazala’s recipe for redemption to Haider in the end, ironically could not offer her any kind of solace.

There is also a distinct disjunction between the two halves. The film closes upon itself in the second half, when the central characters take the story away from Kashmir into a private realm. The political is largely replaced by the existential and the symbolic. Arshi, Haider’s Ophelia, is without guile or power, and madness is what awaits her. Haider finds himself in the interstice between place and family, the politics of liberation and the politics of revenge, with a brilliant soliloquy in the middle of a street square. Haider rhymes AFSPA with “chutzpah” as a comic jibe at the occupation, and tells the crowd about Kashmir being a disputed ball in a “border-border” game between India and Pakistan. Later, Haider would echo Hamlet’s dilemma of “being” by reciting to Arshi his schizoid conflict between the heart and the mind, between revenge and suicide, giving the impression of his madness. Haider’s proximity to madness symbolises the psychological excess experienced by the Kashmiri youth, where the moment of decision, however split into two, faces both ways the question of death. It is perhaps to postpone this moment of death, this no-exit situation, that the film offers the moral alternative of forgiveness as a means to prolong life.

But the problem of the political is subsumed neither by the psychological excess of the Kashmiri dilemma nor its equivalent solution. The problem of the political is portrayed by fleeting but chilling images in the first half of the film, which capture the daily realities of Kashmir: of people breathing and drinking tea in the shadow of intimidation, and of being subjected to sudden crackdowns and endless detentions. These images give the impression of a place suffering from the colonization of space. They offer Kashmir’s own story, alongside the Shakespearean narrative. That story remains as treacherously and fixedly unresolved as the barbed wires in the film, piercing everyone’s vision. The camps of interrogation as apparatuses of torture where the human body passes into subhuman zones of control and confession appear to be a separate economy of excess where a vicious circulation of capital is in progress. This circulation passes through the body of the victims, which is the site of exchange, as the intimidator profits from his manipulative governance over the meager choices available to the victims. It is a world whose macabre dealings are in fact beyond the merely political – they are zones of horror, where the light cannot enter, and where voices are animals in the dark.

Singing gravekeeper

In another brilliant scene, depicting psychic excess, singing gravekeepers uncannily invite people to dig their own graves. The shot is executed in a way that the audience feels pulled by the invitation to dig their graves as well. The gravekeepers are shown digging the graves of the future, in other words, digging the future itself. It is the most deathly question the gravediggers (and the film) ask the audience to feel, by drawing them into it. There is a desire for living bodies turning dead by burying themselves, turning the grave upon themselves. The hungry graves and gravekeepers symbolise a spillover traffic of dead bodies that has turned dead bodies into hyper-appetising objects for the gravekeepers. Instead of patiently waiting for a dead body to arrive, they are anticipating and calling the bodies in advance. This suggests the gravekeepers sense a death wish that has taken over the people, and it induces them, in a black-humourly way, to mock people into fulfilling their own death wish. It emblematises a psychic withdrawal of life instincts due to facing an extreme form of everyday violence. It produces a general condition where people are actively and exasperatingly opting for death. When state power rules over and violates every aspect of life, this willful move toward death aims at negative self-redemption. But it is also trapped within the logic of death created (and limited) by the same power it seeks to escape.

So we have multiple no-exit domains. Their physical dismantling will need a more impossible politics. Their fierce moral and ethical condemnation will not be enough. Can the politics of forgiveness address this problem? Can politics of any kind penetrate this sovereign power of the state that authorises itself to control and take lives? The film deserves kudos for raising these conflicting questions.