March Issue 2015
Interview: Basharat Peer
Basharat Peer is a Kashmiri author and journalist whose book, Curfewed Night won the Crossword Prize for Non-Fiction and was chosen as one of the best books of the year by The Economist and The New Yorker.
In Lahore for the LLF, Basharat spoke to Newsline about his debut screenplay, co-written with Vishal Bhardwaj, for the film Haider.
You’re a journalist. How did you happen to write the script for what became a critically acclaimed film?
Yes, I’m a journalist, that’s what I do, I’m a reporter. This is just something that came randomly. The director wrote to me, saying can I come and see you, I’ve done two films based on adaptations from Shakespeare, and I now want to do a third one, can we set it in Kashmir. I said of course, it depends on what the story is.
He mentioned King Lear and Hamlet. I thought Hamlet would be suitable. He said, why don’t you do it?
I said that’s exciting, but let me think about it. And I went home and read Hamlet — the play we had agreed on — and as I was reading it, I was reimagining it in Kashmir. A few days later, I had the broad story of what it could be.
So then we talked again, and I wrote the story. We did some revisions together. Once the script was ready, the actors came in and the film was made.
You co-wrote the script with Vishal Bhardwaj. How did the two of you go about it?
I wrote the first draft of the screenplay, Vishal did a revision on that. Then I did a revision of his draft. He had something to say and I had something to say. So we sat together for the third draft, going line by line over the script, arguing and discussing each sentence, looking into what could be done.
He would explain that cinematically something would not work,
for instance some of the monologues were too long. So then we would choose the strongest part of the monologue. So you edit and revise, it’s like you’re your own reporter and your own editor. And we would switch between the roles.
Did you draw upon your own experience in writing the script?
There’s not much of my own personal experience but the film is based largely on things I had reported on. Jo kahanian mairay paas theen, as a journalist, I threw all my reporting into the character.
The character of Irfan, for instance. How do you do Shakespeare’s ghost in these times? Bhoot tau nahin dikha saktay, kay jinn aya hay khwab main. I thought it had to be a ghostlike figure, somebody who comes from a dark corner of hell, who survives that.
Then I interpreted that purgatory in my own way. A torture chamber… a witness to an extra-judicial killing. One has come across many of these stories as a reporter. Bodies found in the river, one guy survives. All that is drawn from real stories, those things happened.
How did Faiz and his poetry come into the film?
Well, you know in the South Asian context, when you’re writing about prisons… when I was writing those scenes, I thought, yahan par tau Faiz aa saktay hain.
I have internalised his poetry so much, when I think of a prison I think of Faiz.
What was the response to the film in India?
Vishal keeps telling me that this is his only film that has made money. It’s a big hit there, the film has done very well, lakhs of people have seen it.
As far as the politics goes…
The politics you can’t control. Your job is to tell the story, it will reach hundreds and thousands of people. Baqi, kuch log khush hain, kuch khush nahin hon gay. Shor bhi bohut hua. But I don’t write to please people.
This interview was originally published in Newsline’s March 2015 issue.