November Issue 2014

By | Arts & Culture | Movies | Published 10 years ago

Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider is a hard film to swallow. Politically charged, intense, theatrical and bound to make audiences uncomfortable — this is not a film you can shake off easily. And that alone is a testament to its success.

A reinterpretation of Hamlet, the film is set in 1995 Srinagar, during the height of the insurgency in Indian-occupied Kashmir. Expectedly, it’s getting a lot of flak from Indian nationalists, but journalist/author Basharat Peer, who wrote the script along with Bhardwaj, says everything we see in the film — from the harassment at checkpoints and the random crackdowns, extra-judicial killings and detentions, to the missing persons and “half-widows” — are based on true accounts.

Despite its particular setting, the language of the armed forces, separatists and politicians could easily be transported to other places where there is armed resistance to state power. We may not agree with annexation within ‘our’ own borders, but can we deny the other’s right to self-determination? Do we have the right to impose our nationalistic vision on a group of people that have their own aspirations and ideas of independence? And it is in this realisation that the discomfort sets in.

That, and the less than ‘pure’ mother-son relationship. The makers of Haider are clearly acquainted with the Freudian readings of Hamlet, but it’s really an unnecessary addition.

The film opens with Dr Hilal Mir (Narendra Jha) treating a high-profile militant. As his condition worsens, they decide to shift him to the doctor’s home, to his wife’s (Tabu) apprehension. While preparing tea over a burning stove, Ghazala picks on an old wound. “Kiss taraf hain aap (Which side are you on)?” she asks. “Zindagi ki (On life’s side),” he responds.

The doctor’s soft corner for the insurgents extends beyond mere commitment to his profession though. In a crackdown the next day, all the men from the village are lined up with their identification cards. One by one, they are brought in front of a masked man in a jeep who decides their fate. Those implicated are tortured in a primary school building and then made to ‘disappear.’ While Mir awaits his judgment, a raid has taken place in his home. “According to Indian law, you will have full opportunity to defend yourself,” an officer announces on the speaker-phone to the insurgents hiding inside. They never do, and neither does the doctor.

Some days later, his son Haider (Shahid Kapoor) returns to his hometown. At the checkpoint, Indian army officials are impressed when the idealistic student from Aligarh says his thesis is on “the revolutionary poets of British India,” the irony passing them by.

His own home being reduced to rubble, Haider pays a visit to his grandfather’s house, where he finds his mother and uncle (Kay Kay Menon) in high spirits, instead of grieving his father’s loss. Feeling betrayed, Haider sets out to find his father along with his journalist girlfriend (Shraddha Kapoor). What follows is a powerful case for the trial of thousands of missing Kashmiris.

Haider finally gets news of his father from a mysterious figure named Roohdaar (Irfan Hussain), a man who spent time in prison with Mir and claims to be his ‘ghost.’ In a flashback sequence, we see the doctor ask Roohdar if he is Shia or Sunni. “I am Shia and Sunni, and a Pundit,” he responds, reminding viewers of the mass exile of the Brahmin community from the valley in the ’90s. Perhaps Roohdar exists as a reminder (or the spirit embodiment) of all wronged people, seeking justice.

Shahid Kapoor gives an intense, powerful performance as the conflicted Kashmiri Hamlet in the film’s second half. The scene where he’s addressing a crowd at Lal Chowk and asks, “Hum hain keh hum nahin? (Do we or do we not exist?),” is going to be remembered for years to come. He’s also an exceptional dancer, and his performance to ‘Bismil,’ shot at the historic snow-covered Martand Sun Temple, is one of the best choreography scenes seen in an Indian film. Tabu brings passion to her role and Jha a quiet dignity to his own.

Something is surely rotten in the state of Kashmir. This film, however, is as near perfection as it gets.

This review was originally published in Newsline’s November 2014 issue under the headline, “Bravo Bhardwaj.”

The writer is a journalist and former assistant editor at Newsline.