Shakespeare has fashioned much of the way we think about narratives in general and his impact on cinema is analogously ubiquitous. His major plays are imperative to revenge narratives and it is not unexpected innumerable gangster films with a descendent narrative trajectory charting the tragic demise of the anti-hero can be traced to classically entrenched and abstruse figures like Hamlet. It is not just popular genres that are beholden to Shakespeare’s plays but melodrama and its rigorous inflection on family and women have antecedents in early storytelling techniques. Haider, a fearless reworking of Hamlet, is director Vishal Bhardwaj’s (VB) third Shakespeare adaptation, and sees him at his most political affianced. Inadvertently, engagement with the issue of Kashmir has divided Indian film critics. Bhardwaj’s bold ideological stance is in the eyes of some a questionable one as he refuses to take sides, instead defining the issue of Kashmir as an on going potentially Marxist struggle for self determination. VB intelligently uses Hamlet as a framework to foreground indigenous Kashmiri identity, that is rendered invisible by militancy, extremism and nationalist politics, into something normal, tangible and human.
VB chooses 1995 as a time frame when Kashmiri militancy was on the rise but by placing Haider (Shahid Kapoor) at the axis of the conflict is a adroit move as this lets VB take a more pluralist line to the political situation, generating a discourse censuring both Pakistani cross border fundamentalism and the repressive torture tactics of the Indian army as inseparably allied in upholding a ghastly hegemonic ancient precedent in which the entire issue of Kashmir becomes obfuscated in an narcissistic clash of national sentimentalities. This is no better articulated than in the pantomime sequence in which a newly radicalised Haider having returned from meeting Roodharr (Irfan Khan) and ascertaining the indeterminate truth about his Uncle having murdered his father, the militant, who sympathised with the Kashmiri struggle for independence, performs a madcap enactment in which he derides the nonexistence of the Kashmiri people, their identity erased from a divergence in which all that is heard are the voices of intemperance.
Hamlet is one of the prodigious chronicles about revenge and given the sexual frisson of the mother-son relationship and the Oedipal crisis that it triggers in the play, such an imbroglio of familial emotions seems akin to much of Hindi cinema. In fact, with the ending VB contends the tragic forte of this tale does not reside in the melancholy of Haider but the manifold mother figure of Gertrude, here played so imposingly by Tabu as the suffering wife of a partisan to Kashmiri militancy, who is compromised on all sides to navigate a precocious course through a toxic world of patriarchal antipathies in which the feminine mind, body and soul are inscribed with the valid ethical quandaries of India as nation. Tabu as Ghazala rises from the spectre of old Hindi cinema, merging with the violent politics of the now, materialising as the self sacrificing Mother India and concurrently abjuring memories of Malli in The Terrorist, Meghna in Dil Se and furthermost Veeran (also played by Tabu) in Maachis, a film that reminded me the most of Haider’s despairing political situation and the one that started the career of VB as lyricist.
VB has never really been troubled with creating realist cinema in both aesthetic and thematic terms but the politics of Haider point to a continual authorial concern with living in a new India, which still treats the Other as powerlessly severed from the mainstream. VB is arguably a postmodernist filmmaker in a world in which postmodernism has already had its time. In fact, like his contemporaries including notably Anurag Kashyap, VB’s cinema reproduces the susceptibilities of a cinephile that appreciates the obligation to mix the new with the old yet dispense entirely with hyperbole. This playfulness is evident in VB’s inspired reinterpretation of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Haider who are reappear in the guise of Salman & Salman, two devoted Salman Khan buffs, who run a video store and spend their time re-enacting star mannerisms. By lampooning Bollywood cinema cleverly counterpoints the realities of Kashmir, reiterating socio-political priorities are subordinate to escapist ideals unanimous too much of conventional cinema around the world.
Everything that is refreshingly iconoclastic about Haider can in fact be attributed to the song and dance sequence ‘Bismil’ which forms the heart of the film. The song takes place just after Haider’s uncle announces his intent to marry his sister in law who is now officially a widow. In response to his uncle’s calculating moves, Haider uses the song as a platform from which to articulate his misgivings about the marriage, criticise his mother and make clear his intentions to avenge the death of his martyred father. The audacious choreography and piercing lyrics by Gulzar complemented by a raw production design of giant puppets, war paint and religious imagery postulates an incendiary backdrop for a sequence assembled out of an interminably spiteful altercation of gazes. In the hands of someone more orthodox such a song and dance sequence would have been picturised along more conventional lines but VB makes it less of a spectacle and more an essential part of the narrative structure. Like the play, this is a film about uncertainties, both personal and political ones, that also manage to ask the right questions for a change.