What happens when a well-known saga of revenge and intrigue, of complex relationships and personal anguish is situated within the tragic narrative that is Kashmir? After Maqbool and Omkara, Vishal Bharadwaj has come up with yet another Shakespearean adaptation, ‘Haider’, based on Hamlet. Haider remains more or less loyal to the original Shakespearean plot. A young Kashmiri Muslim, Haider Meer, who is a student of literature at Aligarh, returns home when his father ‘disappears’ after being arrested by the Indian Army. It is 1995, and as a practicing doctor in the political chaos of Kashmir, Haider’s father, Hilal Meer doesn’t want to take ‘sides’ between the separatists and India; he just wants to do his job as a doctor, treating all patients who come to him regardless of their political affiliation. Not so easy to do that in Kashmir, and soon Meer finds himself arrested when he treats a ‘militant’ for appendicitis. He ‘disappears’ – which in Kashmir is a euphemism for being arrested, tortured or even killed by the Indian Army – his house gutted, his wife Gazala turned into a ‘half widow’ who like thousands of other Kashmiri women has no idea whether her husband is dead or alive.
If Oedipal relationships are an crucial part of the Hamlet narrative, in Haider too, we find Haider grappling with his deep emotions for his mother Gazala, with his anger at Gazala’s growing closeness to Hilal Meer’s brother Khurram, and at her attempts to find happiness with Khurram. Haider searches for his father in the ‘qaidkhaana’ (jail) that his home Kashmir has become. He is exposed to the overwhelming military presence, to routine curfews and the daily humiliating searches by the police and the army, to having to prove his identity everywhere in the place he thought of as ‘home’. His search for his father leads him nowhere, as the military is protected by the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). And slowly but surely, Haider is sucked into a mire of desperation, anger and a desire for revenge. Meanwhile, Khurram, who is an opportunist lawyer, chooses to enter politics and simultaneously gets ‘elected’ in the elections conducted by India which are mostly boycotted by the local Kashmiris.
Haider then meets Roohdaar (the ghost in Hamlet), a separatist who had been in jail with Hilal Meer. Roohdaar (a character played by Irrfan) tells him that Hilal has been killed by the Army, after being betrayed by Khurram, and conveys to him a message from his father exhorting him to take revenge on his scheming uncle. With Roohdaar’s help, Haider then discovers his father’s body – in one of mass graves that dot Kashmir. What follows is Haider dilemma ‘to be or not to be’, which is brilliantly juxtaposed with Kashmir’s own tensions with India ‘hum hain ki hum nahi hai’. However, after sticking to the Hamlet script, Bhadarwaj ends up delivering a moral homily against the perils of ‘inteqaam’ (revenge), and Haider ultimately decides not to kill Khurram.
Haider is surely remarkable in many ways. The brilliant photography and competent acting by most of the characters (Tabu as Gazala deserves a special mention here) apart, Haider shows us a Kashmir where Bollywood has rarely dared to reveal. In a break from the lakes and shikaraas of ‘Kashmir ki Kali’, and from the portrayal of the India-hating ‘militant’ in the likes of Roza or Dil Se. It is a Kashmir under the jackboots of the military shielded by the AFSPA, the Kashmir of fake encounters, curfews, security checks, mass graves and half widows, the Kashmir where slogans of Azaadi are to be found on the walls and in the minds of people. And moreover, it is a Kashmir where common people struggle often unsuccessfully to live ordinary lives, unable to do what should be normal. In possibly one of the most poignant moments of the film, a young Kashmiri is so overwhelmed by his circumstances that he stands at the entrance of his own home, refusing to enter. So used is he to coercion and humiliation, such a stranger has he become in his own ‘home’ that he needs the humiliating experience of being ‘searched’ and having to show his identity card before he can enter his house.