Reactions from the Kashmir valley have been intense. They are deeply thought and felt. There is hope, there is despair, and there is anger and cynicism. In the mainstream Indian media, overall response to Haider has been a positive one. The film is a truly brilliant adaptation of Hamlet and has been recognized as such by Indian reviewers. Many have taken cognizance of the film’s controversial political content and hailed Haider as a courageous and genuinely political film. The stakes are higher for Kashmiri viewers. For them Haider is far more than just renowned director Vishal Bharadwaj’s latest adaptation of a play by Shakespeare. Their evaluation hinges on whether the film has succeeded in holding a mirror to Kashmir’s anguished and traumatic history and politics. They are primarily concerned with the political content of the film. Its artistic and cinematic aspects are of less interest to them. Their concerns and questions are legion. They want to know if the film will have an impact on the dominant Indian discourse which is hostile to Kashmiri aspirations for self-determination. Some may even hope that Haider will pave the way for a principled and democratic resolution of the dispute over Kashmir. Few other films in India’s mainstream commercial market have borne the burden of such weighty concerns.
Vishal Bharadwaj’s much awaited adaptation of Hamlet was released on October 2. The plot is set against the background of 1990’s Kashmir in a period when the armed struggle for freedom and Indian counterinsurgency operations were at their height. The idea of making a film about Kashmir of the 1990’s came to Vishal Bharadwaj when he read Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night (2010), the acclaimed memoir about the eruption of militancy in Kashmir and the militarization of the valley. Vishal Bharadwaj was deeply moved by Curfewed Night’s narrative of paradise lost and he asked Basharat Peer, author and journalist, to write the screenplay for a film about Kashmir.
The collaboration of Vishal Bharadwaj and Basharat Peer has resulted in a film wherein Bollywood conventions have been infused with a reporter’s sense of realism. There is synchronized dancing in the film’s equivalent of “The Mouse Trap” in Hamlet. There is a dispensable romantic sequence. There are other compromises that are intended to ensure that the film has mass appeal for an Indian audience. Nevertheless the film represents a significant departure from mainstream Hindi cinema’s black and white portrayal of insurgency in Kashmir. To date Bollywood representations of militancy in Kashmir have been both superficial and overwhelmingly negative. The insurgency in Kashmir has functioned as little more than a prop in narratives in which the benign Indian state triumphs over the evil Kashmiri militant. In sharp contrast to these faux depictions, history and politics are inseparable from story and character in Haider. There is unflinching and therefore path breaking depiction of the repressiveness and brutality of Indian counterinsurgency and the daily humiliation inflicted on civilians in a militarized zone. A key scene brings out the toll taken on the psyche of the ordinary Kashmiri by the everyday violence of militarization. In an alley a traumatized man is transfixed outside the doorway of his own house. He is unable to enter until he has been frisked and given the go-ahead. A passer-by takes pity on him and enacts the check administered by Indian counterinsurgency forces in militarized Kashmir. There are unconscionable human rights violations. People are disappeared and are thereafter untraceable by their families. There are graphic scenes of torture of suspected militants in army and paramilitary custody. And there are extra judicial killings. Although the censor board insisted on six cuts before certifying the film for release, Haider succeeds in bringing out unsettling truths about the horrors that the Indian state unleashed on Kashmir in the nineties.
The sabotaging, past and present, by independent, putatively democratic India of the civil and political rights of the people of India controlled Kashmir forms a sordid story–one that is well known to Kashmiris themselves, academic scholars in South Asian studies, and informed observers. It’s a story that goes back to the early fifties and is all but unknown to the average Indian. It is difficult to bring out the full ramifications of this story of betrayal in a short and accessible account. But its contours can be traced. The saga of betrayal began when a government led by Kashmir’s foremost political leader the charismatic and popular Sheikh Abdullah was overthrown in 1953 through a coup instigated by New Delhi. Sheikh Abdullah incurred New Delhi’s displeasure by his leanings toward an independent sovereign status for Kashmir. He was thereafter destined to languish in Indian jails for the better part of 22 years. With possibly one exception Kashmir witnessed in the fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties a series of rigged elections wherein electoral success depended on a candidate’s willingness to toe New Delhi’s line. In 1987 Kashmir reached a tipping point as a result of egregious manipulation by New Delhi of the people’s verdict in Assembly elections. The victorious candidates of the Muslim United Front (MUF), a coalition of political parties, were set aside in favor of candidates belonging to the regional party allied with the ruling Congress. Frustrated in their efforts to bring about social and political change through the ballot box, former MUF candidates and their supporters launched an armed struggle which initially took the form of targeted assassination of officials who served or were seen to function as enablers of Indian rule in Kashmir. By 1990 a large majority of Kashmiris had risen in open rebellion against Indian rule. Mass protests were held all across Kashmir. New Delhi retaliated by flooding the valley with troops who were given a free hand in crushing the insurgency in Kashmir. In his deeply sympathetic account of the conflict in Kashmir, the academic Sumantra Bose has called the ensuing situation a massive human rights crisis (Kashmir: Roots of Conflict, Paths to Peace, 2003). The book is dedicated to the people of Jammu and Kashmir. Sumantra Bose has testified that when he toured the valley and the Doda-Kishtwar district of Jammu in 1995, the entire region resembled an armed garrison teeming with soldiers and a vast prison camp for the population. Coincidentally the drama of Vishal Bharadwaj’s film Haider takes place in 1995.
Due to the terrible flood catastrophe of September under which Kashmir continues to reel Haider reached the valley somewhat late. The verdict from Kashmir has been far more complex than that of the Indian reviewer. Moreover it is a mixed verdict. Some have praised Vishal Bharadwaj for breaking away from stereotypical Bollywood representations of insurgent Kashmir and bringing out the trauma and tragedy of Kashmir in the nineties. The tenor of these reactions is conveyed by the following: For the first time, a lived reality of Kashmir conflict has inspired a Bollywood movie (Riyaz Ahmad, Greater Kashmir), Haider has come close to portraying an uncomfortable picture although no movie can perfectly portray the sense of injustice and alienation that the people of Kashmir feel today (Sameer Yasir, Firstpost), Haider brings out harsh truths about Kashmir, mostly curtained till now by the veil of biased projection (Sheikh Saaliq, Newslaundry). But the praise is of a qualified nature. These are reservations about the way in which the political aspects of story and background are subsumed by the personal dimension–Haider’s quest for revenge and his complicated relationship with his mother. There is also the perception that the film only gives a glimpse of what really happened and that the realities were far more brutal than depicted. Then there are additional objections from analysts who are primarily critical of Haider. For Iymon Majid (Countercurrents) and Basharat Ali (Authint Mail) the foregrounding of human rights violations is highly problematic. As they see it, this focus enables the film to marginalize the question of Kashmir’s unresolved status and thereby denigrate the sacrifices that were made by the thousands who died in order to win independence for Kashmir. For these analysts the political content of Haider is diminished by the compromises made by the director. As they see it the film stops short of asking whether Indian rule in Kashmir is legitimate. The chequered verdict on Haider from Kashmiris contrasts sharply with the Indian reaction. For reviewers like Shekhar Gupta (India Today) and Manu Joseph (Hindustan Times) there is occasion for self-congratulation in the success of a film that is critical of Indian rule in Kashmir. They regard the viewer’s willingness to see the film despite its controversial content as proof of the maturing of the Indian people and the Indian state.
Does Haider in fact stop short of asking whether the Indian army’s presence in Kashmir is tantamount to an occupation? Not entirely. The film has a key moment in which the deranged protagonist harangues a crowd in Lal Chowk in the heart of Srinagar. He recalls the unfulfilled UN resolution of 1948 ordering India and Pakistan to hold a plebiscite to ascertain the will of the people of Kashmir. He denounces AFSPA the draconian impunity law that victimizes the civilian population and protects the armed forces in Jammu and Kashmir. AFSPA was imposed in Jammu and Kashmir in 1990. Militancy has waned in recent years. As far back as 2005 a government appointed committee recommended the repeal of AFSPA. But the black law remains in effect to this day at the behest of the army. In his Lal Chowk monologue Haider goes on to condemn India and Pakistan: Ab na hume chodhe Hindustan, ab na hume chode Pakistan. Arey koi to humse bhi puche ki hum kya chahte–azaadi. Is paar bhi lenge azaadi, us paar bhi lenge azaadi. We have been tormented by both India and Pakistan. Did anyone ask us what we want? We will obtain freedom from the countries on either side. The call for freedom is made by a deranged speaker. But it’s also the case that like Hamlet Haider is play acting his madness.
It’s perfectly legitimate to critique the compromises that exist in the treatment of Haider’s political theme. But it is necessary to recognize that an Indian filmmaker would inevitably jeopardize his personal safety by highlighting the unresolved status of Kashmir in an unequivocal way. Let’s not forget that in India Kashmir arouses nationalistic emotions to the point of virulence in the political class as well as the average citizen. And let’s not forget that with the hyper-nationalistic Bharatiya Janata Party in the ascendant full license has been given to the forces of lawlessness and intolerance in Indian society. Woe betide the individual who questions the prevalent belief that Kashmir is an Indian possession. To ask the director to willfully ostracize himself on the Kashmir issue is to expect him to be a martyr. In interviews that he gave at the time of Haider’s release Basharat Peer, scriptwriter for the film, explained that unlike the EU and countries in West Asia, India seems to be unable to handle realist, political cinema. He has insisted that despite its compromises Haider is “the longest, bravest journey any Indian filmmaker has made on Kashmir.” This is indeed the case. By taking a major risk on the Kashmir issue–and succeeding–Vishal Bharadwaj has simultaneously shown the way forward and created an enabling environment for filmmakers of conscience.
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