Haider suffers from a fundamental flaw. It attempts to marry the Kashmir narrative to Hamlet, a famous play by William Shakespeare. The Bard’s play (written between 1599-1602) is about ‘revenge’ while Kashmir, any dispassionate observer will tell you, is essentially about ‘aspiration’. Whilst it is sincere, even daring, of Vishal Bhardwaj to make a very different film, I reckon he may have ended up confounding it. Hamlet is a revenge saga. Haider has revenge as a recurring theme running for most parts. Kashmiris seek no retribution. Ask any random Kashmiri. It was and always has been about aspirations.

I had a lump in my throat when they showed naked men being brutally tortured in Srinagar’s infamous incarceration centers. Waves of young men have been through that torment; those godawful times when spelling out the word ‘Freedom’ meant you had to undergo the third-degree. Democracy has its moods, you see. Times have changed. Kashmiris are now writing furious books. The problem is that audiences in India do not consume much literature; they consume movies. That is why Haider becomes important. It rewinds us back to the dark 90s and the political intrigue at play during those days.

Given that Bollywood usually ends up making trashy films around Kashmir, Haider indeed sets the bar a notch higher. It has its strong points and a number of weaknesses. The story drags at times but captivates you in equal parts. Dreary skies and a silent snowfall, captured almost poetically, transport you smack to countryside Kashmir. Watch it for lovely cinematography; watch it for the Kashmiri accented Urdu and English words (deliberate, beautifully delivered) and some powerful acting.

Kashmiri peculiarities, like our accents and the way a majority of us speak English and even Hindi/Urdu has been nicely outlined. Vishal has captured the oddity that a lot of non-Kashmiris may not notice — our emphasis on Vs and Ds for instance —when talking in the Queen’s language. Shraddha Kapoor, playing Shahid’s love interest, effectively conveys this when she says lo-V-ed (with an emphasis on V), much to the delight of her lover and the Kashmiri audiences. This requires a keen ear. Her unearthly crooning of a Kashmiri folk song in the snow, towards the end, is equally poignant.

Tabu is a class apart. She reprises the role of Gertrude powerfully. The turbulent relationship with her son Haider, who resents her for falling for his uncle Khurram (Kay Kay in a career best performance) after he conspired to have his Tehreek- loving brother ‘disappear’ has been beautifully handled. There is an undertone of Oedipus complex and a subtle erotic tension between the mother and son, which surely is part of Hamlet, but could have been easily done away while dealing with a sensitive topic like half-widows.

Not a masterpiece by any stretch of imagination but a sincere effort. Never before has a film of such intensity been attempted on Kashmir by Bollywood, so this is definitely a first. As long as the medium of movies — in this case Haider — initiates a dialogue about the dark secrets of democracy — custodial killings, disappearances, half-widows, mass graves, crackdown operations — I am all for it. There indeed is a danger of compartmentalizing the tragedy of Kashmir into neat boxes of human rights abuse and harsh laws like AFSPA. In some scenes the film adds nothing new with its standard Bollywood-style pontification to the gumrah natives.

There are several compelling moments in the film though. Haider’s thoughtful conversation in a single-shot frame with his mother leaves you shifty; there is a hauntingly surreal scene at the clock tower in Lal Chowk, Srinagar’s focal point. While searching for his missing father in one of Kashmir’s multiple military camps, the protagonist is confronted by a woman, who is also looking for someone. In a gut-wrenching scene, both reassure each other by sharing pictures of their disappeared loved ones. That is a kind of raw grief which needs closure. Haider rips open these closeted taboos.

Vishal’s oeuvre is varicolored. His ritornelle leaves you touched. He is effortless in his coalescing of numerous fragments of the war in Kashmir — psychological scars, bruised souls, a poet’s lament. A power-packed dialogue — at once philosophical and abstract — in which Haider weighs the moral ramifications of living and dying is insanely real. Comparing death to sleep, he talks about the end to suffering and uncertainty it might bring, paraphrasing the iconic Shakespearean adage: To be, or not to be: that is the question.

As is wont with all things Kashmir, Haider is generating a huge controversy. Ironically as soon as the movie opened in India, social media erupted quickly with a mass call to boycott the film. #BoycottHaider trended as rightwing Hindu Twitter users claimed the movie was sympathetic to the Kashmir cause and somehow insinuated the Indian army. By and large Haider received positive reviews amongst Kashmiris who watched the film.

Haider, in essence, is no pièce de résistance. It is a very good film.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, October 12th, 2014

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