Vishal Bharadwaj released his latest film, Haider. Set in the mid-90s in Kashmir Haider is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Before we begin, it should be noted that this is a film conceptualised, directed, produced, and starred largely by Indians, or non-Kashmiri Indians. Such an overwhelming absence of Kashmiris, in itself, makes the film an act of appropriation. But many are unconvinced regarding how that can be possibly bad or a problem in itself. Why can’t the privileged speak for the underprivileged? A similar question was once asked by Rahul Pandita,
A few years ago, confided a friend, a prominent Dalit intellectual had mentioned my work at a book launch. At this, another Dalit intellectual remarked: ‘But he is a Pandit after all!’ Now I don’t know why this should be a problem! As a Brahmin, does it make me less sensitive to the plight of the poor or the marginalised? Why is it such a big deal that I can wear my Janeu, recite my Hanuman Chalisa, and yet go to Bant Singh’s house in Bhurj Jabbar, thirstily gulp down a few glasses of water, and tell his story? Where is the contradiction?
and Kuffir gave an appropriate reply to this privilege-blind question,
yes, why is it such a big deal that he wears a janeu etc? i don’t believe the practice of rituals etc make a brahmin. so giving them up won’t make one less of a brahmin, either, in my view.
the big deal is that bant singh can’t just get up and go meet rahul pandita in delhi or mumbai or wherever he lives, gulp down a few glasses of water, and tell his story. bant singh was attacked because he wanted to do exactly what rahul pandita does. get up and go do the things he wanted to do.
the big deal is that rahul pandita has the freedom to do so and bant singh doesn’t.
One needs to locate appropriation within privilege (sometimes used as a polite alternative to inadvertent oppression). When Bharadwaj, an (non-Kashmiri) Indian, chooses to speak about human rights violation in Kashmir or when Arundhati Roy, a Savarna, chooses to introduce Ambedkar, they do so with the freedom afforded to them by the privileges they carry with their social identity. When they tell the story of the underprivileged while being from the side of the privilege, they establish an hierarchical relationship akin to that of charity. When they narrate the story they also have complete discretion over the narrative and the tenor. They can choose to include or omit whatever or whoever they want to. And consequently the outcome ends up being a story that will be plagued by a narrative, more or less, conditioned by their privilege.
In the end this narrative becomes the authoritative one. The one on which the oppressors, the privileged, and the far-removed would fall back for reference. Look at the fact that almost every course on Ambedkar would primarily include a screening of Jabbar Patel’s Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar or when it comes to Gandhi it is Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. [And this is also the how an overwhelming section of the Savarna-dominated Indian academia are of the opinion that "some of the best works on Dalits are written by non-Dalits"]
So let’s come back to Bharadwaj. To be honest, I did like the film as an adaptation of Hamlet. But in this case I see no reason in divorcing the art from the politics, so here goes. (needles to say SPOILER ALERT)
- Firstly, the portrayal of the Oedipus Complex between a “half-widow” (a term used for the wife of a disappeared person not declared dead, see here and here) and her son. Even if one is to take the argument that Hamlet had a certain infatuation for his mother (an argument that is highly contentious to this day), to show that using a half-widow, a lived reality of scores of Kashmiri women, is just not done.
- Secondly, the manner in which Bharadwaj dealt with the conflict it is clear that he borrowed heavily from New Delhi’s narrative of a scheming, politically greedy Kashmiri ruling class, as presented by Khurram (Claudius) and Parvez (Polonius), misleading gullible Kashmiris against the Indian state in the name of Azadi. But before that, we need to revisit the original Hamlet and the politics of the nation surrounding the story. In Hamlet, the corruption and degradation of the Danish political system is entirely because of the Danish people, or atleast its political elite. Gertrude, Hamlet, and Claudius are supposed to represent the different streaks of the Danish political class. Gertrude representing the helpless and the pragmatic, Hamlet representing the agitated and the idealistic, and Claudius representing the corrupt and the greedy. Bharadwaj, to be fair, did the same with Ghazala, Haider, and Khurram. But Hamlet’s Denmark is not Haider’s Kashmir. Hamlet lamenting about Denmark being a prison has a completely different connotation from when Haider remarked that Kashmir is Kaidkhana. Demark in Hamlet was imprisoned by the Danes themselves, but Kashmir in reality is imprisoned by the Indian State. Yet what we see is a Kashmiris repressing Kashmiris, killing Kashmiris, lying to Kashmiris, and getting fooled by Kashmiris. Locating all of this in a film about the conflict, and not a film merely about the life and times of average Kashmiris is extremely colonial. In this entire picture we see the Indian State, represented by the military, as a distant oppressor, who does not deal with Kashmiris themselves (a picture far removed from reality, atleast in the mid-90s).
- Thirdly, the reduction of the entire Azadi movement to Inteqam (revenge). Sure, it would have been too much to expect for the filmmakers to present the Kashmiri struggle for self-determination as an Inquilab (revolution), but it was not even given the dignity of a Bagavat (rebellion) either. For the film it was merely a vain and petty act of vengeance by the Kashmiris against the Indian military and perhaps the State. Again, the makers were staying true to the original story rather than reality, but one thing was very visibly missing in the entire film: Hamlet’s dilemma.
- Finally, absence of Haider’s dilemma when turning to the other side. In the original, Hamlet consistently ponders on the basis and the morality of his actions and his intentions. Until the ‘Mousetrap’ Hamlet was completely unsure about the claims made by the ghost. In fact, the very reason for “the play within a play” was to ascertain his uncle’s guilt. This dilemma, this progress of the character from a confused rebel to a convinced murderer was absent. This is a little concerning, when one takes into account that Haider becomes a rebel after meeting the Roohdar (ghost). It is as if he convinced himself almost immediately that he has to kill his uncle and turn against the Indian State (the euphemism of ‘going across the border’ is used, insinuating that the militancy is fomented by Pakistan, or at leas from Pakistan). There was no dilemma, no doubt, but absolute conviction to the words of a stranger who calls himself “the ghost”. The omission is of such gravity that one really must question the intent of the makers.
All in all, Bharadwaj created an adaptation of Shakespeare, where he tailored and truncated the experiences of the Kashmiri people to fit the script. If Kashmir was so secondary and merely a setting to the entire plot, he could have set the adaptation anywhere in the whole of India. Instead he chose Kashmir, possibly to drive home a political argument. If that’s so one can not judge and review the film merely for its artistic value. The politics of the film is equally, perhaps more, relevant. Haider (as Ashwani Mishra of Kashmir Dispatch points out) is representative of an emerging liberal nationalist argument, where the abuse by the military and the draconian nature of the AFSPA while is recognised, the conflict is still seen as petty and the calls for Azadi as deluded.
In conclusion, everything that is wrong with the film is because in the end all of it boils down to appropriation of the lived experiences and narrative of a people for commercial gains, in which distortions are but natural. One needs to be extremely wary these days when someone chooses to tell the story of another.