Haider – everything that’s wrong with Appropriation


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.

Comments

  1. Karan says

    I don’t completely agree with post.

    When the Arundhati Roy scandal broke out, I followed the articles and comments very closely on Round Table India. Not every Dalit-Bahujan had the same view– some strongly supported Roy. But for those who did not– the majority– they did not for a very good reason.

    The Hyderabadi group Dalit Camera noted that there is a long, nearly hundred-year history of Dalits distributing the text very cheaply. The text means a lot to the Dalit community, and it has engaged with the text a lot. Give that history, for Roy– someone who has no stake in the Dalit liberation movement– to come and write an introduction was absolutely inappropriate. There were also peripheral issues that I don’t agree with. Some people are angry that Roy has been listed as a coauthor with Ambedkar on some site– if you go on Amazon, though, introducers are often listed as coauthors of books. Why, Christopher Hitchens is the “coauthor” of at least one book by Orwell!

    Rahul Pandita, on the other hand, has not asked a privilege-blind question. Our understandings of our privileges ought to be precursors to empathetic action, not an excuse to play identity politics. So perhaps Bant Singh could not tell his story. That further necessitates the need for someone to help him out. Academics like Badri Narayan Tiwari (who has dropped his caste name) have provided invaluable contributions to Dalit Studies by collecting the stories of Dalits. The people who tell such stories know what they’re getting into. It’s a shame that they are not in positions to tell their own stories, but so long as that is the case, it makes little sense to sit idle and do nothing. Indeed, there has never been comment when westerners study Dalits. To misuse concepts like privilege to silence non-Dalit Indians would be to kill Dalit Studies in the only country in which it can grow.

    In fact, it is and has been a remedy for the very thing Kuffir laments: ” indian history reads so much like mythology because those claiming its ‘glorious achievements’ as their own have no idea whatsoever how those achievements were accomplished– it’s obvious that they know only a part of the story, so they add a lot of mumbo jumbo to complete it, to obfuscate the dalitbahujan contributions. indian history is such a colossal crime because by depriving the dalitbahujans of any past, it steals their future too.

    Dalit Studies scholars like Ramnarayan Rawat, Badri Narayan, Gail Omvedt, and Sudha Pai are doing this very task, putting Dalits into history as independent actors. Rawat, for his part, gained international acclaim for putting to rest colonial and postcolonial assumptions about Chamars, who used to mostly be agricultural workers, not leather tanners. Narayan chronicled the Dalit movement in UP, which was thought not to have developed during Phule and Ambedkar’s times.

    But of course, Kuffir doesn’t like academic history. as long as the brahmins, as brahmins, are around, and in very large numbers, in academia and other places that produce history– it’d be very difficult to find anything resembling objective history

    And where’d he come to that well-thought-out conclusion? Does he really think the Wikipedia edits he read account to academic history? Most people who whine about history haven’t read a single book or paper in the field.

    That being said, he does bring up a fair point with the “whose accomplishments are they” discussion. A “nation” is always a constructed entity, in which people imagine they have a common past. One of the reasons Nehru hated caste so much was that it was a barrier to nation. The nation he constructed, however, projected upper caste history as everyone else’s. And that’s finally starting to change, with Dalits demanding their place in national myth and national ritual. The demand to make Teacher’s Day about the Phules is an example.

  2. Karan says

    There is also something to be said about consent. A random blogger (Kuffir) has no business condemning what was a mutual agreement between two people about telling a story. To be outraged is to make the caste-ist claim that Bant Singh was unable to make an informed decision about whom he wanted to tell his story. Agency arguments have no place when talking about things like sati or betalle seva, but in this case, they are appropriate.

    In Haider, there was no consent given by Kashmiris. In Navayana, Ambedkar did not go to Roy– or in his stead, large swathes of the Dalit community did not ask her to write the introduction. There’s a big difference.

  3. says

    Rahul Pandita, on the other hand, has not asked a privilege-blind question. Our understandings of our privileges ought to be precursors to empathetic action, not an excuse to play identity politics. So perhaps Bant Singh could not tell his story. That further necessitates the need for someone to help him out. Academics like Badri Narayan Tiwari (who has dropped his caste name) have provided invaluable contributions to Dalit Studies by collecting the stories of Dalits. The people who tell such stories know what they’re getting into. It’s a shame that they are not in positions to tell their own stories, but so long as that is the case, it makes little sense to sit idle and do nothing. Indeed, there has never been comment when westerners study Dalits. To misuse concepts like privilege to silence non-Dalit Indians would be to kill Dalit Studies in the only country in which it can grow.

    The argument is not about whether or not Savarnas be allowed to write about Dalits. It is the structures in place and within which every actions has its own consequences. When Pandita asks what’s the big deal being a Brahmin, he IS being privilege-blind. Although caste is not a choice, it is not accidental and neither are the privileges (or the lack of it) that come with it. Take for instance, the position of Dalit academics and writers in this country and compare that to Savarna writers like Pandita, or even Narayan. It is by no accident that the latter gets more space and coverage nationally, and the former doesn’t. The tragedy is not just that the Bant Singhs are not capable of narrating their own stories, it also the bitter reality that nation-wide exposure to Dalit academia and literature, i.e., the ones who are capable of telling their own stoires, is very rare. There is no harm for the privileged to accept this fact.

    And where’d he come to that well-thought-out conclusion? Does he really think the Wikipedia edits he read account to academic history? Most people who whine about history haven’t read a single book or paper in the field.

    Flippant and presumptuous! I suggest you avoid such statements here.

    A random blogger (Kuffir) has no business condemning what was a mutual agreement between two people about telling a story. To be outraged is to make the caste-ist claim that Bant Singh was unable to make an informed decision about whom he wanted to tell his story.

    “A random blogger” will also include me writing this piece. What exactly are you implying here? Also please do point out the part where Kuffir makes the abovementioned “casteist” claim. Also “a mutual agreement” would imply that Singh had the freedom to choose, or even ask, Pandita to tell his story, and so did the Dalits and their families narrating their stories to random journalists, writers, and academics (if I were to assume you had a similar argument in the earlier part of the comment). That they had the agency to do so. This directly contradicts with your immediate statement Agency arguments have no place when talking about things like sati or betalle seva And I agree with this part. Bant Singh had the same agency as women doomed to burn in their husbands’ pyre had in 19th century India, which is none. That gives Kuffir all the more right to dissect and interpret this relationship.

  4. Karan says

    I’ll say only two things given my rather long-winded initial response. I wont deal with the questions of privilege and agency given that they are always contentious. I will only say this: is it better for a privileged person to tell the story then to not have it towed it all? Yes, ideally you want people telling their own stories. You want subaltern populations in PhD positions. But in the absence of such structures, unnecessary censorship really doesn’t help. Thank goodness that Colonel Briggs wrote about the Chamars in 1920. Had he not, we would have lost pre-Sanskritization Chamar myths.

    Anyway Panditas post was pretentious because it was unnecessary. The impression I got from his post was that someone was just surprised by his caste. The person wasn’t censoring him.It did not necessitate a post. Showing how decasted he supposedly was wasn’t needed.

    For the part you took offense to. Kuffir clearly states that Indian history is mostly mythology. He does this solely based on a Wikipedia post he read. So the question is, do you believe him? Given that white men and women dominate Indian historiography (not even Brahmibs, as he claims), I would be rather surprised if it were the case that indian history is written as mythology. And it’s not. This is abundantly clear if you are familiar with the field. So it’s a ridiculous claim and deserves to be called out.

  5. Pramode says

    Karan doesn’t get one privilege is. Noone is saying savarna people don’t have a right to tell stories. But Pandita was saying so what if I’m Brahmin, I can tell story just as well as Dalit. That’s wrong and repugnant. About history comment, yes that was ill-informed but I read the blog regularly. In context of his other well-researched opinions, we can let it slide. I’m sure if pressed about it, he would say he was being a little too dramatic.

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