In the ’90s, people disappeared in Kashmir all the time. They left in their wake distraught family members and unresolved questions. At one point in Basharat Peer’s memoir, Curfewed Night, one of the two literary sources for Haider, we learn what happened to the ones that went missing. Peer writes about “Papa-2”, a jail that functioned with the severity of a concentration camp, where the Indian army dumped the suspect Kashmiri insurgents, and grilled them with relentless inhumanity. Questions were constantly hurled at the suspects, and when their answers failed them, their body parts — fingernails, penises — were infiltrated with electric copper wires, rendering them emotionally and physically scarred, if not dead. A similar scene resurfaces in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider. But the only difference is, the jail in the film is called “Mama 2”. It’s possibly the only instance in this film where non-fiction is not wholly real.
For an Indian who grew up in Bihar in the ’90s, my perception of the conflict in Kashmir, buoyed by roseate mainstream media commentary, was quite parochial. For me, then, there were only two kinds of people: good or bad; army personnel or terrorists; Indians or Pakistanis. People lived on either this side or that; no one wasted their lives being stranded. Which is why Curfewed Night is an important book, and consequently, Haider an important film, because it attempts to break free of labels we often confer on people. Scenes from Curfewed Night come alive on screen with unflinching ferocity and honesty — the word “frisked” is used in Peer’s book a lot, and Haider shows us why: there are several scenes in the film, where Kashmiris are subjected to continual official checks/molestation (read: “frisking”); they are also frequently demanded to show their passports, reducing them to people who are perennially begging for identities — strangers in a strange land or, quite possibly, in no man’s land. In a country where patriotism is so often mistaken for jingoism, Haider raises some important issues: the real import of the word “aazadi”; the moral conundrum of teenagers who are just a step away from losing their childhood, if not their lives; the addiction of violence.
You might wonder what role does the iconic Shakespearian drama Hamlet, the other source text for Haider, play in a film centered on the conflict-ridden Kashmir? The answer comes in a scene right before the interval, where Bhardwaj switches hats: from being a quasi-journalist to a creative filmmaker. I will spare you the details, but for one fact: Irrfan Khan appears on screen and introduces himself to Arshia (Haider’s girlfriend) as a “Doctor ka rooh (Haider’s father’s soul)”, who has a message for Haider. And with ingenious economy, Haider becomes Hamlet.
Haider is one of the more ambitious Shakespeare adaptations by Bhardwaj because, here, he’s saddled himself the responsibility of conflating a play with a non-fiction account. The second half of the film is more Hamlet and less Curfewed Night. And you can find most hallmarks of good adaptations in Haider: Bhardwaj isn’t fixated on a faithful literal adaptation (which is perhaps why, unlike Hamlet, Haider doesn’t deliver soliloquies when he descends into madness); instead, the filmmaker cherry picks the references: “To be or not to be” becomes “Main rahun ki naa rahun”; the play Mousetrap in Hamlet transforms into the song Bismil, but concludes on a different note; the vital scene between Polonius and Hamlet is retained in the film with the same end, but via different means. It’s quite evident that Bhardwaj is gleefully toying with Hamlet and, after a point, the film transforms into some kind of a spot-the-reference game. However, Bhardwaj could have abstained from spelling out the relationship between Haider (Shahid Kapoor) and his mother, Ghazala (Tabu). For the most part, their relationship materializes with a unique mix of tenderness and hostility, and we could have connected the dots ourselves. It’s an especially puzzling stylistic choice (Haider revealing his feelings for Ghazala) since Bhardwaj is known for teasing his audience: intentionally leaving some of the plot points hanging mid-air, leaving us unsure what to make of them.
As Haider becomes increasingly faithful towards Hamlet, it lets go of some of the poignant motifs of Curfewed Night. Sure, the questions about separationist movements in Kashmir are still strewn around, but they are not treated with the same urgency as they are in the film’s first half. The focus of Haider shifts considerably post-interval — and keeps shifting — to the point where the film transforms from the story of a wounded state (and its denizens) to the story of a broken family. As a result, the intimacy with which we interact with the film — both pre- and post-interval — changes. Ironically, I found the film to be a lot more personal when it told the panoramic story of Kashmir through its characters than when it zoomed into the pathos of Haider’s family. It is to Bhardwaj’s credit that Haider in either form — whether drawing from Curfewed Night or adapting Hamlet — is consistently engaging and immensely enjoyable, but this film could have been a more laudable achievement if it could have figured out a way to seamlessly blend Hamlet’s ornate melodrama with Curfewed Night’s unflinching journalism. Some of us do turn to movies to find the real in the reel. Because when life flings uncomfortable questions, there are no refugees, only captives.
An edited version of this review was published at The Sunday Guardian.