Demystifying Haider: Whose Tragedy is it? – A Film Review

December 24, 2014

By Mudasir Wani

As a subtle philosophical tinge that cinema is a powerful tool for political mobilization and mass persuasion, Slavoj Zizek notes beautifully that, “It doesn’t give you what you desire, it tells you how to desire.” Haider is the adaptation of Shakespeare’s famous Tragedy Hamlet; and the latest Bollywood movie about Kashmir. Question is whose tragedy is Haider? Why many people waited for Haider to release, and see the latest take of Bollywood on Kashmir?

There are two reasons why Haider had generated some curiosity among Kashmiri movie lovers: One, it was the adaptation of a play, the story and plot of which was already known to many literature lovers and Shakespeare fanes. Two, its script was co-written by Basharat Peer and directed by Vishal Bhardawaj; Peer known as pioneering English fiction writer amongst Muslims of J&K, and Vishal a successful director for adapting Othello and Macbeth as Omkara and Maqbool respectively. Basharat Peer––whose memoir Novel Curfewed Night gave him unprecedented popularity as a writer of the ‘ordeal’ of Kashmir Conflict. More than Bhardwaj’s credentials it was Basharat’s involvement in the script writing that many envisaged a change in the routine Bollywood rhetoric.

Haider is a typical Bollywood feature film, no different from: Gangster, Saheb, Biwi Aur Gangster Returns or Gangs of Wasseypur. It doesn’t offer anything on the reality of ‘what’ is happening inside (or with) Kashmir. Rather, it makes a serious attempt to showcase how a real struggle can be reduced to a family feud under the garb of (mis-informed) adaptation of a Shakespearean classic. In the midst of its mis-informed adaptation it lets the Zizekian tinge (of how to desire) creep in. Film adaption as a derivative work needs to be creative so that the “thin red lines” between the original and its adaptation are respected. An adaptation needs to take care of the background, which forms its foundation–––more so when the background is highly political and sensitive setting like Kashmir. In a new backdrop and setting it needs to take note of minute details such as culture, historicity, contemporariness, traditions, dialect and so on. The question is how far has Haider been successful in adaptation of Hamlet in a highly political backdrop of Kashmir? Is the attempt artistic or political? If it is political, whose politics does its serve? And why do we need to ask these questions at all?

Some Kashmiri friends feel highly obliged that Haider has depicted some fractions of conflict. In a Kafila blog, Suhas Munshi writes that “for faithfully adapting the violence done to Kashmiris,” Basharat would have to “script a pornographic narrative for screen.” The point is not whether Haider succeeds or fails in faithfully portraying the victimhood of Kashmiris from all angles of conflict (structural, political, torture-al etc). This can be a one vantage point to see how far Haider has successfully been able to portray the ordeal of Kashmir that falls within the limits of its frame. And how Basharat ventured to associate the limited frame that forms Haider with its outside–––the power relation(s) that are so central to the familial relations of Haider’s characters and yet so distant (and mysteriously absent) from its frame. For the relations between Haider (Shahid) and his uncle Khurram (K. K. Menon), Arshia (Sharddaa Kapoor) and her father Pervez lone (Lalit Parimoo) are not mere personal relations. They have a deep political nature, which Haider has not endeavored to look into. The invisible hand of sovereign amidst these relations is absent in the frames of Haider. Instead the film attempts to cut a slice from these deeply political relations and present it to the audience in an altogether different avatar–––an avatar which reduces a struggle for aspirations and a fundamental right (Right to Self-determination) to a revenge saga.

This avatar of misrepresentation becomes clear when a police officer delivers statements about plebiscite and demilitarization and those fighting for political rights are delivering dialogues of revenge. It is downplaying the deep political nature that informs the relations of Haider, which makes it another sequel of Bollywood’s melodrama on Kashmir–––and this time a Kashmiri’s pen is involved in its creation.

The naivety of people can be imagined by the fact that they feel content at the depiction of few reality resembling shots. Some reviewers and commentators argue that the depiction of torture and crackdowns helps in spreading awareness about the brutalities Kashmiri people have faced. Art has never been that naïve. It has an underside, which forms the being of its existence–– a being in which the brutalities of torture are balanced with the humanitarian language of Indian soldiers; a being in which Haider’s only call about UN resolutions is a call by a lone lunatic and so on.

The passing of electric current through the genitals of a bachelor victim to make him impotent is used to portray torture as a means of retributive justice for a bomb blast, which had killed several children. Torture here is not depicted as a form of oppression, but as something justifying the torture-al actions of army in Kashmir. In Haider, the integrative role of Basharat Peer is involved to erect this artistic underside, and this gives Indian mainstream cinema its much-needed ticket to accomplish states stratagem in an apparently soft and indigenous way.

A common Kashmiri watches the movie, she associates with the screen and canvass as an insider. For her the meaning of words like crackdown, encounter, parading are not merely words; she has a lived experience of these utterances. “Torture” and “Interrogation” is one and the same thing–––it is what army and police do with impunity, no matter how you call it “what is in the name”. For an outsider or a non-resident Kashmiri these words carry a detached dictionary meaning.

By arguing that it is a Bollywood movie and one cannot expect more than this much from them. Does it absolve Peer of collaborating in this venture of parody over Kashmir? One needs to shun the balance sheet kind of mentality: were one argues that it has both good and bad sides in it; it has merits and demerits; it has advantages and disadvantages. If we extend this logic of good and bad, then everything has good and bad sides to it; e.g. military occupation, violence etc. it is not to weigh the good and bad sides, the point of interest should be what it stands for and what kind of narrative it is promoting and carrying in it.

The dispute in Kashmir is not a political question but a law and order situation; it not that Kashmiris are resisting an occupation but they are fighting a fratricidal war amongst themselves; they are infuriated at India and are provoked and abetted by ‘across border’(Pakistan). That is where the Indian state wants Kashmir political discourse to boil down. Once it properly lands in this discussion terrain, India has expertise and maneuvers to counter it within several framework such as ‘war on terror’ and securitization norms.

Army in the movie is depicted as reasonable men in uniform; cool and composed, who are approachable and hospitable; like in the way they are portrayed and projected by Sadbhavana – operation Goodwill campaign; or in the way hoardings of Jawan aur Awam, Aman hai Maqam present them. The dialogues chosen for military and state police are written with utmost care, to give an impression that as if army is one of the disciplined and reasonable persuasive peacekeeping forces in the world. They are in fact ‘disciplined’: it is the discipline of war, killings, torturing; they are disciplined to carry orders and not to question the officer, to commit rapes and heinous crimes; they are disciplined as highly nationalist and chauvinist force. Their acts in the movie are shown as acts of retaliation, and not offensive ones. The choice of shots is such as if they are not armed men and coercive forces of a state; but they are diplomats and argumentative agents of state.

This word ‘argumentative’ reminds me of the title of Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen’s book The Argumentative Indian, and the image that appears in my mind is of Times Now, Arnab Goswami and Praveen Swami – argumentative Indians (pun intended). And Subramanian Swamy completes this argumentative club; they make a perfect case for Three Idiots, Three Musketeer’s or Swami and his Friends. What brings Haider to share the stage with Arnab, Praveen and Subramanian (all Swami’s) is the information about finest details of any events in Kashmir, and the twist in the argument. If by stating some factual realities Praveen Swami’s articles on Kashmir are authentic and reliable; and Arnab’s invective newsroom discussions on Kashmir are ingenuous because they furnish minutest details, names and exact locations etc. so is Haider movie; because it too shows some parts of a living conflict. The real test of sincerity of any writing or a video, depicting the actual events is not the quantity of factual details it has; but what it makes these real facts subservient to.

Army after a point disappears from the screen, by portraying them in same way as Indian media, intellectual circles and discussion rooms in New Delhi show them: as one’s who are performing a duty to ward off miscreants (militants and terrorists) from local people. It is locals who identify the militants and army is acting to flush them out in most humane manner. This has boosted Indian conservative civil society; they are shouting about it and call it as a sign of vibrancy of Indian democracy: that bestows so much freedom and liberty of thought and expression. ‘We are great, we allow dissent’, is the outlook of some intellectuals.

On one side utmost care is taken that actors playing role of Kashmiris speak with Kashmiri accent; and simultaneously one is astounded to see that army men too are speaking Hindi with Kashmiri accent, this hyperrealism is beyond comprehension. Haider tries to invoke human side of army men by totally neglecting and turning blind eye towards the political side of army i.e., as an occupational force. He has made trial of Kashmir subservient to a humanitarian discourse, to a lone lunatic, to the disciplined army and so on. It tries to show the same framework, as Arif Ayaz Parray describes; soldier is “trapped in a thankless job” on ground; where “the original patriotism in him [soldier] is replaced by a feeling of solidarity and brotherhood for his fellow soldiers who like him are instruments and victims in equal measure.” [1] This residential comradeship of men in uniform gets manifested when in the encounter army commander says, “no bloody militant dead or alive is worth my soldier’s life.”

Armed Ikhwanis’ v/s Literary Ikhwanis’: Nabed or Ikhwanis are the renegades from the cadres of militants and they joined Indian army as collaborators. Army provided them with space, weapons and state backing. These Nabed and Ikhwani’s knew militancy very well; they knew how it operated and functioned, about the militant hideouts and locations where they lived and how they scheduled their movements. These Nabed were the most effective and potent force of renegades to dismantle and dislodge the militancy and its bases.

Similarly, there are writer and intellectuals, who are Kashmiri’s and know Kashmir better than many others. The kinds of works they are producing have a narrative which is alien to the Kashmir in essence. The texture of arguments is similar to Kashmir, it reflects some colors of local, but it is subservient to a meta-narrative of Indian state. These literary Nabed are able to distort narratives and impact through subtle ways upon the young intellectual minds. They are breeding a new class of intellectuals, who then are new weaponry of state to breakdown resistance. These literary Ikhwani’s have similar agenda to weaken the resistance movement; armed Ikhwani’s eliminated men out of existence, while literary ones vitiate the minds and obfuscate the narratives and reality. They had gun and bullets, they have pen and laptops. They had bosses ordering ‘catch them by balls’ and shoot them point blank. They have bosses ordering ‘make their hearts and minds follow’ and give them a hope and then confuse them. These literary Ikhwani’s are only a part of larger band of intelligentsia Nabedis, who are made to work round the corner and round the clock against their own people. The battlefields have changed: yesterday the men on front were gun-wielding Ikhwanis and today it is a bunch of pen-wielding Ikhwanis. The former were bound by the territorial limits of Kashmir while the latter are free to act from any terrain: Bollywood, Europe, USA or any ghetto. The strategy is to hit at minds, not bodies.

A class of yuppie revolutionaries in Kashmir has often projected those qualifying and joining civil services as collaborators of Indian state. A serious question arises about the limits of defining a ‘collaborator’. How is Basharat’s assertion that “within the limits of Bollywood, we pushed things as far as we could”, different from a young middle class civil servant who tries to “push things as far as he could”––while helping a half-widow, an incarcerated son’s father and so on––within the limited capacity of his office. To push the argument of collaboration a bit further: isn’t the Machiavellian Mufti’s vacuous call for “self-rule” or the Abdullah family’s call for “autonomy”, or even a Kashmiri politicians vibrant speech on Kashmir in Indian parliament or J&K assembly an effort on part of them to push things as far as they can within the limits of Indian Constitution. What is the demarcation line with these hippy revolutionaries to differentiate between one career choice of joining civil services as collaboration and other of making Bollywood movie as resistance writer?

There are some Kashmiri who feel elated about the portrayal of torture in ‘MAMA 2’ – camouflaged name of ‘PAPA 2’ – as radical cinematography. There are hundreds of Bollywood movies which show brutality of torture in police stations or violence and fake encounters by police pointing towards corruption in law implementing agency. So how come a torture shot in Haider is a radical break in cinema and a disturbing scene for people (Indians). Making detainees to shout jai hind, is a deliberate choice to show secular credentials of army, while as the fact is that the slogan have been communal, like bharat mata ki jai and vande mataram, which are symbolic of Hindutva ideology.

The feminist scholars who write on Kashmir have elaborately argued about the role of Kashmiri women in the resistance movement. Women have helped and supported the armed resistance, if they have not fought shoulder to shoulder as combatants with men folk, but they have equally strived within their capacities. Women have suffered in the conflict more than men; be it the violence of trauma, violence of rapes by army and curbs on the freedom due to military occupation. The loss of dear ones, living as half widows and widows etc. by these women is not a doubtful reality, but this movies is presenting the story of women what Parallel Post has described as; “While Half Widows need to be understood both through humanitarian and political prism, the idea of a pro-Indian half widow with shades of grey, in love with her brother-in-law, and obsessed (sexually, as the film suggests) with her son, is perhaps an “appalling” representation that threatens to hijack the narrative of such women.” The tune of movie is to portray Kashmiris’ anti-militancy in general and women in particular. Simultaneously, old man in the movie who is Haider’s grand- father, representing a generation of wise and old men argues as if resistance movement is about the revenge. There is an attack on the spirit of militancy, and expediency of armed means of struggle; is militancy for the personal revenge or for a political assertion? These are quite controversial representations.

The people of Kashmir have not taken up arms out of revenge; militancy is not the product of personal animosities, and disliking’s and seeking of revenge from each other. But it is a means to assert their political existence. Women have not become suicide bombers – if any – out of frustration and divided sexual loyalties, not as escapists to shut their eyes from the world of loss – they have lost everything: honor, loved ones and material possessions. When Gazala [Tabu] wears a suicide vest, it is not that she was human shield used by her son (Militant Haider), but the reality is reverse it is the Indian army which has used Kashmiris as human shields in encounters. The movie is silent on ‘human shields’ actively, but passively it is pushing the image of army men as ones who barge in to the houses as brave men, and gun down the militants. Reality is different, army uses civilians as human shields, and makes them carry and plant mines in house where militants are trapped.

Novel, Movie and Revenge: Both in the movie and memoir Peer seems to be on a project of exploring ‘revenge’, the choice and naming of characters gives some hint towards it. Khurram Meer is the villain of movie by name of Claudius in the original play of Shakespeare. A sleight of hand to stereotype comes to one’s mind by this name: Khurram Parvaiz is a real person living in flesh and blood; he is a human rights activists; he is part of Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society. If names like Mama 2, Ikhwanul Mukhbireen, correspond to some real entity; does not Khurram (Meer) the villain in movie also correspond to a real figure behind it? Would it not then amount to typecast a public figure as a villainous character? Khurram Parvez is part of ‘Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society’ (JKCCS); which has championed the issue of mass graves and disappearances and published reports such as Alleged Perpetrators – Stories of Impunity in Jammu and Kashmir. The distaste associated with the name is that, he is a villain and person behind the crime of disappearance of his brother. In art this kind of characterization has a symbolic and figurative importance. It cannot be done away by writing “All characters in this movie are fictitious… and any resemblance to anyone is merely coincidental”.

Basharat has invoked a Shakespearean character Iago in his novel, who symbolizes revenge and hypocrisy? It tells about the understanding of revenge as a category in his narrative of Kashmir issue. There is a section in his book which writes about the attack on the Basharat’s father; conspired by Iago (name of person behind attack) to take revenge from his father for not obliging him. If one unravel the facts in this incident, which is not a fictitious attack, but in reality has happened. Basharat makes one to refuse to think that his father was a state official, district collector, an agent of Indian establishment; instead story is narrated in a way that as if the attack was on Basharat’s – a writer and journalist – father. Proving two points one, Basharat is victim of militancy and two, actions of militants are driven by revenge mentality and personal interests of some. This construction also fits into the overall narrative of movie as well, which shows the conflict is a civil war, family feud, personal animosity etc. it is Kashmiris who are fighting with each other, with a gang war mentality.

The only shot for which Basharat gives a guest appearance in movie is actually a short story written by Akhter Mohiuddin, named as naew bamaer [New Disease]. This plagiarism in the movie goes unnoticed without any acknowledgement. It speaks something about the structure of Basharat Peer’s book as well. The book too follows a pattern; he has given biographical anecdotes, and then goes into fill up the rest of his book by describing and presenting various conflict related stories and experiences of different people. What often many refer it as a ‘report compilation’ and not a memoir. His role is merely of a narrator of these stories subjecting them to his political taste. His role is like an RJ who adds some spice before broadcasting a song. But his craft is such that reader assumes that it is Basharat who is victim, and his presentation is to portray himself as one upon whom victimhood has been inflicted.

In his maiden ventures of script writing, author had gone through the scripts of many movies like Battle of Algiers, No man’s land and other such movies; by stating this he pushes a person to think that as if Haider too is of similar standards, while as that is not the true. Peer’s attempt to breed a semblance for Haider to such movies as if they are similar in form, content and standard is a deception. And simultaneously he tries to reserve a berth for it in such a category of movies; but the movie in no way can be compared to these classics. It cannot be contested whether he really has read the scripts of these movies before writing Haider script. Surely it is delusion, if he thinks that, by reading the scripts he has been able to write a similar one; it needs more than mere writing skills, it demands conviction and commitment to a cause.

Conclusion: Haider is a feature film and not a documentary; it should not be seen as one representing resistance movement. One of my friends said, there would never be high hopes and expectations from Bollywood, but it is shocking and disheartening to see Basharat falling in their line. Completing his sentences he added with a sigh; if a tallest and charismatic leader like Sheikh Sahab could concede to Indira-Abdullah Accord; if Shaheed Abdul Ghani Lone’s son Sajad Lone could contest election for Indian parliament. Basharat Peer has no standing by those standards; he is son of a bureaucrat; who has slapped and signed hundreds of PSA (Public Safety Acts) on innocent Kashmiris. He is part of same caucus represented by engineer Rashid (Awami Itehad Party), Junaid Mattoo (current National Conference) spokesperson, who have by now charted a path to ‘achievable’ power; they run with the hare and hunt with the hounds.

This movie is an attempt to impregnate the minds of Kashmiris (even those Kashmiris who have not lived in Kashmir since 1990s) and others with the ideas that the ongoing conflict is the making and breaking news of local fighting with each other. This pseudo narrative is manufactured to imprison any free thinking mind, and to bail her out of this captivity will take a huge investment of intellect and time.
It is not to judge a career. Mask of resistance writing cannot be wielded to evade a discussion what is beneath the mask. Peer is an ordinary writer who can write a good script to earn his livelihood. The tragedy is in the choice; Bollywood script writer or a resistance writer. And unfortunate for a Kashmiri who aptly recites Ghalib’s couplet; “chalta hooN thoDee door har ik tez rau ke saath; pehchaanta naheeN hooN abhee raahabar ko maiN” He can write a story that can be sold in market; not a story that demands conviction and commitment for a cause. Unfortunately he is writing about Kashmir, about which Bollywood has dearth of script writer, they have a naïve understanding of Kashmir and lack an insider’s nuanced thinking. He has made a well time entry in the industry. Thanks to Army!! They saved our fellows Kashmiris in September floods; Barkha and Bhasharat told us so, Barkha began her show with this statement and Basharat ended his movie with same statement!


[1] Kashmir: three metaphors for the present by Arif Ayaz Parrey. Economic and Political Weekly, November 20, 2010. Vol XLV no. 47

(The writer has done Masters in Political Science from CPS, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and is currently a Research Scholar at same university. He can be reached at