Tuesday 21 April 2015

Haider (Review)

 - A masked man sits behind the wheel of a vehicle, while soldiers parade the residents of a village before him one by one. If he motions them on with his head, they live. If he blows the horn, they are arrested, tortured, and then summarily executed when no further information can be squeezed out of them.

- An old man’s son is missing, presumably arrested by the army. A human rights lawyer advises him to get a false criminal case lodged against his son with the police. The logic of this is that once the case goes to law, the police will have to get the custody of the young man from the army and produce him in court. Once he’s in the legal system, he might be locked up for years for something he hasn’t done, but at least he won’t be killed and a bounty claimed for eliminating a terrorist.

- A man stands outside the door to his own house, unable to make himself enter, despite the pleas of his wife, until someone with an authoritative voice demands to see his papers, pretends to frisk him, and gives him permission. He’s just too used to being searched and ordered around at every step to do anything at all of his own volition.  

- Outside an army camp, women gather in large numbers, holding placards identifying themselves as “half widows”, because they have no idea what happened to their husbands who have been “disappeared”, whether they are dead or alive. And while smooth-talking military officers assure the media that the army doesn’t torture prisoners, in the depths of the detention camps suspected militants are beaten, given electric shocks, or castrated, all in the name of “fighting terrorism.” It doesn’t matter what’s done to them since in any case none of them will be released alive again.

Welcome to Kashmir in the mid-1990s, where the wind blows through the wintry landscape, and everything is fog shrouded and grey; where the only colour is the green-brown of army uniforms and the red of blood on the snow. Welcome to Kashmir in the mid-90s, when India turned much of the state into a gigantic prison camp rather than let it go. Welcome to Kashmir in the mid-90s, when the indigenous Kashmiri rebellion had not yet been crushed to pieces and supplanted by a far more dangerous jihadist incursion from abroad. Welcome to Kashmir in the mid-90s, when you could survive by working for the government as an informer, or join a militant group, but staying neutral was just about certain to get you killed. Welcome to Kashmir in the mid-90s, when if you get half a chance to leave the state for some other part of the country, you made damned sure not to come back.

That’s the setting for one of the best films produced by Bollywood in recent years, Haider. It came out about six months ago, which makes it just about the right time for me to finally get around to viewing it. It’s also one of the better films I’ve watched in a while.

Let me tell you something about Bollywood before I go further: it’s changed one heck of a lot from the films of the 1960s to early 90s, which invariably stuck to a formula; there was the (pure, good) hero, the (pure, good) heroine, whose families often had a feud; the hero had a widowed mother, the heroine had an (evil, villainous) suitor, and there was a cringe-inducing comic duo. The hero and heroine weren’t allowed to kiss, let alone sleep together. They would however sing perfectly while dancing around trees with a choreographed set of background dancers mysteriously appearing from nowhere. The climax of the film would be a huge fight between the hero and a phalanx of villains led by the main villain, in which the hero would “bash them all up”. At the very end, a line of police vehicles would turn up, with the hero’s widowed mum in the lead jeep along with the girlfriend. The hero would drag the pulped main villain to the mum and throw him at her feet to beg forgiveness for his misdeeds.

I’m not kidding you – just about every film was based around this story. And each of them was something like three and a half hours long, because, as someone told me once, “English” films were only an hour and a half long, but Bollywood gave value for your money.

If, that is, being bored out of your mind in between bouts of having your intelligence insulted counts as being given “value for money”.

But that was then. India moved on in the last twenty years, and Bollywood had to adapt. People’s attention spans shortened, and nobody had the patience to sit through two-hundred minute-long snorefests. So the films cut themselves short, too, to two hours or less, and were much the better for it. Socially, too, things changed. Virginity ceased being something Indians cared about, so Bollywood began showing – at long last – premarital sex and relatively normal behaviour between young couples. The Evil Villain virtually disappeared, as did the Pure Hero; if there were heroes and villains at all, they were examples of what the website TV Tropes and Idioms calls “Gray and Grey Morality”. And instead of the one-size-fits-all stereotyped plot of all the old films, producers and directors finally actually began to experiment. Of course, the results of these experiments were mixed – and I’ve mocked several of them unmercifully on this blog – but some of them succeeded beyond all expectations.

One of them is this flick, Haider. It is, actually, a “remake” of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and one of the best adaptations of the play I’ve seen. Actually, I’ll make a confession right at this point: I don’t think much of Hamlet. I found the original play far too melodramatic. Give me Macbeth any day; I love that play to pieces. But if you’re going to adapt Hamlet at all, you could certainly do worse than Haider. Much, much worse.  

If you don't know anything about  Hamlet, I'm going to be kind and leave a link to the play here.

Alas, poor Kashmir. I knew her, Horatio. A land of infinite wonder, of most excellent beauty; she hath borne me on her bosom; and, now, how drowned in blood and misery she is! 

The Kashmir insurgency is a personal favourite topic of mine. It was something which I saw develop right from the start; I was eighteen years old when the armed rebellion broke out, and young men began ludicrously sending letters signed in their own blood to the government of the day pledging to give their lives for the nation. I can assure you that not one single one of those whom I saw sign such letters actually ever joined up; any action which would have resulted in real bullets being fired at them, of course, was something they’d never countenance. But writing blood letters made for great theatre – very much Bollywood, in fact.

Meanwhile the dirty war in Kashmir went on and on and on, and still sputters on to this day. I’m not going to write a history of it here; I have written a novel on the subject, which may or may not see the light of print at some point in the hypothetical future. Instead, I’ll just say that it wasn’t just Kashmiri versus “Indian”; it was Kashmiri versus Kashmiri and Indian, because a fair number of Kashmiris fought for the Indian side. Among them were bands of former rebels who changed sides and turned their guns on their former colleagues, often with greater success than the conventional armed forces had. [The movie calls one of these groups Ikhwan ul-Mukhbireen, a somewhat ludicrous name translating to Stool Pigeon Force.]

So. We begin with a militant group leader with acute appendicitis, whom King Hamlet...um, Dr Hilaal Meer...takes secretly to his home for emergency surgery. Meer isn’t a supporter of the insurgency; he just wants to save lives. His wife, Ghazala (Gertrude) isn’t happy about this but can’t do anything to change his mind. Very early the next morning, the army raids the village, and the aforesaid masked man in the jeep fingers Meer as part of the insurgency. He’s arrested and dragged away, his house blown up with rockets, and the insurgents holed up inside (including the appendicitis victim) killed. His wife, now homeless, has no option but to take up residence with his brother, Khurram. Can you guess where this is leading?

Only if you’ve read Hamlet.

Meanwhile, Hilaal and Ghazala’s son, Haider (do I really have to point out that he’s Hamlet?) had been sent away to university in the plains, where there’s no daily curfew and people aren’t stopped and searched at every corner or shot on the slightest provocation. Hearing of his father’s arrest, he goes back to Kashmir by bus, only to be stopped and arrested at the first checkpoint after smart-mouthing a sentry when insulted once too many times. He gets off pretty lightly, though, because Ophelia...oops, Arshia...who’s a journalist and the daughter of a senior police officer (Parvez, alias Polonius) comes and springs him. She tells him that his house is destroyed and his mum living with his dad’s brother. A run-in with Arshia’s brother Liyaqat (Laertes) later, he finds his mum singing and dancing with his uncle and apparently perfectly happy. Running away, he again is about to get picked up by the army when rescued by two old friends of his, both called Salman (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern). Salman and Salman are police informers, and Pervez ordered them to find and save Haider, though of course Haider himself doesn’t know this.

From that point on the film follows the plot of the play fairly closely, though of course it’s been thoroughly adapted to Kashmiri circumstances of the time. Haider searches fruitlessly for his father, though his efforts are seemingly doomed to failure, until a stranger, a militant leader called Roohdar (played by Bollywood great Irrfan Khan) arranges a meeting with him. Roohdar reveals that he had been in prison with Hilaal, and that it was Khurram who had arranged for the doctor’s arrest so he could marry Ghazala. Hilaal and Roohdar had later been shot by Ikhwan ul-Mukhbireen men and dumped off a bridge, though Roohdar was rescued; he knows where Hilaal is buried. He tells Haider that his father left him a message: he should take revenge on Khurram by shooting him through his treacherous eyes.

Meanwhile, of course, Khurram has married Ghazala. Haider, in order to discover if he’s really guilty, puts on a show for them. Only instead of a play, he sings for them, and Khurram’s reaction assures him that Roohdar was correct. He’s unable to bring himself to murder Khurram while he’s praying for the exact same reason as Hamlet couldn’t kill Claudius; he doesn’t want the villain to go to heaven direct from prayer. But he’s captured before he can escape, and Parvez orders Salman and Salman to bump him off. Instead, of course, Haider kills the duo, and in a confrontation with Ghazala also kills Parvez by accident. And you know what happens to Arshia if you’re familiar with Hamlet, the play, at all.

I’m not going to say what happens in the rest of the film just in case you want to watch it, but there’s really no such thing as a spoiler in a film based on a Shakespeare play unless it wants to stop being a film based on a Shakespeare play. The last bit could have done with a bit less melodrama, but by Bollywood standards it could have been much worse.

This being India, of course, there were immediate protests that the film was “maligning” the army. My own college alumni group rang with demands to boycott the film. This is the same college alumni group which attempted to pass off a photo of Chinese soldiers forming a living bridge for civilians in 2007 as one depicting Indian troops in Kashmir in 2014, so I didn’t exactly think much of these demands. But the protests were enough to force the filmmakers to include a disclaimer at the end extolling the Indian army and saying that all events in the film were fictional.

Fictional? The interrogation centre where the prisoners were brutally beaten was called Mama 2. In real life, as a read through any book on the Kashmir insurgency will tell you, said centre really existed and its name was...Papa 2.

Something is rotten in the state of Kashmir, even if they don’t want to say so.


  1. Makes me want to see it. I wonder if it will become available online. Great review.

  2. Available in the US on YouTube.


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