By Manas Sen Gupta:
The talent of Vishal Bhardwaj is neither supererogatory, nor lilliputian. Being the only director in Bollywood, who has the ability to both man the camera, and play with notes (he is also a composer, in case you did not know), Vishal Bhardwaj deserves all the adulation he receives for his poetic filmmaking style. He is justifiably admired for his craftsman-like ability, to transform an anachronistic Shakespearean tragedy, into a critically acclaimed cinematic fare. It is, therefore, no surprise that his latest, Haider, is being hailed by critics, and moviegoers alike, and is being feted as a masterpiece, that unfailingly presents a contemporary take on one of the most evocative dramas of the Bard of Avon — Hamlet.
But, just like Hamlet, Vishal Bhardwaj too, while making this film, was perhaps encountering the dizzying dilemma of the ‘Prince of Tragedy’ himself. Why would he otherwise set his characters in a background more complex than any other in the current Indian political scenario? Would it not have been better, if those very characters were set in a more identifiable, and comprehensible setting, such as the corporate world, or a political family? Why did Bhardwaj pick Kashmir, of all the places? And even if he did pick one of the world’s most politically sensitive regions, why did he choose to show only one side of the story?
At the time of writing this piece, Pakistan were busy launching mortars deep into the Indian territory in Kashmir, destroying homes and killing many, forcing the Indian army to retaliate. A few days before Haider’s release, Kashmir faced the most devastating natural disaster in its history, when floods took away more than 250 lives, and left many others homeless, for a prolonged period of time. The Indian armed forces intervened, saving many lives in the process. In both the cases — the shelling and the floods — it was the Indian Armed Forces that everyone turned to for help, and help they did. I do not think there is any need to eulogise, or emphasize the dauntlessness and abnegation of the soldiers of the Indian Armed Forces, who are ever ready to go beyond their powers to ensure the safety of the people in the valley. People who believe in the spirit of India’s armed forces know of their valour.
But into the first few minutes of Bhardwaj’s Haider, I felt that the Indian Army was being depicted as one of history’s vilest armies; a chilling sensation ran down my spine when I realised that the soldiers were sketched to resemble the troops of Nazi Germany in their conduct, and that the condition of Kashmiris were being equated to that of the Jews under Hitler’s reign. Perhaps it was only me who had such a feeling. Maybe I drew an inference too deep. Or maybe, Vishal Bhardwaj wanted us to see the political problem of Kashmir in the way he sees it.
Indeed, the situation in Kashmir is far from rosy; in fact, in the early ’90s — the period where the film is set — it was as rotten as the State of Denmark was, in Hamlet. But the volatile political situation in Kashmir was not a result of the presence of Indian Armed Forces, as you might deduce after watching Haider, but because of militancy. The Indian army was not the one that invaded Kashmir in the first place — it was Pakistan, in 1947. The Indian army did not throw out thousands of Kashmiri pandits from their ancestral homes — it was the militants, supported by certain local fundamentalist groups.
Haider would, however, make you believe that whatever is wrong in Kashmir is because of the constant presence of the Indian Armed Forces, backed by a ‘diabolical’ law known as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). The dialogues in the film have been carefully penned, so as not to deliberately offend the sensibilities of Indians, but the euphemism in every scene, and in every word, will not be lost on the discerning mind of a viewer. You will be visibly moved by the emotional scenes, where the characters are looking helplessly for their loved ones — picked up by the army, and cast in the list of ‘disappeared’.
In one scene, Kulbhushan Kharbanda’s character makes an allusive reference to Mahatma Gandhi, when telling a radical-thinking man, that ‘azadi’ cannot be won by the means of violence, but by peaceful methods. Gandhi fought the British Empire; so, is Bhardwaj comparing the Indian army to the British? The film also inanely remarks on the plebiscite, promised by Jawaharlal Nehru, and how “when two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled” — pointing at both India and Pakistan. Films containing dialogues that comment on serious political issues in a myopic manner, lend to the inception of a contorted discourse.
No referendum is possible in Kashmir, in the current circumstances, because of religious, ethnic and nationalistic reasons. If a plebiscite is granted now, there is no guarantee that the separatists of Kashmir will not inveigle the gullible people to side with Pakistan. That would be disastrous for India, not only politically, but symbolically as well, for it would mean that the sacrifices of the soldiers we lost over Kashmir, were for nought. Siding with the neighbour, would upset the action of Kashmir’s former ruler, Maharaja Hari Singh, who, under his legitimate authority, decided to side with India, when Pakistan invaded Kashmir in 1947.
It is true, that Maharaja Hari Singh did not choose to accede to either India or Pakistan, at the time of partition. Both India and Pakistan were requested not to interfere with the administrative arrangements of J&K, and both agreed. Pakistan, however, betrayed and began infiltrating Kashmir, in late 1947, forcing Hari Singh to sign the Instrument of Accession with India, so that the Indian army could legally enter the region, to protect his people. What followed was a standoff that continues to this day.
It was, however, not war that created this troubled situation in the Valley; it was militancy, which peaked in the ’90s. It is because of militancy — which somehow, drew sections of the local populace to it — that the entire state is now under such a strict law. The AFSPA, imposed on Kashmir on July 5, 1990, is harsh, perhaps beyond measure, but its removal might mark the return of militancy of the late ’80s and ’90s. Of course, living under the shadow of the gun is not something anyone in any part of the world would want. This is not only torturous but, to an extent, undemocratic. I strongly believe that the people of Kashmir should have the same rights and freedom, as anyone else in any other part of India has. But, eminent people, such as Vishal Bhardwaj, and liberal intellectuals must understand, that the Indian Armed Forces are there to defend and maintain the security of a land over which four wars have been fought.
In one of the first scenes of the film, a terrorist is shown offering Namaz just before the soldiers blow his hideout. In another, a senior Kashmiri police official carries out a fake encounter. Such scenes would only strengthen the voices of separatists, who were silent when innocent Kashmiris were being gunned down by militants. In fact, the depiction of the Indian army in Haider will strengthen the anti-Indian forces in Pakistan, and all the fundamentalists in that country, who are always looking for excuses to convert impressionable minds to their satanic understanding of ‘Jihad’.
Haider tells us about the current situation in the Valley, but obfuscates many truths. The film points to the problem, but does not tell us why the problem arose in the first place, and neither does it offer any solution. In a world where an act of nationalism is dabbed with religious colours, and secularism is a political tool of exploitation, an apocryphal Haider is more confused than Hamlet was, in the Bard’s eponymous drama.