Haider: A Tale of a Time, a Tale of Timelessness

Prakash Subedi

Can a movie ever do justice to a classic work of literature? This is a perennial question asked every time a great literary work is turned into a movie, and the usual answer is a frank “no”. After watching Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider, a modern-day adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet however, I realized, this is not the right question to ask. The real question, rather, is how well the movie interprets the literary text, and how it uses the classical text to raise contemporary issues and interrogate contemporary “reality”.

Set in Kashmir in the mid-1990s, the movie closely retells the great Shakespearean tale but also brings out the stories of thousands of innocent people caught in the border war between India and Pakistan in Kashmir. Even as the movie stays fairly close to the classical Shakespearean story, it does not shy away from introducing interesting changes to the original plot. The story unfolds at three levels. On the outer most circle, there is the story of the people of Kashmir who have lost almost everything in their quest for freedom and democracy. Go one layer in, and you find the story of two ill-fated families caught up in the mess this macrocosmic struggle has created in their personal lives. And, at the center of everything, lies the universal story that delves deep into the psychology of the individual, most importantly the complicated parent-child relationship made famous by Sigmund Freud with the term oedipal complex.

Besides its highly convincing adaptation, breath-taking cinematography and ingenious screenplay, Haider‘s strength lies in the performance of its brilliant caste. Sahid Kapoor shines in his title role as Haider, and has convincingly delivered the confused, complicated, philosophical Hamlet which is considered by all the greatest actors as one of the most challenging roles to enact. This is undoubtedly one of the best characters Sahid has done in his entire career. Tabbu, as Haider’s mother Gazala (Gertrude), once more brings out the seasoned actress that lies within her. Kay Kay Menon who playsthe cunning Khurram (King Claudious) and Shraddha Kapoor as innocent Arshi (Ophelia) also deliver their parts well. Even Irfan Khan’s special appearance as Roohdar, which is an addition to Shakespeare’s original caste, does not fail to leave a mark through his hallmark effortless acting.

The major story line has been kept intact, the major events and dialogues have been retained, yet the movie doesn’t fail to depart from its original and provide its own interpretation at times, most conspicuously in its ending. The original story ends with Hamlet avenging his dead father by killing his uncle, whereas, in Haider, the protagonist ultimately realizes that intakaam (revenge)only breeds intakaam, and hence is no solution to violence. So, he disappears into the wilderness leaving Khurrambehind pleading to be killed, so that hisagonizing guilt would come to an end. May be this is the one and only point in the whole movie where the director overrides the story and the character development in the original to deliver his “message”.

Harold Bloom talks about the sense of belatedness experienced by new writers as they realize whatever they wanted to write about has already been written by the old fathers, the writers of the distant past. And, the only way to challenge this oedipal relation, Bloom explains, is through rewriting the stories written by the “father” writers in newer and innovative ways. There is nothing new under the sun, they say, but there always are newer ways of doing the same thing, or telling the same stories. Thus, while Haider’s ending can seem to depart radically from Hamlet to deliver a message of pacifism, a message many artists are expected to take to heart and deliver in this war-ridden world, one could also read this ending less innocently.

In keeping with the Freudian interpretation of the film, since the uncle has done what Hamlet (or any other son) has always wanted to do, i.e., kill his father and marry his mother, he serves as a surrogate for Hamlet. The uncle, in this sense, acts as Hamlet’s alter-ego and not his nemesis. Killing him would therefore be a form of suicide for Hamlet. In this sense, the ending of the film can be read as an act of self-interest rather than renunciation, complicating what may initially be read as its non-violent politics. Perhaps sending vengeance into temporary suspension is more necessary the survival of Haider’s ego than concluding it, thus eliminating the conflict that he can barely tolerate, but also his own self.

A close reader of Shakespeare will definitely find few scenes melodramatic and the beautifully choreographed dance sequences completely out of place. Even the translation of probably the most famous line from one of Shakespeare’s plays, “to be or not to be” as “meinhunkimeinnahi” (am I or am I not) might appear as overly dramatic. But in the Bollywood market, where the recent blockbusters have been movies like Singham Returns,Kick, Bang Bang, or probably the upcoming Happy New Year, one ought to tolerate at least this much of digression. Moreover, it’s also interesting to see a movie that questions the role of the state in the cases of civilian disappearance and human rights abuse not facing much trouble with Indian Censor Board. Haider definitely deserves praise for its boldness in treating an otherwise overly sensitive issue in an industry that depends on its commercial success either on cheesy romantic love stories (which is mocked through a repeated showcasing of scenes from Salman Khan movies) or on “patriotic” movies like Gadarwhich cash on anti-Pakistani sentiment. For the lovers of regular Indian mainstream movies, Haider might come as a long and little slow paced drama that tests your patience at times, especially in the second half. But I don’t know if there is any other way to do justice to a classic work like Hamlet, if someone is still concerned about justice.

Haider, ultimately, is a film which proves that you can still raise social, political or psychological issues and deliver your ‘message’, without compromising your artistic accomplishments. It also is a film which confirms that there is no end to imagination, innovation, creativity and experimentation.

Prakash Subedi is a Nepalese  poet and writer


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