"Haider" - Vishal Bhardwaj (2014)

Haider (2014) is Vishal Bhardwaj’s spectacular Bollywood blockbuster melodrama that is loosely based on William Shakespeare’s tragedy HamletThe setting for this film, however, is not medieval Denmark, but Kashmir in 1995, when the region was torn by a violent insurgency raging against the ruling Indian government.  This was the third film of Bhardwaj’s  Shakespearean Trilogy, which includes his earlier Maqbool (2003, based on Shakespeaare’s Macbeth) and Omkara (2006, based on Shakespeare’s Othello).  Bhardwaj has each time situated his films in a raw, visceral sector of society.  For the case of Haider, the film has been Bhardwaj’s biggest hit at the box office, has won five Indian National Film Awards, and has gained critical acclaim both in India and internationally [1,2].  Nevertheless, the film has been controversial and has garnered its share of severe critics.

One thing that has muddied the waters concerning Haider is the fact that the film is extraordinarily ambitious.  It attempts to (a) do justice to the story’s intellectual themes from the Shakespearean tradition, (b) take on a controversial and heavily disputed social problem, and at the same time (c) present romantic intrigue and a musical overlay.  Such a film may offer something for everybody, but at the same time it probably cannot be the perfect serving for anybody – there are too many conflicting and irreconcilable tastes out there to try to appeal to all of them.

Nevertheless, most people can agree that the film has high production values. Bhardwaj is an auteur, having not only produced and directed this film, but also having co-scripted it and composed the entire musical score (he started out in the media industry as a singer, musician, and composer). The music, camera work, editing, and scene staging here have a distinctive quality to them, though again they may not be for all tastes:
  • Despite the film’s length (162 minutes), the visual pacing is relatively rapid, with lots of camera movement. 
  • Many of the scene establishing shots are very brief, despite what must have been some time-consuming efforts to set them up. 
  • Bhardwaj’s cinematic compositions often fully fill up the wide screen, and the visual effects of this are heightened by the penchant for wide-angle photography (whose variability can sometimes be visually distracting).
  • I didn’t find the film’s music particularly appealing, but Bhardwaj’s musical score does have its share of followers [1,3]
In addition to the cinematic pyrotechnics and styling, Bhardwaj has assembled a top cast of Bollywood superstars to play key roles in the film.

Despite all these good things one can say about the production and the admirable ambition of portraying a contemporary social issue that would normally be avoided by the entertainment industry, I do think that the film has some problems that I will discuss in turn.

Presumably most people are familiar with the Hamlet story.  It tells how Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, returns home to find that his father has died and that his uncle, Claudius, has assumed the throne and married his mother, Gertrude.  Naturally, Hamlet is disturbed by this state of affairs, and he is further disturbed when his father’s ghost comes to him in a dream and tells him that Claudius murdered him and that Hamlet should take revenge.  Hamlet is uncertain whether to believe the dream or not, but in order to dispel suspicions of possible disloyalty he feigns madness while he works on a plan to resolve his doubts.  He eventually arranges for a travelling troupe of actors to perform a play of his own composition before the royal court.  The play depicts the murder that Hamlet had heard about in his dream, and he wants to use it uncover the real murderer.  When the play is performed, the nervous reaction of Claudius confirms Hamlet’s suspicions that the dream was true.  There are various other threads and events in the story, one involving Hamlet’s girlfriend Ophelia and others involving Claudius’s attempts to have Hamlet killed.  In the end many of the main characters, including Hamlet, die violent deaths, but Hamlet does avenge his father’s murder.

Although some people see this story as a convoluted narrative about violence and revenge, what  makes it interesting is the internal struggle that Hamlet goes through about what course of action he should take.  As with other Shakespearean dramas, there are stirring soliloquies and veiled conversations in which Hamlet anguishes over what he should do.  Unfortunately, when foreign filmmakers attempt to redo Shakespeare in their own settings, they often miss out on these existential inquiries and merely concentrate on the gross outer circumstances of violence and retribution.  This is what has happened in the case of Haider, too.

Bhardwaj has reset this whole story into modern-day Kashmir, with the following lead characters (and the roles in Hamlet to which they correspond shown after the “–“):
  • Haider Meer (played by Shahid Kapoor) – corresponds to Prince Hamlet
  • Ghazala Meer (Tabu) – corresponds to Gertrude
  • Dr. Hilal Meer (Narendra Jha) – corresponds to King Hamlet
  • Roohdaar (Irrfan Khan) – has a functional role similar to the Ghost of King Hamlet
  • Khurram Meer (Kay Kay Menon) – corresponds to Claudius
  • Arshia Lone (Shraddha Kapoor) – corresponds to Ophelia
  • Pervez Lone (Lalit Parimoo) – corresponds to Polonius, Ophelia’s father
In Bhardwaj’s story, the student Haider comes home to Kashmir when he learns that his father, a respected and principled medical doctor, has been arrested and “disappeared” by the Indian military authorities for giving medical care to an insurgent leader. Haider suspects that now with his father out of the picture, his uncle Khurram, who serves as a legal advocate in the state high court, is busy romancing his mother.  He makes insinuating remarks to his mother about her suspected infidelity, but for the most part he is a passive observer.

So far I have merely outlined the correspondence this film has with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but actually the first half the film, prior to the intermission, is mostly concerned with the other main theme of the film – the disastrous civil situation in Kashmir in the mid-1990s.  These circumstances are completely separate from the original Hamlet story, but Bhardwaj merges them into this narrative about guilt and revenge so that they take center stage.  Here the guilty action to be avenged is not just the murder of the hero’s father, but all the atrocities that have been perpetrated on innocent Kashmiri people.  This conflation of the personal and the political is, I think, problematical, and fundamentally alters Shakespeare’s original narrative.  Now the character Haider represents the righteous indignation of an entire populace.

So that is problem #1 with this story, but there are other problems to discuss, as well.  Considering the difficulties in Jammu and Kashmir, I don’t doubt that a great many injustices have been committed. In fact in Bruce Schneier’s excellent book, Data and Goliath (2015), about untrammelled government surveillance that seeks to justify itself by vaguely evoking threats of “terrorism”, he remarks how martial-law governance almost invariably leads to injustice [4]:
“One of the great political achievements of the late nineteenth century was the separation of civilian government from the military.  Both history and current politics have demonstrated the enormous social damage that occurs when generals are in charge of a country.  Separating the two, as many free and democratic countries worldwide do, has provided space for liberty and democracy to flourish”. (p. 185).
This separation of the military from governance is what has not happened in Jammu and Kashmir, which is ruled by martial law.  Military figures are not ordinarily dedicated to the preservation of human rights, and that is why lengthy military incursions into domestic disorder usually do not work.  And as far as the depredations from  military occupations in South Asia are concerned, they are still happening today [5,6].  For the case at hand in Kashmir, specific mention is made in this film of India’s Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which was initiated in 1958 and installed in Jammu and Kashmir in 1990 [7].  It essentially gave the occupying Indian military authority unlimited powers to eradicate anyone perceived as a menace.
Haider as a film does not take an even-handed view of these circumstances.  Whenever the Indian military is presented, the soldiers are invariably shown to be coldly and ruthlessly engaged in torture and out-and-out murder of their captives.  In particular, the murky activities of the Ikhwan-ul-Mukhbireen militant group and their collusion with the Indian military is given some exposure.  Although the presentation here is one-sided, perhaps an even-handed presentation is not possible.  At any rate it is probably a good thing that the circumstances surrounding these events are at least brought to the attention of a wide audience [8]. Interestingly, contentious rivalry between Hindus and Muslims is not highlighted, which I think is probably a good thing [9]. 

Although I think it is a good thing to have these event brought into the open, I have doubts about this thread of the film actually serving the interests of revealing important socio-political truth.  To me, these elements appear to have been inserted instead to inspire a sense of outrage and angry support for taking eye-for-an-eye revenge (again related to problem #1).  I will return to that issue later.

Getting back to the correspondences of this story to Hamlet, I would say there are some deficiencies and missed opportunities that are worth pointing out.
  • The existential hesitation of Hamlet is missing in this story. Here, instead, Haider is stubbornly angry most of the time, but he doesn’t engage in much philosophical speculation. This means that a major aspect of Shakespear’s tale is left out.
  • On the other hand, both Ghazala and Arshia do anguish over their complicities in bringing harm to their loved ones. In Ghazala’s case, once she realizes that her brother-in-law (and later husband) Khurram was a police informer, she agonizes over the fact that she had revealed to Khurram that her husband, Dr. Meer,  had given medical treatment (purely out of professional responsibility and compassion) to a militant insurgent and thus had got him placed him on the police wanted list.  Similarly, Arshia agonizes over the fact that she had revealed damaging information about Haider to her father, who was a police inspector.  Here were case examples providing an opportunity to examine character in depth (as Shakespeare was wont to do) and consider something to which we can all relate – when we regret our inadvertent actions that may have harmed some person we love.  Bhardwaj could have developed these characterological elements and made those two woman characters more reflective and interesting, but he ignored the opportunity.
  • In the first half of the film, Shahid Kapoor’s (Hamlet’s) characteristically watchful and sympathetic expression was enticing and drew the viewer into his character. But his feigned madness in the second half of the film, in superficial accordance with Hamlet’s actions, is so over-the-top and ridiculous that it reduces one’s sympathies for his character.
  • Hamlet’s stage play is not reproduced properly in Haider. The point of holding the stage play in Hamlet, and what made it an interesting plot element, was its use as a tool to expose the guilty conscience of Claudius.  Here in this film, Haider puts on a dance/song (spectacularly presented, admittedly) that directly accuses Khurram of the murder.  So this misses the whole point of Hamlet’s original ruse and merely serves to expose Haider on this occasion to be a direct threat to Khurram.
  • The suicide of Arshia, Haider’s girlfriend is not motivated at all.  At least in Shakespeare’s play Ophelia is shown to have gone mad, but Arshia’s suicide here just pops up out of nowhere.
  • The suicide of Ghazala at the film’s end also seems without motivation. She could be world-weary or depressed. Or she is maybe ready to take out her revenge on Khurram. But I cannot see the motivation for donning a suicide-bomber’s vest and blowing up an entire scene, which evidently includes a number of collateral deaths. And minutes before this act, she had been speaking tenderly to Haider about the futility of revenge and violence. This act of suicide may make for a melodramatic finish, but it needs better motivation than what the viewer is given.  Here, again by the way, was an opportunity to expand the character of Ghazala that was not taken up.

Another element worth mentioning is the ambiguous relationship between Ghazala and her son Haider.  20th century literary critics influenced by the work of Sigmund Freud have speculated that there was an Oedipal interest on the part of Hamlet when he became angry with Claudius.  But the evidence of this in Shakespeare’s play is very limited, and it requires the heightened imagination of the critic to see something there.  On the other hand, here in Haider, Bhardwaj has very definitely injected some sexual innuendo between Ghazala and Haider.  This is heightened by the fact that Tabu (born, Abassum Fatima Hashmi), who plays Ghazala, is beautiful and only about nine years older than Shahid Kapoor. Nothing was developed, that I could see, with this suggestive connection, other than to inject some titillation into the proceedings.  On the whole, by the way, Tabu’s performance in the film was outstanding.  She had a difficult and rather contradictory role to play, but she did it beautifully.

So I return to my fundamental problem with Haider, and that is the theme of revenge.  The entire film is set up to motivate sympathy for, almost demand for, revenge on the part of the viewer.  All the bad guys are insidiously cruel and evil in every way.  They smile mercilessly when they kill their helpless opponents.  Ghazala does tell Haider that revenge is pointless and only feeds on itself, and many reviewers seem to think that this absolves the film from endorsing revenge.  It doesn’t.  This film revels in revenge and devotes almost every shot to motivate a sense of needed revenge. An example worth mentioning is the lengthy scene in which Haider labouriously takes big rocks and smashes the heads of the Salman brothers to pieces in revenge for what they had done to him.

When Haider earlier refrains from shooting Khurram while he is praying to God, he does this because he fears God will cleanse Khurram of his sins and consequently allow his admission into heaven if he is killed at that point.  Haider’s vengeful conscience wants to guarantee that Khurram goes to Hell. At the end of the film, Haider has another opportunity to kill Khurram, whose legs have just been blown off by an exploded bomb. Khurram is in such agony that he begs Haider to finish him off. But Haider refuses, knowing that Khurram is now condemned to unending torture and letting him live will make him suffer even more.  Again, revenge is dominant.
This is the overall problem with Haider. It bravely took on some big themes, but those efforts don’t redeem it for what it ultimately became. 

  1. Murtaza Ali Khan, “Haider (2014): Indian Filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj’s Final Chapter in Shakespeare Trilogy”, A Potpourri of Vestiges, (2 October 2014).
  2.  Rachel Saltz, “Shakespearean Revenge in a Violent Kashmir”, The New York Times  (2 October 2014).
  3. Subramanian Harikumar, “Haider Music Review: Arijit Singh, Vishal Dadlani and Sukhwinder Singh come up with a Superb Album for Vishal Bhardwaj and Shahid Kapoor!”, BollywoodLife.com, (21 September 2014).
  4. Bruce Schneier, Data and Goliath, (2015). W. W. Norton & Co., NY.
  5. Ben Emmerson, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism”, (23 September 2014) United Nations General Assembly, Sixty-ninth session, Agenda item 68(a).
  6. The Editorial Board, “End Abuses by the Indian Military”, The New York Times, (24 July 2015).
  7. “The Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act, 1990", Indian Ministry of Law and Justice, Published by the Authority of New Deli, .  According to this act a military officer is given, among other things, the following authority:
    •  “After giving such due warning, Fire upon or use other kinds of force even if it causes death, against the person who is acting against law or order in the disturbed area for the maintenance of public order,. . . “
    • “Army officers have legal immunity for their actions. There can be no prosecution, suit or any other legal proceeding against anyone acting under that law. Nor is the government's judgment on why an area is found to be disturbed subject to judicial review.”
  8.  Sameer Yasir, “Vishal Bhardwaj's Haider has Irked both Hindu and Muslim Hardliners: Here's why”, Firstpost, (17 October 2014).
  9. Bhardwaj has mentioned that he grew up in a syncretic environment that featured common mingling among Sufis and Hindus in his home area.  See Vishal Bharadwaj, “I am: Vishal Bharadwaj”, The Times of India, (29 July 2006).


Murtaza Ali Khan said...

Interesting analysis... not that I am complaining but I am fully aware that there are many Bollywood-esque aspects to the movie which the non-Indians cannot fully appreciate!

Christena421 said...

This movie is really amazing, i really like Tabu acting, story of this movie is also based on good issue.