Two major Hindi films were released across India on October 3. One spoke uncomfortable truths about India’s most intractable internal conflict. The other was a loud and splashy borrowing from Hollywood, involving diamond heists, bikini-babes and that old chestnut that never tires, lost and found brothers.
Within days, one had spawned fury and outrage on the social media and engendered a boycott movement. A female twitter user who urged that the outrage artistes pipe down was threatened with assault and evisceration. An advocate of the boycott urged all friends to visit the website of the internet movie database to vote down the ratings awarded the movie by “traitors”. And still another held the movie worthy of a ban for defaming the Indian Army and “desecrating” the heritage site where a key sequence was shot.
Meanwhile, the birth-twin of this unpleasant movie, then politely called an “adaptation” — rather than the more accurate word — had hit a gross collection of Rs 220 crore, rewarding the soft and gentle form of plagiarism that the Hindi film industry had made its unique art. It may have helped that the movie was titled Bang Bang.
It is a minimal strain within Indian public opinion that believes in speaking the harsh truths about Kashmir. Even within more enlightened quarters of the media discourse, the balance of convenience dictates a policy of silence. To acknowledge the full truth would be to give comfort to the enemy.
As Haider, Vishal Bhardwaj’s third adaptation of Shakespeare to local milieus, unfolds, there are sequences that seem to mirror the experiences of its scriptwriter Basharat Peer, just entering his teens when the Kashmir valley exploded in insurrection in 1990.
But Peer’s gently tinted remembrances in his 2009 book Curfewed Nights, do not quite acquire the malevolent forms of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Peer spoke of a heady sense of political awakening from watching processions of young men in baggy pherans crossing the border for military training. In the impetuousity of youth, he responded by throwing in his lot with the cause, but was dissuaded by the agony of his elders in a family where culture and learning were the dominant discourse rather than politics. And then he sees a father betrayed by a jealous colleague and attacked with near lethal effects.
Bhardwaj takes over Peer’s memories, transforming the envious betrayer into a brother and making the wife an accomplice. And it is a betrayal that ends in death. Son Haider embarks on vengeance, egged on by revelations of how a loved father met his end.
Haider’s father is a doctor, cool and humane amidst political turmoil, with the image and credibility to drive an ambulance through a military picket in Srinagar without suffering the indignity of an intrusive search. He also has the trust of the other side in the conflict and can risk bringing a ranking militant commander to his home for emergency surgery. His wife is nervous at the inevitable firestorm of retaliation that could follow and deeply revolted by the detritus of the surgery she is obliged to clear, seemingly as part of a loyal wife’s duty. She confides her worries in a brother-in-law who has always had covetous eyes for her, leading to a cycle of betrayal and vengeance that leads to the decimation of Haider’s intimate life-world.
Intent on avenging his father, Haider is unable to shoot his detested uncle when he encounters him in a state of utter vulnerability. He rages afterwards that he could not kill a person who was seemingly in a mood of penitence, but would suffer no such a lapse when his quarry was in less sympathetic posture.
Modern psychoanalysis has diagnosed Hamlet’s indecision as symptom of an Oedipal conflict. And certainly Bhardwaj does offer sufficient footage through a movie stretched perhaps a third more than optimal length, to suggest a relationship of possessiveness and envy between Haider and his parents.
Does Bhardwaj go along that route to obscure the truly tragic dimensions of Kashmir’s story? Does he deliberately paper over the hard truth that the strategy by which a powerful state aspiring to global power status subjugated an uprising for freedom, was by setting brother against brother, destroying familial and civic bonds in a fashion that will take years to restore?
Media and reportage have grown within Kashmir despite the turbulence of a quarter century long militancy. But the voice has often been subdued by the climate of fear and uncertainty, where the source of the next threat remains unknown. The articulation of the new mood in Urdu or Kashmiri moreover, did not carry it very far beyond subcontinental boundaries.
Basharat’s memoir and Mirza Waheed’s 2010 novel The Collaborator, were important in marking the discovery of a literary voice in English in Kashmir, which could convey the life experiences of an insurgent people to a wider world. These works are immersed in the vocabulary generated in that time: cordon and search (or more accurately, “crackdown”), human shields, and mukhbir (or informer).
In 1995, the year in which Haider is set, the security establishment in Kashmir made the fateful decision to reach within militant ranks for disgruntled elements who could conceivably turn against the cause. It is a reality reflected in the movie though under the rather implausible title for a political group of Ikhwan al-Mukhbiraan. Haider’s uncle wins an election in controversial circumstances and acquires a pivotal role in the policy of restoring order through counter-terrorism. The unravelling of his family bonds — and his life —follows with a certain inevitability.
These are powerful realities that Bhardwaj captures, without potentially hazardous reference to the hidden hands that scripted the human tragedy of Kashmir. And the cost of even this modest exercise in truth-telling is a bizarre apology affixed as postscript to the film. The two decades of conflict have claimed “thousands of lives”, it says, though “the last few years of relative peace have renewed hope with tourism growing from just 4.2 million in 1995 to 140 million tourists in 2013”. And then there is a nod towards the most recent of the tragedies to have hit the valley: “In the recent devastating floods in Kashmir, the Indian Army saved the lives of thousands of civilians. We salute their efforts and their valour”.
With all that, Haider still raised a firestorm in the twitter-universe, though a minor one that subsided rather rapidly. In the domains of both art and the media, truth-telling about Kashmir still remains a perilous enterprise.