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February 17, 2015

Hamlet in Kashmir

Revenge cannot make you free.

The Shakespeare's Globe world tour of Hamlet will reach India and Pakistan in Autumn 2015; in the meantime a Hindi film updating the play has been released and has been showered with Bollywood awards, critical praise, and political and religious protests.

Following Maqbool (Macbeth) and Omkara (Othello), Haider is Vishal Bhardwaj’s third transposition of Shakespearean tragedy to the Indian subcontinent, and by far the most ambitious. Set in divided Kashmir during the violent separatist conflicts of the 1990s, Haider was co-scripted by Bhardwaj and the journalist Basharat Peer. It draws on Peer’s own experiences – from humiliations at army checkpoints (he has a cameo as a traumatised civilian) to a fundamental plot twist: the Muslim family of the teenage Haider/Hamlet send him away to university to prevent his radicalisation.

As a result Haider is two films in one. In the first half, the loose parallels with Shakespeare’s play seem incidental distractions while Bhardwaj presents tales of the Kashmir insurgency. Indian army artillery turns Haider’s home into a ruined shell. Byestanders are killed in the hunt for terrorists. Suspects - including Haider’s father, a doctor - are paraded before hidden accusers and selected for arrest, interrogation, or a mass grave. Indian cinema has rarely touched on this recent history.

Gradually, however, the Hamlet connections become more insistent. One of Bhardwaj’s greatest strengths is his readiness to rebalance Shakespeare, giving new speeches to the silent and bolstering relationships, and in this case he makes the hero’s grieving and isolated mother (renamed Ghazaala) the film’s emotional centre. When her husband is taken away, she becomes one of Kashmir’s thousands of ‘half-widows’, whom we see holding up photographs of vanished spouses and sons. So we understand - though Haider refuses to - when she drifts towards her affectionate brother-in-law Khurrum. He’s a populist politician, campaigning for the return of the Disappeared. How can he possibly be a murderer?

There are many bold touches like this. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern become the indistinguishable Salman and Salman - video-store owners and part-time spies. Ophelia (Arshee) is re-invented as a resourceful journalist; and yet her father, brother and lover all push her back towards Ophelia’s fate. Haider’s characters are the victims of their own contradictions and those of society. Arshee’s father, a corrupt policeman, is so touched when she knits him a red scarf that he wears it proudly with his uniform; he also uses it to tie up Haider’s wrists. In an understated scene of mental breakdown, Arshia unravels it.

Frustratingly, in all this, Haider, or rather the actor, Shahid Kapoor, seemed the film’s weak link to me - photogenic but inexpressive and with very little to say. But this actually prepares the ground for Bhardwaj's greatest coup. When Haider learns the truth of his father’s death (several kinds of ‘ghost’ deliver the call for revenge), both character and actor are transformed. Head shaved, face painted, gaping, grinning, Haider turns into a manic holy fool. He pretends to hang himself in the town square, he whips up a crowd of chanting protesters, and he leads a troupe of warrior-dancers in an electrifying routine shattering his new father’s wedding. Rather than feigning insanity or succumbing to it, this Hamlet channels decades of popular anger into frenetic movement and pounding song.

Thus he launches the film’s final movement - fifteen minutes of accelerating action in which all the plots converge and the relationship between Shakespearean fiction and internet brutality becomes surreal. Heavy snow blurs the vistas of the mountains and lakes; blood tints the snow; gravediggers sing, dance, and go to bed in their graves. Haider’s ending poses uncomfortable contemporary questions about suicide and revenge – and the ability of Shakespeare’s texts to help us answer them.


(From the forthcoming Spring edition of Around the Globe)

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