A Problematic Trivialization of the Kashmiri Conflict on Film
Last night, I watched Haider—a 2014 drama filmed in the India ruled territory of Kashmir. The film is the third in a trilogy of Shakespearian adaptations directed by Vishal Bhardwaj. Haider, an adaptation of Hamlet, has received widespread applause, criticism and even condemnation—as is to be expected for any film that tries to embody the tensions and perspectives surrounding the India-Pakistan territorial conflict in Kashmir during its height in the 1990s. Most of the controversy surrounding the film is due to Bhardwaj’s description of the Indian Army’s use of torture and alleged forced disappearances. This article, however, will not wade into that debate. Instead, I want to focus on the effect of portraying a serious geopolitical conflict through the lens of Bollywood and through the adaptation of a Shakespearian work.
First, I would like to set the tone. This was one of the better Indian films that I have ever seen. A few scenes in the film effectively demonstrate the tensions in Kashmir, and one must acknowledge Bhardwaj’s courage to confront the conflict head on. Throughout the film, the Kashmiri insurgency is portrayed in an empathetic light, while the Indian Army (specifically its leaders) is portrayed as emotionally indifferent. This shading of the conflict can be attributed to the use of Hamlet as a platform, as well as to the radicalization of the film’s protagonist. Whether Haider reflects Bhardwaj’s personal ideology is unclear; nevertheless, its portrayal of this frozen conflict is laudable. However, that is where my applause for the film ends. Contrary to the popular trend, I take issue with his use of Hamlet as the basis for portraying the Kashmiri conflict.
While Haider is a very good adaptation (and I sincerely mean that), it at times loses its message and sense of realism, both of which I consider to be the film’s most convincing traits. The downside of the play format is that one is drawn in by convincing acting and stunning cinematography, only to be ripped out of the narrative by a 5-10 minute choreographed song and dance, or by an inexplicably long love scene. The scene following the film’s climax consists primarily of Indian soft-core porn, and with the characters spinning around in the snow trying to catch snowflakes with their tongues. I know that I should have had suspended my judgment, as Haider is a Bollywood film. But I thought that the severity of the topic—the Kashmiri conflict— would have maintained the seriousness of the film.
There is also a point halfway through where the film clearly becomes less about the Kashmiri conflict and more about adhering to Hamlet’s structure. I thus thought that the use of the adaptation for this topic was lazy and only served to lengthen the film by an extra 40 minutes. Why choose to adapt a play that has been reproduced for centuries (and that is itself a reproduction of Saxo Grammaticus’s Amleth) when an abundance of real stories of hardship and tragedy exist in the region you are trying to reveal to the world?
Perhaps Bhardwaj feels at home amidst his acclaim for adapting Shakespearian plays, as he has done in the past with Macbeth and Othello. But as the latest Tarantino film shows, if you follow the same vein as a director for long enough, you are bound to lose your edge and fall (or you are bound to lose the essence of what you are trying to accomplish on film).
In the end, I really enjoyed Haider, and it definitely sparked an interest in the Kashmiri region for me. But I must ask how great the film could have been, had it been modeled after a true story and taken its inspiration from the likes of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, a no-frills film taking its directive cues from the seriousness of the Vietnam War (albeit with the help of an astonishing book). Such a film would have been striking, emotive, and disturbing enough to break into the American market and to have a persuasive effect on regions outside of India.