A Hindi filmic reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet was an irresistible draw. I have read Hamlet a number of times because of its significance to English literature and I wanted to see how the Hindi film industry accommodated the conventions of Shakespeare’s time to the present day and in line with its own familiar conventions. I was interested in the contemporary relevance of the drama to India and in how the original play had been read.
The story of the film is simple. In 1995, Haider, a poet who has written a thesis on revolutionary poets in British India while at university, is brought back to his home in Srinagar, Kashmir when his father has been taken captive by the Indian army. He therefore comes back home seeking reunion with his father, reunion with the past. Immediately, however, he finds that the present is radically different to what he has experienced as a child. Haider is held captive by the Indian army on the suspicion that he is a militant. The Kashmiri Ophelia, a journalist rescues him and takes him to his home, which he finds in ruins, since it has been bombed. He then finds his mother and his uncle singing songs and in an inappropriately happy mood, given the disappearance of his father. Haider angrily confronts them both and goes off on a search for his father. On the way, he encounters the horrible political situation in existence in Kashmir: the brutal conflict between the separatists and India (“when two elephants fight, the grass is trampled underfoot”). Haider is then told that his father has been murdered by his uncle. The film then follows Haider’s struggle to come to terms with this truth and to realise what his position in respect to revenge and conscience should be.
The film is interesting on a number of levels, particularly in its exploration of the dark side of nationalism in respect to India, illustrating its impact on innocents, like Haider’s father, a benevolent and dedicated doctor who believes that medicine should be above politics. The film shows officials torturing prisoners who are just innocent students and shows that the authorities at the time acted in contravention to law with regard to suspected militants. There are satiric references to the very idea of Law and Order in Kashmir, and to the role of Order in Law (whose ‘order’?). The film caused a lot of controversy in this area since there was a cry in social media circles to boycott the film because of its supposed ‘anti-Indian stance’. The Kashmiri Gertrude, played by Tabu is also an intriguing character in the film, with a pivotal role in the story, contrary to the passive performance of Gertrude in the original. It emerges in the filmic narrative that she prevented Haider from becoming a militant in his youth by holding a gun to his head in order to convince him to leave Kashmir and its troublesome politics. Her love for her child is overwhelming and she is prepared, time and time again, to sacrifice her life for his.
The style of the film differs from more traditional Bollywood fare. Firstly, the narrative style relies heavily on flashbacks. I think this play of memory amidst the action of the film underlines the fact that the personal histories of the characters in the film are meant to be emblematic of the political history that is being explored: the state of Kashmir in 1995. The technique invites the viewer to see the film as a contribution to history and as history, rather than a simple drama. Another technique that is employed is the use of beautiful cinematography to contrast the vile political situation in Kashmir to its natural beauty. In the midst of the fantastic natural beauty of the place, terrible oppressions and terrible events unfurl. The viewer is invited to see the political situation in Kashmir as a disruption of everything that is natural, harmonious and beautiful.
The film is captivating throughout, but I will focus on certain themes which I found particularly interesting. Firstly, there is the meta reference to Hindi cinema in the movie. The Kashmiri Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are obsessed by Salman Khan’s films and with his song and dance routines. Similarly, when it is revealed that the uncle is the murderer, the scene takes place in the cinema, where a Salman Khan film is playing, with a song and dance routine in progress. The deliberate contrast is being made between the horror of the present political situation and the romantic escapism that is evidence in the Hindi films of the period which won’t deal with historical reality. Another theme that is meta is the role of English in the movie. The Kashmiri Gertrude teaches English and Haider himself corrects the Kashmiri Ophelia’s spoken English at a point in the movie. In certain important respects, Haider and his mother are self-consciously ‘English’ or ‘Western’, compared with the other characters in the film. There is another deliberate contrast between them and the other Kashmiri characters.
My overall idea of the film is that it is experimental and tries to transcend Hindi filmic and Shakespearean conventions. There are a lot of creative liberties taken, particularly in the magnificent and surprising ending of the movie, which overturns all expectations. The outstanding performance is by Tabu, the Kashmiri Gertrude, although all the actors turn in a fine performance. The movie gives much food for thought and seems to be one which invites multiple viewings. It is an important piece of Hindi cinema and it really does deserve all the awards that have been heaped onto it.