“Haider” – Hamlet in Kashmir: Suhas Munshi

This is a guest post by SUHAS MUNSHI

The challenge of telling stories of a conflict is its victims. Each, traumatized in their own way, needs their own story. The narrator is bound to fail not only those he didn’t include but those who didn’t see their stories recreated faithfully. Had Basharat Peer set himself the task of faithfully adapting the violence done to Kashmiris he would have had to script a pornographic narrative for the screen. Some of the bile directed at him from Kashmiris comes from a dissatisfaction of not depicting the true extent of the brutality of the Indian army and rendering its casualties adequately pitiful. An opinion piece written on the movie in ‘The Parallel Post’ titled ‘Setting the wrong precedent’ condemns torture scenes in the movie as having actually undermined the actual extent of army atrocity in Kashmir. The piece goes on to say, ‘army excesses wane out by the time movie reaches its climax.’

However, the only service that a story teller from Kashmir could do to art and to humanity is to depict the people living there, especially the victims, as humans; as people, just as they are found anywhere else in the world, and not continue to peddle the cliché of the valley being a dehumanized pastoral paradise. Accusations of betrayal, conceit and condescension are being hurled at Basharat Peer, the writer, when he has got, for the first time ever, the words ‘plebiscite’, ‘half-widows’ and the rousing call of ‘Azadi’ in a script, through a movie, on mainstream cinema.

Towards its conclusion, this online magazine article betraying, what seems to be an aversion of the writer’s to literature and cinema alike, goes on to suggest ‘the idea of a pro-Indian half widow with shades of grey, in love with her brother-in-law, and obsessed (sexually, as the film suggests) with her son, is perhaps an “appalling” representation that threatens to hijack the narrative of such women.’ If not fed pornography the writer is ready to settle for propaganda.

‘Condescending and unjust, ‘Haider’ distorts the reality of Kashmir conflict’, is the headline of a 1200 word long rant written by Basharat Ali for Authint Mail. This online magazine, with significant readership in Kashmir, which once wrote a piece titled ‘The ‘Scum’ of Kashmir’s ‘Chota Bihar‘ on how people of Bihar were like pests infesting the paradise on earth, now carries this piece accusing the movie for pandering to ‘Indian appropriation of Kashmir’. Again somewhere in between one comes across a familiar complaint, ‘…Also, that a half-mother is sexually attracted to her son is unacceptable.’

This grievance comes from a mind that steadfastly abstains from Shakespeare even while misreading and critiquing him and those whom he has inspired. Sameer Bhat writing for Kashmir Dispatch says, ‘Haider suffers from a fundamental flaw. It attempts to marry the Kashmir narrative to Hamlet, a famous play by William Shakespeare. The Bard’s play (written between 1599-1602) is about ‘revenge’ while Kashmir, any dispassionate observer will tell you, is essentially about ‘aspiration’.’ Besides informing himself about the play’s authorship and getting the time of its conception right, Bhat went no further than the subtitle on the cover page. Had he gone further Bhat would’ve realized that the play is not about revenge as much as it is about the inability to seek it knowing its price.

Bhat would’ve understood that had Shakespeare wanted to write a play about acts of revenge he would have placed in place of Hamlet, Fortinbras would’ve finished the bloody drama in one act instead of five. He could have, as a critic, questioned the very idea of adaptation of Hamlet to Haider. What had the creators really adapted? Shakespear’s concern was not plot but language. The story first appears  with Saxo Grammaticus a Scandinavian scholar in the form of ‘Amleth’, which was borrowed by Thomas Kyd in ‘Ur-Hamlet’ which Shakespeare later put to his use. Shakespeare also didn’t bother himself with the setting, he doesn’t discuss the location of the play nor is he known ever to have set foot in Norway where he bases the play. Shakespeare being mainly a poet was concerned about the language. The dialogues, some of which like ‘Denmark’s a prison’ and the obvious soliloquy have been used well in the movie adaptation, have not been ‘adapted’ to Kashmir to an extent where Haider becomes, in some sense of that word, ‘Shakespearean.’

Had these commentators read it they would’ve written about it. But they clearly haven’t, unlike Basharat Peer who has. In Curfewed Night Peer talks about how he was encouraged to read Lambs’ Shakespeare followed by the plays themselves. He inherited the love of literature from his father, who’d offer five bucks to Peer and his brother for finishing half couplets. That’s where one of the scenes in the movie comes from. Another, of Shahid returning from Aligarh Muslim University, and being frisked on the way, of his father not returning home for long stretches and so briefly disappearing, of a conspiracy to murder his father, a lot of it happened to Peer and what didn’t, he borrowed. The scene where a bloodied boy gets up from under corpses and dances joyously realizing he’s not dead happened in front of a survivor of Gawkadal whom Peer interviewed for his book. That book was received surprisingly favourably even in Kashmir at its launch. Not this movie. Not for at least one reason, Peer’s suggesting the whole resistance movement in Kashmir was an act of revenge – ‘inteqaam’ – that needs to be done away with now.

‘At a certain point the film establishes the reason for armed struggle in Kashmir as inteqaam or revenge, which doesn’t hold much meaning on real ground,’ Sheikh Saaliq wrote for Newslaundry in an article titled ‘Does Haider Capture All That Is Rotten In Kashmir?’ To begin in reverse, it’s not Basharat Peer’s job as a scriptwriter to capture all that’s rotten in Kashmir. It’s in fact a job that nobody in the world is qualified or fit for or morally bound to. On the question of revenge, which seems to have all scribblers in the Kashmir united against him, Peer has in this movie stood against violence, he’s made a case for dropping arms and transforming resistance not abandoning it. Like Hamlet, Haider kills nobody with a plan, all murders happen in reflexes but given the opportunity the one murder he’s premeditated and resolved to carry out, he abandons at the end. It is a noteworthy departure from Shakespeare whose Hamlet does in the end does exact his revenge.

Had he not died at the hands of the enemy, Wilfred Owen would certainly have had it from his own country were his poems circulated during the war. To his reader, his friend, Owen wrote how violence, being fanned by active propaganda in Britain, around him had twisted his comrades out of shape, knowing which

“you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori.”

Basharat Peer has since writing Curfewed Night often spoken of a new politics that Kashmir needs in the struggle against its occupation. Now this suggestion of non-violence advanced through a commercial enterprise has him, by independent writers and commentators in the valley, pushed to the door. Unsurprisingly none of them has offered an alternative to Peer’s suggestion nor has the bunch behaved with humility that comes from thought and doubt which beset the prince of Denmark.

In telling a story based in Kashmir Basharat faces up to the unresolvedness of the conflict. Truman Capote couldn’t end In Cold Blood after finishing most of it. For two years he kept waiting and praying for Hickock and Smith to be hanged. The book couldn’t have ended otherwise. Better writers similarly chewed on the Holocaust or 9/11 for years before fictionalizing them. Sassoon and Owen did write poetry from the trenches but that was just a record of their present moment of horror. With Kashmir the tragedy’s still unfolding. But Basharat Peer has made an important beginning, just as he did with Curfewed Night. He will hopefully inspire many more, to continue the conversation he’s just begun.

[Suhas Munshi is a journalist.]

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