Haider: The bollywood rendering of Elizabethan Hamlet


On the tarmac, I eavesdrop on Operation Tiger:

Troops will burn down the garden and let the haven remain.

This is home—the haven a cage surrounded by ash –the fate of Paradise.

       – Agha Shahid Ali (The Country Without Post Office)

What non-violent, peaceful and constitutional ways are left to your shelter to protest against your burning house, shrieks of your terrified siblings, profound silence of your sister after that helpless night, despair in the eyes of your mother speaking the uncertainty of her marital status?

In past three decades many Bollywood movies have casted Kashmir in the backdrop; it never emerges, rather is allowed to emerge, as a character in blood and flesh. Kashmir has been used as an exotic destination to shoot songs or unfold the romantic fancies of Bollywood. The existence of separatist movement or struggle for Azaadi was either distorted to the verge of being read as ‘terrorist activity’ in general public or relegated conveniently to the realm of silence. The deliberate misrepresentation of ‘Kashmir conflict’ and silencing of voices of dissent were common prints of pre-Haider bollywood movies. Haider makes a departure from the erstwhile narratives on Kashmir. The movie doesn’t deal with the separatist movement in Kashmir and singular agendum of Azaad Kashmir, though it clearly touches upon these sensitive issues. The movie is a cinematic adaptation of Shakesperian tragedy: Hamlet. It places Hamlet in Kashmir, in words of Vishal Bhardwaj, “Kashmir is the Hamlet of my film (Haider)[1].”

The cinematic adaptation has caught the attention of general masses and veteran film critics because it is not a mere reworking of the great Elizabethan tragedy, but a re-contextualisation of the madness of Hamlet, the character. The schizophrenia of Hamlet, which was due to oedipal tension, guilt of mother’s betrayal and unceasing fits for revenge, is placed in the movie embittered in the ‘Kashmir conflict’. The added layers to the Shakespeare’s text have heightened the general anxiety to know Kashmir and its discontent with the Indian state and the result being people are discussing the movie openly despite of its ‘censorable content’. The failure of state in 1989 to restore Kashmir’s faith in Indian democratic set up and the subsequent manhandling of the sensitive issue becomes the immediate setting for the movie. The movie, in parts, has succeeded in projecting the long history of Kashmir’s struggle for Azaadi, but overall tone, under duress of censorship board and Indian government, remains neutralised.

However, a sensitive audience is capable of underlying reality of Kashmir valley by analysing the politically charged parts. The existence of complex and almost ironical taxonomies: ‘Half mother’ and ‘Half widow[2]’ is common to distinguish people caught in hope and hopelessness of finding their loved ones in any form-dead or alive. It is a lived reality for Kashmir. The data says 20000 people have gone missing in last two decades from Kashmir; the real figure can be much higher than what these data project. The ‘missing people’ speak annals about gross human right violation and unfair, if not unjust, conduct of the state. And still in none of the Bollywood’s production one hears even a passing mention of this stark reality. Haider opens with a scene situated in 1995[3] when male protagonist’s father, after being taken by Indian army for interrogation, has gone missing. It is established through multiple scenes that locals were hired by the state to spy on the ‘separatist leaders’ and local police coordinated with the Indian state. The plotting of locals as informants was to stultify the united endeavours of Kashmiris for Azaadi; an anti-terrorist wing (Ikwaan) was established to eliminate the radical separatists and finally curb the whole movement.

Ashish Vidyarthi( who played the role of a high official of the Indian army) replies to the question on human rights violation and missing people, “What about the 3 lakh kashmiri pundits who were forced to move out of Kashmir? Are they not the missing people of Kashmir?” He is the voice of Indian state which disqualifies the question of human right violation in Kashmir. The movie attempts to represent the reality of Kashmir which remained untouched in Bollywood. The conflict between state ideology and Kashmir’s concerns is evident in almost every second scene in the movie.

For Kashmiris 1995, rather last decade of the gone millennium, became synonymous with torturous interrogation, fear smeared nights of search mission, endless wait in nearby masjid for dawn of shame, unbearable silence of womenfolk over the night that changed everything forever and cinders of humiliation still lying in the courtyard. On being asked, where would he look for his father? Which camps would he ransack? Haider replies, “Everywhere. The whole Kashmir has become a military camp.” The fierce, politically charged and unapologetic scenes in the movie represent the reality of Kashmir and binds the plot. The movie is unimaginable without ‘Kashmir ‘and it can’t be reduced to an individual’s tragedy.

Bashrat Peer, co-scriptwriter of the movie, has largely drawn from his own experiences listed in Curfewed Night-the novel is the sub-text for the movie. The represented experiences of trauma, betrayal and madness for revenge resonate true with the majority of kashmiris; the experiences act as a marker and metonymic for kashmiri identity. Bhardwaj, in a particular scene, aptly films the psychological effect of regular search missions, surveillance, and security checks which people have to go through for safe passage. A character, in the film, stands at the entrance of his house and stares at the door, refusing to get in; it is given as not an uncommon occurrence. Rooh-dar, the character played by Irfan Khan in the movie, explains it as a psychopathological phenomenon emerging from being habituated to regular security checks for passage; the character manifests the general state of insecurity, trepidation and psychopathology that kashmiris are subjected to. The concept of carrying ‘id’[4] whenever one ventures out of the house reduces humans to the ‘id cards’ and absence of it to being invalid—for which state owes no protection.

In the initial scenes Haider introduces the word: chutzpah to his friends (two salmons) and they equate it with AFSPA; it is to be read as a critique of AFSPA. Under AFSPA, armed forces, paramilitary forces and similar state wings are given the special provision to shoot on the basis of mere suspicion. The law, instead of protecting the interests of the subjects, abuses human rights. Chutzpah (/hoo-zpa/) means to do an act with confidence which shocks people out of their senses. Naturally, it entails an unethical act– unconceivable to general sensibility. AFSPA tantamount to an act best described by ‘chutzpah’ (in whatever vulgar way tongue can be rolled). Chutzpah can be extended to define the atrocities meted out by Indian state on Kashmir.

Rooh-dar is the perfect embodiment of Kashmir and Kashmiriyat, and in the changing times it becomes symbolically the invincible spirit of resistance. Rooh-dar declares to Haider’s father (Dr Hilal Meer), in the captive when chances of escaping death were rare, “ I would live on. I am invincible.” The words echo with the Kashmir’s Azaadi slogans—we will conquer, we will not die. Rooh-dar, in a long monologue, says, “I am shia…I am sunni too…I am pundit.” The monologue, in itself, tells epics about kashmiri identity. Kashmir always had a composite culture; it is a land of children of rishis and sufis, both lying outside the rigid confines of religion and society. For whom is Kashmir? Who are rightful inheritors of Kashmir?—the questions posited by the high official of army (Ashish Vidyarthi ) are, in a nuanced way, answered by Rooh-dar.

The madness of Haider shall be understood within the overarching ‘Kashmir conflict’. The angst of Haider, minus its oedipal substance and personal tragedy, belongs to every kashmiri who has seen the militarisation of the valley, bear the humiliation of showing ‘id’ whenever it is demanded and heard, even vaguely, about the sterilisation in military camps. Resistance creates its own language; stone pelting, effigy burning too is language to register protest. In case of Haider (both the movie and the character) it gets translated into ‘revenge’—the revenge has twofold nature; personal and communal.

At the end, Haider leaves his uncle (Khurram) without avenging his father’s death and moves out of the frame. It is a fitting end to the tale of personal revenge, however, the greater ‘revenge’ remains beyond the mapping of the movie. Revenge, in no means, is to be reduced the act of violence, but it is the constant struggle for Azaadi and retaliation to the state policies. The movie, here, is deliberated to provide a non-violent and peaceful way of resistance. Haider with 51 cuts, triumph of mercy, and martyrdom, by default, assigned to Gazala neutralises the tone and undercuts the ideological message embedded in the reality of Kashmir. Instead of flashing usual ‘The End’, Bhardwaj chose to show the glittering message of the Indian state which praised the endeavours of Indian army in the recent flood hit areas.

Towards the end, with Gazala’s sacrifice and her message of ‘revenge breeds revenge and only Love overpowers all’ the overall effect of the movie seeks to de-radicalise the viewers and, in Foucaldian terms, discipline the radical subjects so much so that one tends to overlook the blood-smeared history of Indian preoccupation in Kashmir. The movie, even after the lapses, would stand as a first sincere attempt to understand the discontent of Kashmir. Coming back to the same question from which we began: what non-violent, peaceful and constitutional ways are left to protest…? For someone whose house is burnt down, whose sister and mother are reduced to silence hiding shame and childhood stolen away by military drills peace is, rather, a hollow word and constitution a lie.


The authors are Research Scholars in the Department of English Jamia Millia Islamia, India.


Ali, Agha Shahid. The Return to Harmony 3. The Country Without Post Office. New Delhi:

Modern Classics, 2013.Print.

Haider. Dir. Vishal Bhardwaj. Perf. Shahid Kapoor, Shraddha Kapoor, Tabu, and Kay Kay

Menon. Film. VB. 2014. Film.

Peer, Basharat. Curfewed Night. Gurgaon: Random House India, 2008. Print.

Reshi, Arif Hussain. “ Haider: An insider’s perspective”. Kashmir Monitor. 11Oct. 2014.


“Kashmir is the Hamlet of Film.” Interview of Vishal Bhardwaj. The Indian Express.Web.



[1] See Bhardwaj’s interview in The Indian Express. 5 Oct. 2014. Web.

[2]See the article “ Haider: An insider’s perspective”   which contextualizes the movie Haider within Kashmiri literary tradition and relates it to novels like that of Shafi Ahmad’s The Half Widow, and Shahnaz Bashir’s The Half Mother.

[3] it was the peak time in the struggle for Azaadi, which in Indian pages was recorded as the high time of Pakistan’s proxy war

[4] “Identity Card in Kashmir has a greater significance during curfew days than any physical part of your body” comments a Kashmiri student in JMI, New Delhi while relating his personal experiences with certain scenes from the movie Haider.

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