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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 1, December 27, 2014 - Annual Number

Haider: Mainstreaming the Marginal Narrative

Saturday 27 December 2014

by Nirupam Hazra

‘What is chutzpa ?’A person kills his parents and then asks for sympathy in the court, because he is an orphan now. It was one of the defining scenes in Vishal Bharadwaj’s latest movie Haider, based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet and set in Kashmir of the mid-1990s. Haider has earned lots of critical acclamation and popular attention not only because it is based on one of the most difficult tragedies of Shakespeare’s oeuvre, but for the backdrop Bharadwaj chose to set his story. Kashmir has been a favourite locale for Bolly-wood movies as its scenic beauty often added extra charm in the songs or extra romance between hero-heroine. But hardly any mainstream Bollywood movie with popular actors dared to tell the story of Kashmir. Telling the story of Kashmir has always been a tricky and tough task. It is not because Kashmir and its troubled history have many truths to share based on subjective experiences and individual pers-pectives, but for the added sensitivity and convoluted sentimentality attached to it. Hence, one’s opinion on Kashmir has always been the convenient yardstick to measure his or her patriotism.

But Vishal Bharadwaj decided to risk the patriotism that is often worn on the sleeves and fiercely exhibited during cricket matches against our neighbour. In simple terms, Haider is a family saga, a son’s search for his missing father, but what makes it one of the most sophisticated political narratives on celluloid, is the setting. Kashmir is not merely the backdrop or a prop, it is the central character. It is the tragedy of Kashmir that is depicted in Haider. Haider’s search for his ‘disappeared’ father is also the story of hundreds of other Kashmiris, of scores of half-widows and half-orphans. In Kashmir people disappear into uncertainty and lives hang in limbo between death and life. For more than two decades people spent their life under the shadow of the gun, with curfew, with the AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act), with unimaginable pain and trauma. But this reality is often veiled under pretentious ignorance or deliberate dismissal.

Haider dared to show that reality. A reality of inhuman torture at detention centres, a reality of unexplained disappearance, a reality of suppressed desire for azadi—all presented with subtlety and depth. The scene where a man refuses to enter his own house until he is frisked by someone reveals the extent of psychological damage the people had gone through. It shows how every military exercise is normalised, legiti-mised and forcefully internalised in Kashmir. Any attempt to question the authority or even the exercise of basic civil rights against the will of the Army, runs the risk of drawing the wrath of the security personnel. It not only lessens the possibility of getting back the disappeared (as shown in the movie), but also puts a permanent question mark on your loyalty, a blot on your patriotism. In Kashmir it is always between us and them, between bad and worse.

The movie explores all these dilemmas with deft and dexterity and also gives voice to the aspiration of the people there. In a scene, Haider, with his feigning madness, addresses a gathering and speaks of what people in Kashmir want or at least a section of them who are neither anti-Indian nor pro-Pakistani. A reverberating chorus for azadi. But a call for azad Kashmir, free from both India and Pakistan, is considered as a seditious ranting, an example of highest form of insanity. Vishal Bharadwaj artfully used this trope of insanity to give expression to this suppressed aspiration. In the following scene, the call for azadi was promptly balanced by Iqbal’s patriotic song, but that only at the sight of the state, at the presence of the security personnel. It reminds one of Manto’s classical short story Toba Tek Singh and his critique of Partition.

The movie also presents a nuanced critique of the draconian AFSPA, by sardonically juxtaposing it with the homonymous Yiddish word chutzpah, which means a kind of insolent audacity. AFSPA, a colonial instrument of power without responsibility, victimised the very people it was meant to protect. It made the life a perpetual struggle. A wish to lead a ‘normal’ life in Kashmir, is nothing less than an act of chutzpah. Never before did any Bollywood movie attempt to poignantly depict this picture of Kashmir. And that is the reason why Haider drew the ire of the social media patriots. They asked to boycott Haider, as it allegedly showed the Indian Army in poor light. Glorification of the Army, valorisation of their sacrifice has been the recurring theme of many major Bollywood movies. It has been the meta-narrative, both in reel-life and real life. But is it the only story to tell? Is it the only truth to accept? Haider attempted to break that cocoon of convenient truth and portrayed the reality. It makes the subaltern speak and compels us to listen. And that is the biggest achievement of this movie. And it is also a victory of our democracy that the movie was not banned. Because being democratically mature is more important than being politically correct.

The author is a Research Scholar.