I, like many others of my generation, grew up on an oily diet of Kashmir masala films.
Roja. Which, besides introducing this guy called A R Rahman, gave hope to boys like me that you could have a physique like ArvindSwamy but still get to curl your fingers around the shapely waist of a Madhu, if you play the marriage cards right or if the script-writer writes that in the script for you.
Pukaar. Where sinister plots from across the border are spoiled by Anil Kapoor’s verdant chest hair.
Mission Kashmir. A convicted Bombay Blast accused played a patriotic cop and where the man who single-handedly wiped out polio played a terrorist.
Countless other action films, their names a-blur, typically starring Sunny Deol, in which all laws of physics and common sense could be violated as long as Pakistani ass was being mausichi-ed.
The rhetoric was simple. Pakistan was evil, India was good, Kashmiris were misguided and all would be well in the end if the pesky Pakistanis and their agents were demolished.
When I came out of the theater after seeing Haider, I was happy I had seen a film that had flipped the formula. I was happy that finally the censors were letting audiences decide what was wrong and what was right and that there were no bans or stay-orders or any of the other silliness that has so stifled the free expression of ideas in India, a fact that was doubly surprising given that our wise mediwallahs had been prophesying a dystopian Hitlerian Bharat of suppress-oppress-depress ever since that man took over.
Haider is a film that deserves to be seen. It is about as ingenious an adaptation of Hamlet that you could hope to see, true to form and structure and with enough “A-ha that was nicely done” moments which make it more than worth the price of admission. Tabu is sensational, the cinematography marvelous, and Shahid Kapoor abandons his “saaj daaj ke tashan mein rahena” mainstream leading man avatar for something different, the kind of risk most of his contemporaries would not even consider taking. Haider is not perfect of course, with Shraddha Kapoor recycling her Aarohi expressions, the Rosencratz-Guildenstern Salmaniacs hammy in a Keshto Mukherjee comedy track kind of way, and the politics of the film suffocating the narrative at several places. But even then it is pretty darn impressive, particularly in an age where people like me who love cinema have given up on Bollywood producing anything except 100-plus-crore targeted products of the Bang-Bang variety.
The pity though is that Haider is just as black and white as anything Sunny Deol would have put his name to, as jingoistic in its propaganda and as selective in its portrayal of reality as its less pretentious cousins.
To be honest, any time you name your villain as Abhrush as Pukaar does or the director’s credit says Guddu Dhanoa, you are not expecting the audience to take you seriously.
However Haider wants you to trust that it is painting the real picture of Kashmir, anchoring the story to actual incidents and making the film realistic and gritty, and then for good measure, harping on the “this is the true story of Kashmir” angle in the movie promotions.
This is definitely not fiction, in the way Mission Kashmir is, and it would be naive to argue otherwise.
It is pointed political propaganda.
And that’s where it goes wrong for me.
Haider starts off with the honest, upright doctor, with the sad gentle face, who also own ponderous books titled Physics in his library (alert: intellectual), being called by “independence fighters” to take out the infected appendix of its leader. Now being a dutiful doctor, he not only treats his patient, a criminal as per the laws of the Indian state, but extends the scope of the Hippocrates oath to also hide him in his emergency vehicle and bring him home. Now in some places, this might be defined as “harboring a criminal and aiding and abetting crimes against the state” but in the world of “Haider”, this is positively heroic, because of course the Indian state is the criminal and this person is a freedom fighter. The Indian Army comes, the doctor comes out holding his passport where he is identified by a masked traitor sitting in the car (There is a gigantic plot-hole here, given the resolution, but I am not getting into that, trying to keep this as spoiler-free as possible). The Indian Army goes into his house where they are fired on by the Azaadi-fighters with AK47s. Taking losses, the commanding officer decides to mortar down the house because he does not want to risk the lives of any more of his officers.
In some other film, this might seem to be the rational decision given that there are terrorists armed to the teeth firing back from the house.
But Haider is no “some other film”. Here it’s all symbolic. Tabu is the state of Kashmir, Shahid Kapoor the conscience, and Kay Kay Menon…well watch it to see what he is. And that broken down house is symbolic of the cruelty of the Indian state, as we are shown how Haider, the son of the doctor, mopes about its ruins, remembering days gone by.
Bharadwaj is pulling the heartstrings here and there is no doubt where your sympathies are supposed to lie.
And so it goes, Haider alternating between story and blunt political sloganeering.
There is nothing new about the version of events of course, this is the official azaadi narrative.
The Kashmiri-fighters are innocent lambs who only fire when fired upon, the real terrorists are the Ikhwan-ul-Muslemoons, agents of the Indian army tasked with extrajudicial killings of the Azaadi-fighters, Kashmir is a big open-air prison for its denizens, and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act is the worst instrument of India’s aggression.
As I said, nothing new.
However even more important than what Haider keeps in is what it keeps out.
While there are anti-India graffiti scribbled everywhere on the walls, there are no green flags of Islam (not any I saw), no Islamic slogans, no “Kashmiri Hindu men leave Kashmir but leave your wives and daughters” naarebaazi, or any kind of religious symbolism that characterizes the radical-Islamic nature of the Kashmir struggle. In each frame, Bharadwaj drains out the radical green and colors the struggle with the neutral black color of secular suffering and “azaadi”. This de-religionization of the most radical agitations is the intellectual subterfuge that allows self-avowed Leftists to throw their lot in with Islamic-fundamentalist power-grabs all over the world, despite inconvenient developments like the underdog-against-evil-overlord Syrian independence struggle morphing into ISIS, and allows them to frame the battle in Kashmir as one waged by an evil expansionist state against innocent citizens, and not one of a secular nation protecting itself from Talibanization/ISIS-ization.
A standard author-trick is to make an evil character say a number of statements. Once you discredit a large number of those statements later on in the narrative, the ones you don’t discredit explicitly become false by association.
Bharadwaj does this in Haider. Here is how.
Ashish Vidyarthi plays an Indian Army commander who, in a press conference, expounds on the policy of using terrorists to kill terrorists, or as it is known technically “Jaise lohe lohe ko kaatta hai” from the film Sholay, historically a strategy used to break the Naxals in Bengal and Khalistanis in Punjab. Since those familiar with the history of the state know this to be true, it is obvious that we are not in the realm of total fiction, we are talking “what actually happened” now. Ashish Vidyarthi then says that the Indian Army does not torture, it interrogates. The movie then demolishes that “lie”, showing multiple instances of inhuman torture on supposedly innocent Kashmiri folk. (As a matter of fact, the original torture sequences were more graphic it seems).
Then Vidyarthi says that the freedom struggle is an expansionist design of Pakistan. That the movie wants us to believe is the second “Indian lie”. In a subsequent plot point, another treacherous Indian agent calls Person X a Pakistani ISI agent, and since this treacherous Indian agent only lies and the said person is not shown to be a Pakistani, there we have another falsehood.
Two lies. Now comes the third statement.
The Kashmiri Pandit exodus. Vidyarthi throws it out there, and by association, that becomes the third “Indian lie”. Once again, this is very much part of the Kashmiri-struggle narrative, the fact that the exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits is either false or grossly exaggerated or entirely voluntary, and that the mention of Kashmiri Pandits in any conversation on Kashmir is done with the express intent of discrediting the noble Azaadi fighters and bringing a kind of moral equivalence between them and the “Indians”. Of course the fig-leaf used by the makers of the movie would be that it is to give the other side of the story, but that is absolute tommyrot, given that it comes from the mouth of the villain whose every other statement is a lie, and most importantly because, the film never once tries to tell the other side of the story in any serious way(and yes the closing dedication to the Army was so egregiously “for the censors” to be almost laugh out loud funny, like porn films that end with the message “Porn is bad”)
Again a film does not require balance, it can be as tunnel-visioned and as one-sided as it likes. It just needs to work as a film. Haider does. Most definitely.
But to sell it as the true story of the Kashmiri struggle requires some…what’s the word now?
[PS: My book Yatrik is now out. Here are details]