Haider – A Shakespearean disruption of Kashmir

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Haider is 2014 film by Indian director Vishal Bhardwaj is an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s celebrated play Hamlet. The film has often seen as a political film in which it provides a visual commentary on the militant insurgency of 1995 in Kashmir. Haider shifts gears to incorporate the basic plot of Hamlet in the setting of the valley of Kashmir and its violent political turmoil.

It is also the third film of Bhardwaj’s Shakespeare trilogy, he had previously adapted Othello and Macbeth into feature films. Haider is a definitely a different film in terms of how the narrative is structured, the genre, the coloring of the film and the types of visuals it provides mostly counters that of mainstream Bollywood films. Haider consciously disrupts the common troops found within that of mainstream Hindi cinema.

For the last fifty years, mainstream Bollywood films have heavily relied on song and dance sequences as a major plot device. Traditionally these sequences appear dreamlike, break every code of continuity in space and time within the narrative and finally include the hero and heroine dancing together against extravagant backdrops with hundreds of extras. The sole purpose of these sequences is to serve purely as elements of spectacle.

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In Haider, there is three song and dance sequences that appear within the structure of the narrative. The original play within the play becomes a song and dance sequence (in Hamlet it’s a play lead by the title character after he encounters the ghost of his father and learns about his murder). In the film, Haider leads the song and dance at a wedding ceremony without a heroine but along with backup dancers. The sequence is not exactly extravagant in terms of mise-en-scene as compare to Bollywood but what is interesting is how this is shot.

The sequence is highly aware of itself, cutting to important characters as they watch the performance. The point of the sequence is much like its inspiration Hamlet, Haider and the viewing audiences know what Khurrum has done. Inserting reactionary close-up shots integrates not just the on-screen audience but the real viewing audience. The dance is also not the typical Bollywood dance we are used to seeing it is a mixture of martial arts and folk traditions which highlight the sense of anxiety of the sequence. This proves that the play within the play sequence not just serves as a spectacle but as an important segment of the narrative which actually pushes the story even further.

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Haider follows a tighter narrative than the average mainstream Bollywood films. Although it’s a revenge saga, the narrative of the film is driven by the characters and Kashmir. Almost the entire film was shot in real locations in the valley of Kashmir in between all the tension which gives the film a touch of realism. Bollywood films usually appear as a larger than live canvas.

In the last half of the film there is the cemetery sequence, this also becomes the song and dance sequence. It doesn’t even include any main characters. The sequence is led by the gravediggers who are not major characters in the narrative. The title character Haider arrives at the end of the sequence. This is something not that common in Bollywood, a song and dance sequence in absence of any major characters of the ongoing narrative.

There is also a montage between Haider and Arshia that does appear to have similarities to mainstream Bollywood. This montage, not a song and dance sequences however it becomes a non-dietetic entity. What’s interesting in this sequence is the depiction of sex. Sexual ideologies between leading characters in Bollywood films are often censored but Haider has no problem showing this to the audience. This is one of Bhardwaj’s ways of staying true to the Shakespearean text.

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Haider works within the context of Bollywood, Bhardwaj’s aim in the film was to challenge Bollywood’s depiction of the valley of Kashmir either as merely a picturesque Himalayan setting or as a site of anti-India militancy. Thousands of lives have been lost in the Kashmir conflicts since the violent partition of India in 1947, thousands of boys couldn’t come back home and generation after generation growing up in the terror of AFSPA. In an interview, Bhardwaj said that Kashmir is the Hamlet in his film. A Shakespearean tragedy set in Kashmir which tells the tragic tale of the northernmost geographical region of India.

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