48. Vishal Bharwaj’s Haider [Hamlet] (2014)
After having recently revisited Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho with the delightful recognition that the film was even better than I had remembered, I decided to test my luck with another loose adaptation of Shakespeare.
In an earlier review, I covered Vishal Bharwaj’s Omkara, an Othello imagined in a wild country district on the fringes of Indian society.
Vishal Bharwaj’s Haider is a Hamlet imagined in Kashmir, in the northernmost part of India, at the edge of the Himalayan Mountains, during the conflicts of 1995.
I must confess that before watching Haider, I had never heard of the Kashmiri Insurgency. There are groups in the Kashmir region that want their own sovereignty as a nation, no longer as a province of India, with some Kashmiri groups wanting to be annexed to Pakistan. One element of this conflict is an Islamic and Hindu split. I cannot say how accurately Haider portrays the 1995 Kashmiri Insurgency, but the story’s context is a complex one.
Understandably, many citizens of the region wanted to point their heads downward and not take sides. With such an environment, the tense family story merges with that of a region and a nation. The expectation that I was watching a Hamlet actually caused me some confusion about the plot at first. The characters and timeline cannot easily be aligned with Hamlet. Ultimately, though, the changes are dynamic and compelling.
Dr. Hilaal Meer, a surgeon, agrees to perform surgery, in secret, on a leader of the separatist movement. His wife, Ghazala, disapproves.
The army arrives in the town, demands that all the men assemble, and upon discovering dissidents in Meer’s home, blow it up. The doctor disappears in the custody of the army.
Haider, a student at Aligarh Muslim University far away, returns to his destroyed home. He is rescued from suspicious police by Arshia Lone, a childhood love interest who happens to be the daughter of the chief of police.
When Haider goes to find his mother at his uncle’s house, he finds her enjoying herself rather too much at his uncle’s house.
He leaves in a rage, and is again harassed by police, but is recused this time by two of his high school friends, two brothers named Salman and Salman, who run a video store which is basically an excuse for them to sing and dance to Bollywood films all day.
Haider will then protest, and search for his father in police departments and prisons, where information is not forthcoming, until a badass named Roohdar, who has an amazing musical theme.
When our hero learns of his father’s fate, he goes mad, and returns to Kashmir with a shaved head, a beard, and a crazed look as he performs as a busker.
The many changes that Bhardwaj makes to Hamlet seem to make the drama sharper. For example, the play-within-a-play that will incriminate the king occurs not months after the royal wedding, but instead as part of the wedding festivities.
There are two great Bollywood musical routines that fit the play perfectly. One is the aforementioned play-within-a-play.
The other is, delightfully, the grave-digging scene.
Haider was controversial for its political boldness, for not being somehow perfectly balanced to every possible political position in this recent part of history, but it does seem to tap into Shakespeare’s own concerns about the Fortinbras plot, and the struggles for power, for security—ironically, people will tear themselves and their countries apart in order to protect themselves, their families, and their countries. Bhardwaj certainly shows the human cost of such conflicts, and no side comes off as perfectly innocent.
Haider is also a stunningly beautiful film. Vishal Bharwaj is, in my opinion, in the same class as Akira Kurosawa.
This is my fifth Hamlet review as the rogue, and it’s only the second one that I cherish.
John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.