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Resisting Hamlet: Revenge and Nonviolent Struggle in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider

“Who would have thought there was a backdoor to this place?” This is the caption to a New Yorker-style cartoon that decorated a beach towel once for sale in the Metropolitan Opera’s gift shop.  The visual was Radames and Aida as they spy a means of egress from their fatal vault. John Glavin has used this illustration and caption to speak about adaptations of Charles Dickens that seek a “backdoor” out of the original texts, and, as Judith Buchanan has recognized, the cartoon is a useful way to think about revision in Shakespearean film adaptations also (Glavin 12-13, Buchanan 12). Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider (2014), an Indian film based on Hamlet that is set in the contested Kashmir region during a volatile period in the 1990s, constructs one notable backdoor out of the play’s bleak ending. At the end of Haider, the eponymous Hamlet-figure walks away alive. An adaptation of Hamlet in which Hamlet lives is in obvious ways a radical revision of the original’s tragic conclusion. More specifically, it revises the subgenre—revenge tragedy—to which Shakespeare’s play belongs, according to which the quest for vengeance is a suicide mission. But the rejection of tragic closure for the protagonist does not here result instead in the bliss of comedy or even the bittersweet consolations of tragio-comedy. As in Hamlet, most of the main characters in Haider die violently. And even when considered alongside the notorious atrocities and body counts of seventeenth-century revenge drama, the backdoor out of Haider is exceedingly grisly: in the film’s concluding moments, Haider limps through a smoldering, bloody field strewn with bodies and body parts, including of his own mother, into an uncertain future where he is perhaps cursed to a life of unhealable trauma. The ending can be read as equivocal, or even as an ironic statement about the merits of survival, rather than as a hopeful fantasy about escape from a tragic conclusion.

A factor that I believe helps to refine such a bleak sense of the film’s ending is the screenplay’s mixture of Hamlet with non-Shakespearean source material as its foundation. The film is partially based on a memoir about life in Kashmir during the period of conflict Haider depicts, and this inflects Shakespeare’s play to produce an alternate vision of the political and personal revenge story that Hamlet tells. The film unflinchingly represents the competing moral claims that burden those caught up in conflict zones, and it shows how the turn to existential despair or to endless violence under such conditions can seem inevitable. But I will argue here that Bhardwaj blends Shakespeare with recent history to explore how the human inclination toward violence and revenge, as it is enacted in a classic text, can explain, but need not determine, how people respond to injuries and inequality in an especially fraught time and place in the contemporary world. I will emphasize aspects of his filmmaking craft to show how several formal features of Haider, as well as certain crucial choices in plotting, follow but ultimately resist Hamlet’s tragic determinism. My conclusion is that Haider’s backdoor out of tragedy is genuine, if narrow, rather than equivocal or ironic. I will argue that Bhardwaj’s film is an activist adaptation of Hamlet that avoids the pitfalls of some political art: it does not sacrifice aesthetic flair or thematic complexity in service of its larger, urgent, call to seek non-violent responses to injustice and sectarian strife.

Vishal Bhardwaj has made a trilogy of films, set in contemporary India, based on three of Shakespeare’s best-known tragedies, Macbeth, Othello, and Hamlet: Maqbool (2003) Omkara (2006), and Haider respectively. He has been recognized as significant force in current Shakespeare adaptation studies (Burnett 57), and critics have seized in particular on what one calls Bhardwaj’s “indigenizing” of Shakespeare, whereby the plots and characters are accommodated to Indian film conventions (Sen 4).1  Bhardwaj intervenes in the Shakespeare tradition by asserting the power of contemporary Indian artists to use Shakespeare anyway they wish, without feeling restricted within a familiar  idolatry / iconoclasm binary. As Amy Rodgers observes “Bhardwaj seems unburdened” by Shakespeare’s legacy; indeed, she quotes him as saying in an interview: “I think the West hasn’t come out of Shakespeare’s shadow. I have no such hangovers” (Rodgers 500).

Bhardwaj’s films exemplify an adaptation model wherein the originating work “makes certain constellations of meanings and material available to be renegotiated in performance and reception by local users” (Cartelli and Rowe 28).2 Bhardwaj brings to the foreground the agency inherent to all adaptation practices, the fact that, as theorists in recent decades have described it, adaptation is “intertextually dialogic” (Martin 58). Hamlet’s preeminent place in the global consciousness, as a text, a piece of theater, and increasingly on screen (Hatchuel and Vienne-Guerrin) makes it a particularly rich site for this process, as viewers to any Hamlet adaption must weigh preconceived expectations against the surprise of innovations.  Bhardwaj’s equivalent of the “Mousetrap” stage show that Hamlet orchestrates to test and taunt his uncle and mother is illustrative of that process. In Haider, the “Mousetrap” becomes “Bismil,” the name of a song Haider sings that tells, in a coded folktale form, the story of his father’s murder and his mother’s remarriage to his evil uncle. The scene unfolds as an elaborately choreographed and brilliantly executed song and dance number. It draws on the original’s powerful example of art as a vehicle for emotional release and a means to produce truth, as well as the scene’s function in Hamlet as an exciting caper in which the Prince discomfits his enemies at court. At the same time, it adapts the Shakespearean original to the conventions of Indian cinema’s famous “item number” musical sequences. This creates a fresh, exhilarating riff on an iconic Shakespeare scene, one which deepens the Hamlet figure’s creative transmutation of his trauma and extends his recognition of his own agency, as here, he himself is the center of the performance.

“Bismil” exemplifies what “intertextual dialogism” can look like in the hands of a skilled adapter. Bhardwaj is a creative pragmatist with his eyes on the experience of his “local users.” He sees his Shakespearean source material as a fund from which he can draw to make entertaining and thought-provoking films that speak to pressing concerns of twenty-first century India. Rodgers has written that “Haider offers a model for what a politically radical cinematic Shakespeare might look like” (503). This is especially so as regards its imagining of possibilities for political and cultural change in Kashmir. The opening up of Hamlet to alternate political futures occurs subtly in Haider, for the film follows many large and small aspects of Hamlet quite closely. I want first to consider Hamlet’s alienation from his society, a thematic strand in Shakespeare’s play. Haider mostly emphasizes this aspect of Hamlet, but as we will see, strategically abandons it at one point in a way that has far-reaching implications for how we assess the film’s ending.

Hamlet’s isolation within the Danish court at Elsinore is fundamental to his characterization.3 From his first appearance, Shakespeare makes explicit that his Prince is out of step with those around him. When his mother and then he himself remark on his mourning clothes, readers of the text become aware of what playgoers are able to spot immediately upon his entrance in the play’s second scene: he alone wears black. He quickly makes an explicit claim to distinction in his plea for unique sincerity— “I have that within which passes show”—and in his contemptuous dismissal of acting in accordance with what is “common” (1.2.85, 74).

Throughout the course of the play, Hamlet’s basic lack of communion with his family and with his peers is reinforced. He almost immediately sees through the false friendship of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, just as he soon realizes that Ophelia is her father’s surveillance tool. The so-called closet scene is his ferocious attempt to revive a primal connection with his mother, and the extent to which this is successful is famously unclear in the canonical Second Quarto and First Folio texts.4 His bond with Horatio is the exception that proves the rule of Hamlet’s apartness. The re-development and deepening of their friendship is remarkable precisely because it is so starkly in contrast to his alienation from everyone else in the play, a court community that has accepted his father’s death, his mother’s remarriage to his uncle, and that uncle’s place on the throne. Hamlet as alienated intellectual, as isolated revenger, as struggling-to-be-honest man in a corrupt world: these credible if shopworn descriptions have long been central to understanding Hamlet’s agony and arguably to understanding the play’s, and the figure’s, enduringly appealing pathos.

Haider initially presents a Hamlet-figure who follows in this tradition of the anti-social protagonist. When we first meet college student Haider Meer as he returns to his village, we discover that this film’s Hamlet is a poet who writes difficult verse and studies revolutionary poets. He insists on calling his town, known to the Hindu Indian authorities as Anantnag, by the alternate local name “Islamabad,” a deliberate provocation to the anti-Pakistani soldiers.5 This combination of intellectualism and overt radical politics separates him from every other character in the film. Arshia, the Ophelia-figure, comes close to matching him in this. She is a journalist who initially is intent on asking hard questions of Indian officials, but she will eventually recede, like her Shakespearean ancestor, under the power of her colluding father and possessive brother, and be undone by a grief-induced mental breakdown.

Arshia is able to defuse the situation at the checkpoint so that Haider can return to his town unimpeded. But his potential reconnection with her is disrupted by his very reason for returning: his childhood home has been destroyed and his beloved father has been taken into custody without any formal charge by the Indian army during a raid in search of radical Muslim separatists. His fixation on the debris of his obliterated home and the series of memories it triggers of his childhood closeness with his father distract him from Arshia. Arshia’s Laertes-like brother arrives and roughly pulls her away, forbidding her to see Haider again. As in Hamlet, the larger forces—psychological and practical—that conspire to alienate the Prince likewise alienate Haider from those who might meaningfully connect with him.

In a key early scene, Bhardwaj uses simple but effective cinematic techniques to convey Haider’s isolating perception of the world around him. When Haider goes to visit his mother, Ghazala, he is shocked to find her laughing. He witnesses the unfolding of a goofy musical duet with her brother-in-law, his uncle Khurram, who jokes and ineptly sings to her. Haider glimpses them initially through a gauzy curtain, so that he sees the flirting couple from the other side of a distorting veil that emphasizes how cut off he is from the reality they occupy. The audience at first shares this cloudy viewpoint, but does not share Haider’s perspective exclusively in this scene. The camera shifts to the other side of the curtain, giving us, for a few seconds, clear, intimate access to the two attractive, playful figures. This view of their almost charming courtship is intercut with Haider’s opaque, unnerving view of them, creating a powerful dissonance. Audiences may feel caught here between sharing Haider’s shock at their lack of decorum—his father has been taken prisoner and very likely killed by this point—and feeling some approval for Ghazala’s incipient, and perhaps earned, happiness in this instance: in the film’s first scenes, it is clear that she and Haider’s father are not happily married to begin with.

But the audience is more forcefully aligned with Haider’s perspective as the scene unfolds.  Haider begins sarcastically to confront Khurram and Ghazala about the romantic “musical” they are enacting. Bhardwaj, in a series of heavily edited shots over a three-minute or so sequence, externalizes Haider’s disorientation and confers it on the audience by subtly violating the “180-degree” rule, one of the basic principles of continuity editing in conventional film grammar. The 180-degree rule establishes the screen direction of the subjects’ sightline as they address each other.6 Basically, the point is to establish for viewers a clear sense of how the people on screen are physically positioned. In this instance, we move through a series of shots in which Haider appears on the left side of the screen looking to the audience’s right at Khurram, who is on the (screen) right looking to the audience’s left, until this is abruptly reversed without the sort of transition shot that directors customarily insert in between such a shift (see Figures 1-3).

Resisting Hamlet: Revenge and Nonviolent Struggle in Vishal Bhardwaj's Haider Literature/Film Quarterly
Figure 1: Establishing perspective: Haider, positioned screen left, confronts his uncle, positioned screen right.
Resisting Hamlet: Revenge and Nonviolent Struggle in Vishal Bhardwaj's Haider Literature/Film Quarterly
Figure 2: The 180-degree rule breaks: in the shot immediately following that seen in Figure 1, Haider’s uncle is positioned screen left, while Haider is now screen right.
Resisting Hamlet: Revenge and Nonviolent Struggle in Vishal Bhardwaj's Haider Literature/Film Quarterly
Figure 3: Dizzying perspective: In the shot ensuing from that shown in Figure 2, the positions of Haider (screen left) and his uncle (screen right) return to how are seen in Figure 1.

Breaking the 180-degree rule is a quasi-expressionistic technique, for it can create a visual correlative to an emotional state. In such instances, the camera, after it initially establishes how spatial reality is rendered on the field of the screen, then destabilizes that, often to emphasize some mental stress or sense of distortion. Here, violating the rule extends to the audience Haider’s disorientation and his feeling that, from where he stands, the world makes no sense. At the precise moment that the shots unfold, he, in a dazed manner, openly accuses his mother and his uncle of a clandestine affair, what to him would be a world-altering revelation. The unconventional shot sequence here becomes what scholars of cinematic Shakespeare, following Jack Jorgens’s pioneering taxonomy of the various “modes” of Shakespeare movies, call “filmic:” that is, when the technology of cinema is deployed to create a visual equivalent of something verbal in the Shakespearean text (Jorgens 10). In this case, blurring the 180-degree rule stands as a filmic expression of Hamlet’s sense that the “time is out of joint” (2.1.186).7

Haider is here firmly established as a latter-day Hamlet, likewise reeling from grief and anger as he looks at what, to him, is a fundamentally warped reality that others around him seem to accept as natural. The course of Bhardwaj’s film, though, quickly begins to peel away from this traditional depiction of a detached, cagey Prince. Specifically, it provides in its next set of scenes an innovative take on how Hamlet might be adapted to comment specifically upon the plight of victims of political oppression and marginalization, as well as on potential ways such people might respond to their condition. The particular setting of Bhardwaj’s film comes to the forefront here. The use of Kashmir in the mid 1990’s was not a random or accidental choice, but a vehicle to explore the human proclivity to seek revenge within the context of regional and religious sectarian violence that contemporary audiences can recognize. There isn’t space here for an extensive background on this intricate geopolitical situation.8 But the main outlines of the conflict are that Kashmir, located along the northern border between majority-Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan, is a majority-Muslim region that is under the political control of India. During the division of territory and peoples that produced the modern Indian and Pakistani states when the British Raj ended in 1947, some complex internal political divisions in Kashmir led to its provisionally joining India, despite its perhaps more natural fit with Pakistan. Its status was supposed to be resolved eventually through a popular vote promised by the Indian government. A 1948 UN resolution that is cited at times throughout Haider also called for a plebiscite for Kashmiris to determine their status, but this, for various intractable reasons, has never taken place (Ganguly 10 and passim). The tensions have simmered and, at various flashpoint moments, escalated alongside Indian-Pakistani, Hindu-Muslim antagonism in the seventy years since. The question is not merely one of Kashmir belonging to India or Pakistan, for independence has continued to be a goal among many Kashmiris. The Polonius figure at one point in the film says of Kashmir’s seemingly hopeless position between India and Pakistan: “When two elephants fight, it is the grass that is trampled upon.”

We learn in the film’s opening sequence that Haider’s father, Hilaal, is a Kashmiri doctor who gives medical aid to one of the region’s militant, separatist organizations, primarily, it seems, out of humanitarian concerns. It is because he performs, in his own home, a secret operation on a high-ranking leader of this group that he is taken into custody by the military after an anxious sequence in which all the Muslim men of his village are forced to leave their homes, clutching their identity papers, and form a line to be examined by a masked informant who eventually identifies him. The scene of the men being called out and examined makes evident the daily indignities of the local population under what amounts, from their perspective, to a kind of military occupation. The film focuses in its most political moments on basic human rights abuses by the Indian military, as well as on violations of the rule of law by Indian-backed local officials, such as the “disappearing” of political prisoners who are never formally charged, as becomes the case with Hilaal. These scenes are by themselves politically radical: as Abhishek Sarkar argues, Haider’s depiction of such abuses is “unprecedented” in the history of Indian film (Sarkar 39).

This representation of the conditions of Kashmiris has its source in true events. Bhardwaj co-wrote the screenplay for Haider with Basharat Peer, a Kashmiri journalist.  The film is partly based on Curfewed Night, Peer’s memoir of growing up in Kashmir in the 1980s and 1990s. It is rare for a film based on a Shakespeare play to balance the Shakespearean with other identifiable source material. Sarkar, in his important article on Haider, sees the Peer material as providing “the lived experience of the local” that ultimately helps the film transcend any narrow Shakespearean affiliation (33). Facts of Peer’s own life provide an outline for the character of Haider. Peer is from Anantnag and attended university at Aligarh, just as Haider does. Peer reports that Kashmiris who would call Anantnag by its local name, Islamabad, would be beaten by Indian soldiers, as we saw threatened in the film (Peer 48). Peer describes in the book the kind of round up of Muslim men and boys during periodic crackdowns that we see enacted in the play’s opening, including times when he and his male relatives had to leave their houses and assemble at a designated spot, while soldiers would search homes for contraband and weapons (49). In one such instance, while a teenager, Peer was interrogated for possible ties to militant groups, and threatened with torture, although he was eventually let go unharmed (52-53). There are dozens of other direct citations of the book in the film, including a number of smaller, even more personal details.

As we learn in the film during other flashbacks, the teen Haider flirted with radical militancy, as did Peer. Peer’s own family was implicated in the sectarian violence, although less extremely than in the film. Peer’s father was a civil servant in the region, and became a target of a militant group over a dispute with a corrupt local official. He, along with Peer’s mother, was attacked one night. They both survived unharmed, but Peer admits to having, for months after, fantasies of revenge against the attackers (71, 155). Peer left the region as a young man, to work as a journalist in Delhi, until he felt compelled to return to his home and begin documenting the stories of people who were caught up in the conflict, including conducting interviews with victims of torture and the families of men who were killed or who disappeared.  He relays their stories in moving, often harrowing detail. The book is Peer’s attempt to address what he sees as an absence of the Kashmiri story from global narratives of conflict zones, and the film, by extension, continues this work (95). Bhardwaj embroiders this activist agenda into the fabric of his adaptation. Making the struggles of Kashmiris visible through an overdetermined cultural classic like Hamlet is potentially a difficult task given that many viewers might be inclined to prioritize the supposedly “timeless” Shakespearean insights into humanity over the local details of governmental oppression and sectarian violence the movie offers. But, about forty minutes into the film, Bhardwaj brings these details to the foreground even more forcefully through a sequence that breaks from the “isolated Hamlet” trope, the sense that the play is essentially a psychological portrait of one disaffected mind in crisis that I discussed above, and focuses attention on alternatives to the revenge play paradigm and its single-minded, alienated avenger.

Shortly after the scene in which Haider witnesses the growing intimacy between his mother and his uncle, he does begin to form some meaningful connections to others, although at first it is to those who have equivalents in Hamlet: he is taken in by Salman and Salman, analogues to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, here two comical, amoral video store clerks obsessed with Bollywood heartthrob Salman Khan. They are secretly working for Khurram and the Polonius figure to keep an eye on Haider, but he initially suspects nothing and is open to their seeming kindness and hospitality. And Arshia remains a concerned companion and eventual lover. But it is during a roughly four-minute montage, scored by a dirge-like song with lyrics expressing the plight of Kashmiris, that we see Bhardwaj significantly expand his Hamlet’s connectedness to his world. During the montage he embarks on a series of fruitless searches of jails, prison camps, and graveyards for word of Hilaal. He carries photographs of his father, but no one recognizes it. He faces bureaucratic indifference and eventual hostility when an Indian solider scatters the photos in the air while pointing a rifle at Haider. But amid these disappointments, partway through the sequence, something radical happens by which Bhardwaj’s Haider separates from his Shakespearean counterpart. Haider forms a community with the families of other “disappeared” individuals.9

It begins simply enough. Haider sits on a bench at some facility where he seeks answers about his father. An older woman sitting next to him shows him a photograph of what would appear to be her son. Haider slowly unfolds his photocopied picture of Hilaal and shows it to her. She touches his face in sympathy as they begin to weep. We soon after see a rally under a large banner on which is written, in English, “Association of Parents of Disappeared People.” As the camera pans the crowd of distraught protesters, each holding up photos or placards with slogans, we see Haider standing shoulder to shoulder with another man who is holding up a picture of a loved one. Haider holds a sign that reads: “My father, where is he?” (see Figure 4).

Resisting Hamlet: Revenge and Nonviolent Struggle in Vishal Bhardwaj's Haider Literature/Film Quarterly
Figure 4: Haider joins other grieving families.

Bhardwaj began his career as a composer, and he has written the music for all of his films. In this montage, the song is titled “Jhelum,” the name of a river in Kashmir where bodies of suspected militants were sometimes dumped. It is sung by Bhardwaj himself. The song states that “the waters of the river Jhelum have turned saline,” that is, full of tears, and wonders “who to ask for how much longer/ this pain we should continue to bear” for “blood, blood, blood, blood has become the color of time.” The dense, distinctly cinematic overlap of music, documentary realism, and compressed narrative action makes this montage an “emotional correlative” to the experience of not merely Haider, but to thousands of families in the region, that of living in the limbo of grieving for missing loved loves amid faint hopes of their return, while facing the frustrations and dangers of dealing with a military bureaucracy (Mishra 148).

It is the movement toward community, through which Haider comes to demonstrate against the government with others, that I find most compelling in this sequence. Later, after this montage has finished and Haider has made no progress in the search, we see him protesting again, although this time amid a more raucous crowd, and specifically placed in front of a UN station. He is wearing a headband with a slogan on it, and holding a large green banner. Along with the crowd, Haider is angrily chanting in Hindi the phrase written on his banner and on the headband. According to the English subtitles on the DVD, the chant is: “Do we exist or do we not?” A fellow protester next to Haider holds a sign with an alternate English translation—one that is used in the English version of the printed screenplay—that is more directly Shakespearean: “Shall we be or not be?” (see Figure 5).  

Resisting Hamlet: Revenge and Nonviolent Struggle in Vishal Bhardwaj's Haider Literature/Film Quarterly
Figure 5: Haider (front left, holding banner with two hands) becomes increasingly active alongside a community of protesters. Note the English translation of Haider’s sign, behind him and to the left.

The scene evokes group responses to any number of historical injustices (Rodgers 503), and more specifically, a passage from Curfewed Nights. It is 1990, and the thirteen-year old Peer has joined a street protest during what he called a “full-blown rebellion against India” (17). He first describes the diverse collection of Kashmiris who have come out to march and chant slogans demanding justice and freedom. He then writes:

Amid the collision of bodies, the holding of hands, the interlocking of eyes in affirmation and confirmation, the merging of a thousand voices, I ceased to be a shy bookish boy…I felt a part of something much bigger (17-18).

Haider too has joined something bigger than himself. The slogan Haider joins the others in chanting marks a radical break from Shakespeare’s most iconic axiom— “to be or not to be”—precisely by virtue of being spoken as a chorus, addressing the question of a whole people’s recognition before hostile soldiers and next to a United Nations outpost, rather than by a lonely man to and about himself. Haider, unlike Hamlet, has found a way to form bonds with others who share his grief and anger over loss and injustice. The transformed slogan here gives voice to the communal experience of oppression, and to the existential crisis that is precipitated both by feeling stateless, and by having loved ones arrested, kidnapped, or otherwise “disappeared” without any legal record of their whereabouts. 

A few minutes before this scene, in a flashback, Haider’s paternal grandfather has an exchange with a militant on the street who presses his belief that Kashmiri freedom will come only from violent revolt against Indian rule. The old man tells the militant “Freedom…Gandhi won it for India…not the gun. The gun only knows how to avenge,” and “revenge does not set you free.” He adds that “true freedom lies beyond violence,” for “revenge only begets revenge.” In a bold move, Bhardwaj invokes the history of Indian struggle against oppressive British rule only to use that anti-colonial legacy to indict the current Indian state itself as an oppressive entity that tramples over subalterns within its borders. And while the film is largely one-sided in its condemnation of Indian rule in Kashmir, it is also complex enough to use the legacy of Gandhi as an admonition also to those oppressed subalterns, as it warns them against turning to violence in response to their situation.

The reference to Gandhi, to the powerful example of a nonviolent political movement that yielded independence, is part of the backdoor that Bhardwaj places in Haider. Haider translates his frustration and rage into nonviolent, but by no means mild, protest. He speaks truth to power and finds strength in numbers to do so. He seeks solace and redress in peaceful, communal action rather than in solitary, deadly vengeance, a radical re-envisioning of the logic of the drive to blood reckoning that structures Hamlet. This “backdoor” toward Gandhism appears midway through the film, but is not opened then. Instead, Haider is interrupted during the “shall we be or not be?” protest by Arshia, who has met a man who claims to have information about his father. In a poignantly symbolic action, Haider folds the protest flag when he hears the news, essentially collapsing his involvement with the other demonstrators. He leaves immediately to contact the messenger, and does not participate in anything like this demonstration again. The mysterious figure is Roohdaar, a man who will pull Haider away from the community of protesters he had joined, and from the alternate path he had begun to walk with them, back onto the personal, and mostly solitary, violent revenge trajectory familiar from Shakespeare’s play and revenge tragedy generally.

Roohdaar is played with customary panache by Irfan Khan, the magnificent actor who brought Bhardwaj’s Macbeth figure to life in Maqbool. In a striking first appearance, walking with a pronounced limp that speaks to his history as a victim of torture, Roohdaar enters the film wrapped in a long white shawl, wearing aviator-goggle style sunglasses and a dark Kullu cap as he emerges from a snowy wood in a shot that is initially blurry but gradually sharpens. The embodiment of revenge in the second half of the film, he comes into focus accompanied by what can only be described as a “bad ass” theme song befitting a Tarantino anti-hero, and which helps to create his mystique immediately. Roohdaar meets with Haider and narrates a long flashback sequence, telling of his experiences with Hilaal in a brutal prison camp, where they were both eventually sent off to execution. He also reveals that Khurram, Haider’s uncle, had informed on his brother to the Indian military authorities, thus causing his arrest and execution. Roohdaar performs the function of the Ghost in Hamlet when he enjoins Haider to take revenge for his father. His emergence from an initially blurred shot suggests his ghostly status, as does the fact that he has, in effect, risen from the dead: he claims he had been shot and tossed into the Jhelum along with Hilaal, but that he managed to survive because the cold water caused his wounds to congeal, a detail lifted from a supposed actual event reported in Curfewed Night (50). Haider overcomes some initial skepticism about this story and eventually becomes convinced that Roohdaar is a faithful conduit of his father’s last, and explicit, message to his son: take revenge by killing Khurram.

Other Hamlet-inspired plot elements return to the foreground. Ghazala and Khurram marry, and Haider hesitates to kill his uncle when he finds him praying. Through his cooperation with Indian authorities Khurram has by this point been elevated to a position of power in the region. He suppresses local dissent, and also actively fosters violent division among various dissident groups through an insidious counter-insurgency strategy. Meanwhile, we learn that Roohdaar is not merely seeking to influence Haider out of a desire to see his murdered friend avenged. We soon discover that Roohdaar is himself working with a militant sect that seeks the violent overthrow of Indian rule. While Roohdaar’s own experiences of state brutality and his knowledge of Hilaal’s fate seem genuine, and it is true that Khurram turned his brother in, it is important to note here that the veracity of Hilaal’s plea for his son to take vengeance on his behalf against that brother is never independently verified in the film. There is, then, reasonable doubt about Roohdaar’s message and his motives. Under the guise of fulfilling a personal duty to Hilaal, Roohdaar may be, in essence, recruiting Haider to kill Khurram for political purposes. Either way, when Roohdaar enlists Haider to kill Khurram, Bhardwaj creates a stark choice for Haider in response to political oppression and personal grief: nonviolent protest and community organizing, versus assassination, militancy, and violence against the state.

Haider, the man, chooses assassination. And so Haider, the movie, is thus seemingly now on a revenge track involving escalating violence prescribed by the plot of Hamlet. This plays out as Haider soon kills the Polonius figure; Arshia kills herself; and Haider kills, in a wild brawl, the Laertes figure as well. Haider commits his most brutal acts when, in attempting to escape from Salman and Salman, who are taking him off to execute him, Haider personally kills these lackeys. He does so by smashing their heads in with rocks after he has escaped from their van armed with a gun and they attempt to flee from him. It is significant that the action sequence in which he chases them down and kills them is scored to Roohdaar’s theme. Bhardwaj reassigns that music to signal Haider’s full internalization of Roohdaar’s message of deadly vengeance. While the killings could technically be said to be in self-defense, Salman and Salman are running from him after he first gains control of the gun. They continue to flee even when he runs out of bullets and resorts to rocks to knock them down from behind and then bludgeon them to death. The excessive and gruesome nature of the scene signals a turn from Haider’s possible righteous claim to violence to something much more cold-blooded and disturbing. The brutality of the sequence makes the seductive allure of Roohdaar and the charismatic authority suggested by his look and his theme music at least somewhat suspect. Roodhaar’s moral status grows more dubious when Haider calls him to tell him of this incident. As Rhoodar answers the phone, the camera focuses on a pair of hands that carefully construct a suicide bomb vest that will prove crucial to the film’s climax. Roodhar, we see, is sitting next to this bomb-maker, alongside the militant leader who Haider’s grandfather had earlier lectured on Gandhi and nonviolence. They coolly instruct Haider to cross the border into Pakistan for militant training.

In the film’s final sequence, Haider is trapped in the caretaker’s house of an isolated cemetery. Here, the movie again moves off the Hamlet-plot track. Despite being wounded and outnumbered by Khurram’s men, Haider is determined to press on. He is on the verge of being killed, when, in a shocking turn of events, Ghazala arrives, discretely dropped off by Roohdaar, whom she had earlier contacted when she found his phone number among Haider’s things. Ghazala, we have come to learn, had unwittingly told Khurram about her husband and his medical aid to the militants, not knowing that her brother-in-law was an informer. She speaks with Haider, pleading with him to stop his quest. She almost directly repeats his grandfather’s lines from earlier, telling him: “Revenge does not set us free. Freedom lies beyond revenge.” Ghazala was not present when the lines were spoken before, and their nearly verbatim repetition now gives them a sort of talismanic power.

Seeking to make amends with Haider for her role in Hilaal’s death, and to save him from dying in trying to kill Khurram, she then approaches Khurhaam and his soldiers under the pretense that she will negotiate her son’s safety. Instead she detonates the suicide bomb vest that we now see has been given to her by Roodhar, blowing herself up, and in the process killing the soldiers and wounding Khurram, who in the aftermath writhes in the snow, both his legs gone.10 A shell-shocked Haider runs toward the explosion and howls in agony before he sees Khurram struggling on the ground, and approaches him with a gun. He is about to shoot his uncle at close range when competing sets of words swirl through his mind in overlapping voice-overs: Roodhar’s revenge mantra, as well as the refrain of his grandfather’s conciliatory words, as now spoken by Ghazala. During his last conversation with his mother, Haider had committed himself fully to the traditional revenge code of an honor culture when he claimed that there was no greater pain than to “die without avenging the murder of one’s father.” But his mother’s voice edges out his father’s supposed command to kill Khurhaam, and the adage “Revenge does not set us free. Freedom lies beyond revenge” wins. At the moment when he can shoot and kill his uncle, he tosses the gun aside. Earlier in the film, in another emotional conversation with Ghazala, Haider had argued against what he saw as her stubborn nature by telling her that “there are other ways of seeing.” He follows his own dictum here, and takes from his mother’s words such another way. He limps away from the carnage, ignoring Khurram’s horrific pleas that he take his revenge and put him out of his misery.

Now, there is perhaps good reason to be skeptical about seeing this as a full-scale refusal of revenge.11 On a purely practical level, Khurram is certainly at risk of dying from his wounds anyway. Haider can thus embrace the moral high ground of finding “freedom beyond revenge,” secure in the knowledge that his mother has done the dirty work to kill his enemy. And we do not know to what or to whom Haider limps as he moves away from the bloody field. Is it Roohdaar, who perhaps never left after dropping Ghazala at the scene? Intriguingly, the published screenplay allows for that possibility. The final stage direction reads:

Haider slowly walks away into the smoke, leaving Khurram screaming for mercy. [Option
1—After a few steps he falls on the ground. Option 2—Roohdaar emerges from smoke. Smiling, he opens his arms, Haider falls into his embrace.] (Bhardwaj and Peer, 212)

Neither option makes the final cut. Instead, the screen goes to black while Haider is still limping away, and the credits roll. The first screenplay option, in which he falls to the ground, may have implied his death; the second, that he is fully now won over to Roohdaar, and to Roohdaar’s militant ideology. Instead, Bhardwaj leaves things conspicuously unsettled and, thus, makes a pat “redemptive” reading of the end impossible.

The ending of Haider is brutal. Sarkar, in his perceptive reading of the film and its politics, notes that there are “gestures towards transcendence of revenge,” but he regards them as “deceptive,” for the immediate situation of the bloody end that I’ve described “hardly leaves any grounds for reassurance and reconciliation” (Sarkar 41). In Curfewed Night, Peer likewise writes in one particularly dark moment that “There are no good stories in Kashmir. There are only difficult, ambiguous, and unresolved stories” (158). This might be a fitting epigram for all of Shakespeare’s tragedies, and it resonates with Haider. Bhardwaj’s adaptation strategy obviously is not to construct an easy to access backdoor out of tragedy, one that leads directly to stability, peace, or justice. His film indeed creates grounds for sympathy toward Roodhar’s radical redress of grievances through retaliatory violence. Yet, I believe that the film ultimately calls for a rejection of that stance. Haider’s complexity lies in the fact that it does so without fully delegitimizing militant radicalism, a nuanced position it draws from Peer’s memoir.12 For Peer himself models a particular response to his region’s troubles. In his book, he details how he was drawn toward militancy and the allures of armed insurgency in his youth. But he chose instead to become a journalistic witness and activist whose work has focused on bringing attention and aid to the humanitarian crises in Kashmir.  And, despite his prior assertion that there are no good stories in Kashmir, Peer does end his book on a note of optimism. In his final pages he describes how, during a period of relative tranquility in the early 2000s, a bus route between contested territory in the region that had long been abandoned because of the dangers of travel was revived. He witnesses passengers’ “hands reaching out of the bus windows, waving in the air, as if each wave would erase the lines of control” (221).13

Bhardwaj adds an equivalent to Peer’s hopeful epilogue in text that appears on screen during the end titles sequence. After the screen goes dark and Bhardwaj’s director’s credit appears, a chyron notes the thousands of deaths in the conflict, then states that “the last few years of relative peace have renewed hope” in the region. The text then reports that in a recent flood, Indian soldiers “saved the lives of thousands” of Kashmiris. This statement seems calculated to appease Indian nationalists who might be offended by the film’s negative depiction of the Indian army in Kashmir (Huang 226). But it is also a genuinely hopeful sentiment about increased trust and cooperation between the Indian government and local Kashmiris.

And yet, 2017 was a bad year in Kashmir. According to some reports, there were as many as 350 deaths in the region related to a resurgence of the conflict. This is a depressing reality check to the film’s hopeful post-script, and it makes Haider’s vision of injustice and alternatives to cyclic political violence more urgent than ever.14 Bhardwaj has stated his refutation of militancy in a public discussion of Haider, saying that the film’s message is that “everything is not lost, that we should all overcome the feeling of revenge. The whole film was against violence” (quoted in Sarkar 43).15 While critics are never obliged to defer to the artist’s own words about his or her work, I would argue that the film itself makes the meanings Bhardwaj claims for Haider available and compelling, even if the sentiment is idealistic and continues to be challenged by actual events in Kashmir. By offering the counterexample of political action organized around nonviolence to the cult of retribution, by reintroducing and ultimately privileging the Gandhi-inflected ethos of nonviolent activism in the film’s tense closing moments, and by allowing his protagonist to escape death at the end of his film, Bhardwaj offers a dose of hope that a different future, one that departs from cycles of oppression, corruption, and carnage, is possible.

The inevitability of Hamlet’s meeting death in the final act of Shakespeare’s play is in some ways linked to the fact that there is no place in that play’s world for him to live and thrive, no community to sustain him. When Haider stumbles away from the cemetery, the camera shows him in a bird’s eye view. He makes his way out of the massacre zone as a lone figure. And yet the fact that he lives on seems to me to be tied to the sense of future possibility his earlier connections with the families of the disappeared offered. His physical and psychological wounds are great, but Haider faces a future that is not defined, or as sure to be cut short by, revenge as in Shakespearean tragedy. Haider’s brief history of social engagement and of openness to others suggest that it is possible for the fundamentally alienated to form dynamic, but not violent, communities based on shared experiences of oppression. As an activist adaptation, the film thus adds a distinctive layer to the continually accreting Hamlet strata within the wider field of Shakespearean reworkings. Bhardwaj’s film revives and resignifies a term that Prince Hamlet detests: Haider’s grief is common within his community, and in finding commonality with others, he may find a way to heal that grief and work toward ameliorating the oppressive politics at its source. For Bhardwaj and for his Hamlet, there are other ways of seeing.


1 Bhardwaj’s inclusion in a special issue of Shakespeare Bulletin dedicated to the auteur theory solidifies this status. See Semenza.

2 See also Kidnie 2.

3 On Hamlet’s singularity in the cultural imagination, see Bloom 412-413.

4 In the first, so called “bad quarto” of Hamlet (1603), Gertrude, called in that edition Gertred, seems to be persuaded by Hamlet that Claudius is evil.

5 I quote Haider from the English subtitles provided on the DVD. The English translation of the script in the bilingual published screenplay differs in some particulars from the subtitles on the DVD, as I will note when I find the discrepancies relevant.

6 On the 180-degree rule, see, for instance, Bordwell and Thompson, 263.

7 Ganti notes that “maintaining the 180-degree axis of action is not a major concern” in much popular Indian film (142). This is correct, but in my observation of his work, Bhardwaj rarely breaks this rule.

8 See Ganguly as well as Gersham for full histories of the conflict.

9 Sarkar anticipates aspects of my argument here when he writes that the “claustrophobic feel of foreboding, suspicion and hostility that pervades Shakespeare’s play is thus given a more communal character in Haider,” 35.

10 See Sarkar 39-40 on Ghazala’s complex motivations here.

11 See, on this point, Sarkar 40-41, and especially a review of Haider by Mukul Kesavan cited by Sarkar on 40. Bhardwaj has spoken of Haider’s refusal to kill Khurram as a deliberate decision to create some hope. See Shapiro.

12 On whether the film delegitimizes resistance, see Sarkar 39-40.

13 The “Line of Control” is the name given to the border between India and Pakistan that runs through the Jammu and Kashmir region.

14 A report in the Guardian newspaper states that although “violence had been decreasing during the last decade…this year about 350 deaths have been reported following the Indian army’s anti-militant offensive, known as Operation All-Out,” (“Indian Troops Kill Top Militant in Kashmir.”)

Works Cited

Bhardwaj, Vishal and Basharat Peer. Haider: The Original Screenplay. Uttar Pradesh: Harper Collins India, 2014. Print.

Bhardwaj, Vishal. Interviewed by James Shapiro. “Decoding Shakespeare: Vishal Bhardwaj on Haider at NYIFF.” The Review Monk 17 May 2015,  https://thereviewmonk.com/article/decoding-shakespeare-vishal-bhardwaj-haider-nyiff/. Accessed 26 September 2017. Web.

Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: Invention of the Human. New York. Riverhead Books, 1998. Print.

Bordwell, David and Kristin Thompson. Film Art: An Introduction, 6th edition. New York: McGraw Hill, 2003. Print.

Buchanan, Judith. Shakespeare on Film. Harlow, UK: Pearson, 2005. Print

Burnett, Mark Thornton. Shakespeare and World Cinema. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013. Print.

Cartelli, Thomas and Katherine Rowe. New Wave Shakespeare on Screen. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2007. Print.

Ganguly, Sumit. The Crisis in Kashmir: Portents of War, Hopes of Peace. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Ganti, Tejaswini. Bollywood: A Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Gersham, John. “Overview of Self-Determination Issues in Kashmir,” Foreign Policy in Focus 18 January 2002, www.kingscollege.net/bahcheli/.../Kashmir%20&%20self-determination.pdf. Accessed 26 September 2017. Web.

Glavin, John. After Dickens: Reading, Adaptation, and Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999.

Hamlet. Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor, eds. Cengage, 2006. Print.

Haider. Dir. Vishal Bhardwaj. UTV Motion Pictures and Vishal Bhardwaj Pictures, 2014. DVD.

Hatchuel, Sarah and Nathalie Vienne-Guerrin, eds. Shakespeare on Screen: “Hamlet.” Mont-Saint-Aignan, France: Publications des Universités de Rouen and du Havre, 2011. Print.

Huang, Alexa. “Shakespeare on Film in Asia.” The Shakespearean World, edited by Jill L. Levenson and Robert Ormsby, New York: Routledge, 2017, pp. 225-240. Print.

“Indian Troops Kill Top Militant in Kashmir.” The Guardian. 26 December 2017. Web. Accessed 5 March 2018.

Jorgens, Jack J. Shakespeare on Film. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1977. Print.

Kidnie, Margaret Jane. Shakespeare and the Problem of Adaptation. New York, Routledge, 2009. Print.

Martin, Randall.  “Paulina, Corinthian Women, and Revisioning of Pauline and Early Modern Patriarchal Ideology in The Winter's Tale.” Shakespeare, the Bible, and the Form of the Book: Contested Scriptures, edited by Travis de Cook and Alan Galey, New York: Routledge, 2012, pp. 57-76. Print.

Mishra, Vijay. Bollywood Cinema: Temples of Desire. New York: Routledge, 2002. Print.

Rodgers, Amy. “Vishal Bhardwaj.” Shakespeare Bulletin 34: 3 (2016): 500-504. Print.

Sarkar, Abhishek. “Haider and the Nation-State: Shakespeare, Bollywood, and Kashmir.” The South Asian Review 37:2 (2016): 29-46. Print.

Semenza, Gregory M. Colon. “Shakespeare and the Auteurs: Rethinking Adaptation through the Director’s Cinema.” Shakespeare Bulletin 34: 3 (2016): 353-371.

Sen, Suddhaseel. “Indigenizing Macbeth: Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool.” Borrowers and Lenders 4.2 (Spring/Summer 2009): 1-8.