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The Poetics of Revolution: Hindu Right-Wing Politics and the Kashmir Question in Haider

This article interrogates the Indian state’s systematic repression of Kashmiri Muslims through an analysis of a mainstream Bollywood film, Haider, which is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (2014). I read the film as a resistive site that contests the linguistic, semantic and visual registers through which the Indian state, backed in large part by Hindu right-wing ideology, justifies its brutal repression of Kashmiri Muslims and represses their demand for Kashmiri sovereignty. Specifically, I argue that Haider contests the Hindu right-wing state’s ideological representation of Kashmiri Muslims as “foreign” subjects in the nation and, paradoxically, as de facto Indians whose separatist demands in Kashmir are territorial threats to the nation. It does so through two literary inter-texts — the revolutionary Urdu poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Haider is loosely based on Basharat Peer’s The Curfewed Night, a journalistic account of the atrocities perpetrated by the Indian army in Kashmir in the 1990’s, and the characters’ lives are mired in the conflict. The film opens with the “disappearance” of Haider’s father, Hilal Meer, who is taken by the Indian army to an unknown location and murdered. Haider discovers that his mother, Ghazala, has forgotten about his father and is sexually involved with his uncle, Khurram, whom he suspects of murdering his father. Over the course of the film, Haider learns the truth from a pro-Pakistani emissary, Roohdar (the Ghost) and resolves to avenge his father’s death by murdering Khurram.

I situate my reading of the film in the context of two intersecting historical and political moments: the 1990’s in Kashmir, which is the setting of the film, and the Indian political landscape at the time of the film’s release in 2014,1 both of which have been marked by the ascendancy of Hindu right wing politics and the consequent repression of Kashmiri Muslims as threats to the nation (Basu, 62).2 The correlation between the rise of secessionist violence and that of the Hindu right is not accidental, but a clear outcome of right wing ideology. The Kashmiri secessionist movement threatens the supremacy of the Hindu right because it insists on the rights of Kashmiris as Muslims. This rubs against the right-wing ideology of “Hindu secularism,” which insists that Muslims should live within the jurisdiction of Hindu law and obey Hindu ethics (Niranjana 79-80). Second, the secessionist movement upends the Hindu nationalist “commitment to the territorial integrity of India as well as a political commitment to Hinduism” because it insists on Kashmiris’ rights to self-determination (Varshney 228).

The internal contradictions within Hindutva ideology have produced a contradictory view of Kashmiri Muslims. On the one hand, the Hindu Right sees Kashmiri Muslims as foreign because of their Muslim identity; that is, as a Muslim, the Kashmiri is “a geographical Other” (because of his supposed links with Pakistan and the Muslim world) and also a linguistic other because of his use of Urdu, which has historically (and erroneously) been associated with Muslims and is the national language of Pakistan (Gabriel and Vijayan 300-304).3 On the other hand, the Hindu right also views  Kashmiri Muslims as  Indians who are threats to the nation because they are “strong, aggressive, militarized, potent and masculine” (Blom Hansen 148). As an Indian, the Kashmiri Muslim’s demands for secession make them an “internal Other [with] extra-territorial loyalties” (Blom Hansen 153).

The Hindu right’s ideology has had a great influence on the popular image of Kashmir and Kashmiri Muslims in mainstream Bombay cinema. Film scholars Tejaswani Niranjana, Ananya Kabir and Sumita Chakravarty argue that the desires of the nation have long been cathected onto Kashmir. Kabir argues, “The cinematic apparatus of Bollywood is … the nation’s major mechanism for mobilizing desire for Kashmir” (Kabir, Territory of Desire, 23). In the films of the 1960’s and 1970’s, Kashmir was depicted as “a symbol of purity and unspoiled nature” where the romantic plot of the film unfolded (Chakravarty 209). In contrast, in the films of the 1990’s, which were made under the shadow of the growing Hindu right and Kashmiri secessionist movements, Kashmir was depicted as a place of terror and violence and “made inaccessible by the activity of anti-nationals” (Niranjana 80).

Sangita Gopal’s recent work, suggests that Haider marks a new turn in Bombay cinema’s representational registers of Kashmir, for it documents “the infrastructural and human costs of perpetual war on a region whose status remains ‘to be or not to be.’” (Gopal 816). Building on this, I suggest that Haider explicitly overturns cinematic and Hindu right-wing depictions of Kashmiri Muslims by depicting them as the terrorized rather than the terrorist.    

First, the film contests the Hindu right-wing view of Urdu (and of Urdu speakers) as exotic or foreign by transforming the Urdu Marxist poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz into a poetry of revolution against the state. Second, I argue that the film uses Hamlet as a palimpsest and counterpoint to its own narrative. That is, the film deconstructs the notion of Haider as an ontological subject parallel to Hamlet by suggesting that Kashmir is the Hamlet of the film. In this, it functions as a pedagogical allegory for unmaking the modern nationalist subject.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz and the Muslim Question in Kashmir

Urdu underwent a transformation after the Partition of the subcontinent.  It was once the language of everyday intercourse and literature in India, but after Partition, it became a marginalized and neglected language (Hashmi)4 With the rise of the Hindu-right, its status fell further for it became permanently associated with Muslims and Pakistan, and underwent a “cultural-linguistic genocide” (Niazi).5 In the present moment, Urdu has been thoroughly Orientalized by Bombay cinema and has become associated with either the violent, Muslim terrorist or the exotic and erotic feminine (and feminized) subject.

Haider counters the Orientalization of Urdu by making the Urdu poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, a prominent Pakistani poet, counter the Hindu right-wing state’s territorial claims over Kashmir. I read the revolutionary import of Faiz’s poetry in the film in the context of three intersecting historical and political moments: the political events in response to which Faiz wrote his poetry (the 1950’s and 1970’s in Pakistan), the 1990’s in Kashmir (which is the setting of the film) and the contemporary moment in which this poetry is recreated as cinematic text.

When we first meet Haider, he is on his way home to console his mother after his father’s disappearance. On entering Kashmir, Haider is stopped at a military checkpoint and questioned about his identity and political views. The film establishes Haider’s subject position as markedly counter to the right-wing state’s depiction of Kashmiri Muslim men as always already terrorists, for Haider identifies himself as a student at Aligarh University who is studying the revolutionary poets of British India. In identifying himself through the secular space of the university, Haider gestures to the intellectual and literary legacy of Muslims in India that has been erased by the right-wing state.

Aligarh University, specifically, has been the home of the Urdu literati of the subcontinent, namely poets Shaharyar, Javed Akhtar and Ali Sardar Jafri among others, and Haider aligns himself with this poetic legacy. Further, the subject of Haider’s study, the revolutionary poetry of British India, prefigures his own use of poetry as a tool for revolution. Thus, from the very outset, the film suggests that the study of poetry is good schooling for a revolutionary.

In the following scene, poetry’s association with revolution is laid bare. Grieving for his father’s disappearance, Haider visits his family home which has been devastated by the Indian army. As he walks through the ruins of his house, he is visited by memories from his adolescence — his father, Hilal Meer, listening to Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poem “Gulon main rang bhare” [Flowers Infused with Colors] on the radio. We only hear the first verse of the poem when the adolescent Haider turns off the radio and asks his father for his pocket money. Hilal laughingly chides Haider and asks, “aagey”? [What comes next?] (in the poem). Haider recites the next verse from memory and Hilal hands Haider his pocket money.

The verse is as follows:

Gulon mein rang bhare baad-e-naubahaar chale
Chale bhi aao ke gulshan ka kaarobaar chale

Let the breeze of a new spring infuse these flowers with colors
Do come so that this garden can continue its daily business (translation mine)

On the surface, the poem reads prima facie as a lover beseeching his beloved to grace the garden, the meeting place of lovers, so that beauty may return to it. However, the historical context in which this poem was written offers another interpretation; Faiz wrote this poem in 1951 when he was imprisoned by the Pakistani state on the grounds of sedition against the state. This political context suggests that we read the poem as enunciating a poetics of revolution (Mufti, 246).6

Just like the Pakistan of the 1950’s, contemporary Kashmir is a prison. The garden is a metaphor for Kashmir, which has become a war zone, robbed of beauty. The beloved is the people’s revolution, a leveling of class and religious inequalities, that will infuse the flowers of the garden, here the people of Kashmir, with color or new vigor. The second verse is crucial to recovering the political overtones of the verse, for the subject of the verse is obscured and allows the reader to gloss the verse as espousing the coming of revolution.

In the film, the adolescent Haider must recite this second verse from memory before getting his pocket money. This transaction suggests that the second verse is the currency of revolution, an idea that becomes apparent later on in the film when this verse is once again recited by Roohdar, a pro-Pakistan emissary, (the Ghost in Hamlet).  

Roohdar tells Haider that his father’s death was no accident but was engineered by his uncle, Khurram, who wanted to marry Haider’s mother, Ghazala. When Haider demands proof, Roohdar recites the first line of Faiz’s poem. The film then cuts to a flashback as Roohdar recounts his first encounter with Haider’s father, Hilal. The camera zooms in on a remote building which we learn is “Mama 2: Detention Center of the Security Forces,” a torture center loosely based on the Indian army’s most notorious torture center Papa 2 (Peer).7 Roohdar tells Haider that he was drawn to Hilal because, amid the torture and beatings, Hilal recited poetry (see Figure 1).

The Poetics of Revolution: Hindu Right-Wing Politics and the Kashmir Question in Haider,
Krupa Shandilya
Figure 1

In the flashback, we hear Hilal Meer singing the second couplet of Faiz’s poem Gulon main rang bhare. It is as follows:

Qafas udaas hai yaaro saba se kuchh to kaho
Kahin to bahr-e-Khuda aaj zikar-e-yaar chale

The cage is sad, friends tell the breeze
To petition God, to speak of my beloved

These verses too can be read as both romantic and revolutionary. A romantic reading of the verse would be that Hilal laments the absence of his beloved wife, Ghazala, and begs the breeze to bring him news of her in his “cage” or prison. However, this romantic interpretation is undercut by the scenes of torture that follow — electric wires inserted into genitals, beatings and so on. These images prompt us to read the verse as a critique of the Indian army’s occupation of Kashmir. In this more revolutionary reading, the “cage” or prison is a chamber of death and the prisoner longs for the world to know of his suffering for it is also the tale of Kashmir’s suffering.

This reading is underscored by the scene that follows where we hear Hilal singing another of Faiz’s poem “Hum Dekhengey” [We shall Witness]. The verses are as follows:

Lazim hai ke hum bhi dekhenge
Wo din ke jis ka wada hai
Jo lauh-e-azl mein likha hai

It is certain that we too, shall witness
the day that has been promised
of which has been written on the slate of eternity (Rohwit)

Faiz wrote “Hum Dekhengey” in 1979 as a criticism of the authoritarian Islamic regime imposed by Zia ul Haq in Pakistan. The poem promises a day when Pakistanis will be freed from the injustices of Zia’s repressive dictatorship. The “slate of eternity” relies heavily on Islamic imagery of the day of justice. The poem thus offers a vision of revolution and justice that is based on a more just version of Islam than that promulgated by Zia ul Haq’s regime.

The context of the poem’s origination informs how we read the verse in the film. Hilal recites the poem just before he asks Roohdar to tell Haider that he must avenge his father’s incarceration and murder. Just like Pakistan under Zia, Kashmir too suffers under the repressive dictatorship of the Indian army. Hilal’s recitation of Faiz’s poetry in an Indian prison is a covert means of enunciating a revolutionary politics and poetics in a space that silences all dissent against the state. Finally, Hilal’s recitation of Faiz’s poetry suggests that he rejects the linguistic boundaries demarcated by the Indian state in which Urdu poetry is foreign.

The film returns to the present: Roohdar’s flashback convinces Haider that his uncle, Khurram, is a pro-India politician who engineered his father’s imprisonment and death. If we read Khurram as a representation of India’s political position and Roohdar as that of Pakistan, then Haider and his father represent Kashmir. In this context, Faiz’s poetry becomes the means of articulating a mode of dissent distinct from the narratives of the two nations. That is, the poetic text in the film invites the viewer to apply Faiz’s revolutionary politics to the situation in Kashmir—to see occupation as colonization (“the cage is sad”) and the Kashmiri demand for sovereignty as a call to freedom from colonial oppression (“the day that has been promised…on the slate of eternity”). Since the Indian state’s colonization of Kashmir does not map onto current paradigms of colonization and occupation, Urdu poetry becomes a means for articulating a vocabulary for occupation.

The metaphors of Faiz’s poem “the garden” and the “cage” thus suggest a spatial/poetic paradigm for representing Kashmir. In the popular imagination of Hindi cinema, Kashmir has often been depicted as an Orientalist paradise with no visible signs of the devastation wrought by the Indian army (Niranjana 80-84). In Haider, however, the images of “the garden” and the “cage” are used to symbolize Kashmir’s occupation. Faiz’s poetry becomes an instrument not only for baring these atrocities, but also a poetics of revolution against the state. Thus, the film’s use of Urdu poetry deconstructs the Hindu right’s Orientalist views of Urdu poetry as exotic and erotic.

One could argue that in using Urdu poetry rather than Kashmiri poetry, the film imposes a linguistic register on Kashmiris that is alien to them and thus colonizes the experiences of Kashmiris themselves. However, I argue that language in the film is not meant to be mimetic; that is, it does not speak for Kashmiris (which is what would happen if the film was in Kashmiri) but rather articulates a specifically Indian position against the occupation of Kashmir by the Indian state.

Towards a Necropolitics of Suffering

On its release, Haider became the subject of much controversy. Activists and audiences on both sides of the political spectrum took umbrage with the film as an adaptation of Hamlet. On the film’s release, right-wing groups were quick to mark the film as “anti-national” because the film portrayed Haider/Hamlet as a secessionist demanding freedom from India. On the other hand, pro-Kashmir activists (Kashmir Dispatch)8 were divided on whether the film did enough to indict the Indian state or make an argument for Kashmiri sovereignty (Bhat).9 Despite the vast ideological differences between these two readings, they make a similar assumption about the film vis-à-vis the play; that is, they read Haider as an ontological subject parallel to Hamlet. Such readings reproduce the ahistorical assumptions regarding subjectivity that characterize conventional readings of Hamlet and do not adequately contend with the film’s historical and political context.

I argue that Kashmir, rather than Haider, is the true subject of the film — that is, Kashmir is the Hamlet of the film (TRM).10 Kashmir is represented by two characters, Haider and Ghazala, who at different points in the film, focalize the ontological questions that have undergirded Kashmiri politics, since 1947. The characters in the film give Kashmir agency by re-inscribing Kashmir as a place of suffering rather than violence. In this, they refute the biopolitical logic of the state in which violence is used to exert power over life. In its place, they exert a necropolitics that is the ‘subjugation of life to the power of death’ (Mbembe 39). In taking away the state’s power to determine life and death through violence, they re-inscribe and foreground the suffering body, rather than the violent body, as a tool of resistance.

I argue, first, that Hamlet’s existential crisis is transferred onto Kashmir via Hamlet who serves as mouthpiece to articulate the troubles that beset Kashmir. Hamlet’s famous soliloquy on existence has been read by twentieth century Shakespeare scholarship as evidence of Hamlet’s psychological breakdown and as a manifestation of his troubled inner life. The soliloquy in Hamlet is as follows:

To be, or not to be — that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep —
No more — and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to…

Shakespeare scholar Margareta de Grazia argues that Hamlet ought to be read less as a psychological drama than as a political one. Through a study of the philological roots of certain key terms in the text, such as the Germanic roots of Hamlet’s name the German word Hamme which literally means “home,” she argues that the play is about a prince dispossessed and a contestation over land. She suggests that Hamlet’s remark that his “wit’s diseased’’ (3.2.313) needs to be understood in terms of the word “dis-seized” for ‘‘until the eighteenth century, diseased shared both spelling and pronunciation with dis-seized: to be illegitimately dispossessed of lands.”11

Building on this more political reading of Hamlet, I suggest that through its staging and mis-en-scene the film transforms Hamlet’s soliloquy into the crisis of Kashmiri dispossession. In the play, stage directions tell us that Hamlet is either alone or with Ophelia (who enters the stage but has no exit in the stage directions) when he delivers his soliloquy. The film, on the other hand, stages the soliloquy when Haider acquires proof of his father’s murder by his uncle. Outraged and traumatized, Haider delivers his soliloquy before a crowd of people. This radical departure from the play in staging is our first indication that the soliloquy in Haider, as I will show in my descriptive analysis, is a more public and therefore more political text.

In this scene, Haider’s head is shaved, which suggests a complete disavowal of his former identity as an innocent boyish man besotted with poetry and at a remove from the political upheaval that surrounds him. This meaning is further accentuated by a rope around Haider’s neck which signifies the death of Haider’s “normal” self, which had hitherto believed the falsehoods propagated by the Indian army. Reading Haider as analogous with Kashmir, we can read the rope as a symbol of the life-sentence prescribed to Kashmiris in the valley by the Indian state.

Haider’s baldness, his tattered clothes, the rope around his neck and his lack of weapons defies the Indian state’s view of the Kashmiri Muslim as terrorist, and contradicts the depiction of Kashmiri Muslims in several Bollywood films since the 1990’s such as Roja [1992], Sarfarosh [1999], Mission Kashmir [2001] and Black Friday [2004], which, reflecting the rise of Hindu right-wing politics, sought to stir nationalist fervor by evoking the Kashmiri Muslim as threat to the nation (see Figure 2) (Taneja).12

The Poetics of Revolution: Hindu Right-Wing Politics and the Kashmir Question in Haider,
Krupa Shandilya
Figure 2

From the perspective of Shakespearian theatre, Haider has been transformed into the
Shakespearian Fool. Like the Shakespearian Fool, Haider is now able to speak the truth about Kashmir through a self-conscious performance of clowning and tomfoolery. In keeping with the antics of the Shakespearian Fool, Haider uses the rope around his neck as an imaginary microphone to indict the Indian army. We are meant to laugh at Haider’s antics, yet much like the fool of Shakespearian theater, we recognize his pronouncements as a true comment on the situation at hand. This meaning is layered by another representational paradigm, that of the Kashmiri performer. Haider clutches a tape recorder/radio, an updated version of the traditional harmonium usually associated with itinerant entertainers who speak truths through stories and parables.13

These three intersecting representations create a framework for reading Haider’s soliloquy, as an indictment of the war over Kashmir rather than as the existential crisis of a prince dispossessed. Haider’s soliloquy is as follows:

Hello, Mike testing 1, 2, 3 hello. Awaaz aa rahi hai aap logon ko? UN Council resolution number 47 of 1948, Article 2 of the Geneva convention and Article 370 of the Indian constitution bus ek sawal uthata hai sirf ek, hum hain ki hum naaheen, hum hain tou kahaan hai aur hum naheen tou kahaan gaye, hum hai tou kis liye aur kahaan gaye aur kab. janaab, hum the bhi ke hum the hee naheen. Chutzpah ho gaya hamare saath… chutzpah, besharam, gustakh jaise AFSPA. Saavdhan. Armed forces special powers Act section 5, rule 4.8….Law hai order, jiska law hai uska order, India Pakistan ne milkar khela hum se border border. Ab na hamain chode Hindustan ab na hamain chodey Pakistan. Arre koi tou hum se puchey ke hum kya chahte. Is par bhi lenge “Azaadi” us paar bhi lenge, “Azaadi”. Le ke rahenge azaadi.

Hello, Mike testing 1, 2, 3 hello. Can you hear me?UN Council resolution number 47 of 1948, Article 2 of the Geneva convention and Article 370 of the Indian constitution only one question remains, only one. Do we exist or do we not, if we exist then where are we and if we don’t exist then where are we? If we exist then why and where did we go and when? Sir, did we exist or did we never exist? Chutzpah happened to us…Chutzpah, shameless, audacious, just like AFSPA. Be Careful. Armed forces special powers Act section 5, rule 4.8….Law is order, the one who makes the law makes the order. India and Pakistan have played border-border with us. Now neither Hindustan leaves us alone nor does Pakistan. Why does no one ask us what we want? We will take freedom from this side and we will take freedom from that side. We will take freedom at all costs (translation mine).

Haider asks, “if we exist then where are we and if we don’t exist then where are we?” In Hamlet, the question posed has no direct referent, but we understand the question to refer to Hamlet’s own existence. In the film, Haider extends this question to all of Kashmir—did we exist? The question of location is foregrounded by the lines that follow: “if we exist then where are we and if we don’t exist then where are we?” The “where” of this question refers to a geographical locus which has created the problem of a political locus. Geographically sandwiched between India and Pakistan, Kashmir’s problems arose from the very foundational myths of both countries. In 1947, each country justified its existence on the premise of a large religious majority that needed its own homeland; Kashmir’s identity, however, was premised on “Kashmiriyaat” (or Kashmiri-ness). Thus, the political existence of Kashmir threatened the foundational myth of both countries, and the ensuing attempts to claim Kashmir have been an attempt to shore up nationalist fervor by both India and Pakistan. As Brian Walsh argues, the film transforms the Shakespearian monologue by “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” (Walsh).

The questions in this soliloquy follow one another rapidly, a rhetorical strategy that suggests that these questions require no answer but are intended as truths that Kashmiris cannot speak for fear of retaliation by the Indian state. For the Indian viewer watching this film, this rhetorical strategy is intended to shock him or her film out of his/her complacency, and serve as a rallying cry to action.

The last question brings this to the fore, “Sir, did we exist or did we never exist?” This rhetorical question suggests that the existence of Kashmir was once undisputable, but India’s violation of Article 370 has created the current dispossession of Kashmiris from their homeland. Article 370 of the Indian constitution granted Kashmir semi-autonomous power and Kashmir’s existence as a state of India was contingent on its citizens’ consent.14 The Indian state’s implementation of AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) in 1990, which gave (and continues to give) the army the right to detain and attack civilians if they are considered a threat to security, has belied this promise (Ganai).15 In indicting the unfettered power of AFSPA over the people of Kashmir, the film criticizes not only the historic moment of 1995, but also the contemporary Indian state, which refuses to abolish AFSPA in Kashmir.

The soliloquy is interrupted by Haider’s uncle Khurram, a pro-Indian politician whose election was rigged by the Indian army. As a pawn of the Indian state, Khurram is enraged that Haider has revealed the state’s culpability in the Kashmir conflict and he attempts to silence Haider.

Khurram: Haider
Haider: Saarey Jahaan se acha Hindustan hamara, hum bulbulein hai iski
Khurram: Haider
Haider: hain?
Khurram: Moji
Haider: kiski?
Khurram: tumhari

Khurram: Haider
Haider: In all the world, my Hindustan is the best, we are the nightingales of this country
Khurram: Haider
Haider: What?
Khurram: Mother
Haider: whose?
Khurram: Yours (translation mine)

Haider responds to Khurram’s interruption by reciting a patriotic song, “Saare jahan se acha Hindustan hamara,” [In all the world, my Hindustan is the best]. This song was written in 1904 by Mohammed Iqbal, one of the foremost South Asian Muslim thinkers and Urdu poets of the twentieth century. Iqbal first recited the song in 1905 at the Government College in Lahore, now in Pakistan. The song was intended as a rousing cry of national pride and, in the years before independence, it served as an anthem of opposition to British rule in India. It continues to be taught to school children in India. However, Iqbal also created the idea of Pakistan as a spiritual home for Muslims (Puri 490-492). The song’s current popularity in India as a nationalist paean would be in clear contradiction with Iqbal’s sympathies. We could read Haider’s recitation of the song as an espousal of Indian patriotism intended to ally Khurram’s anxieties about Haider’s defection to Pakistan. But more subversively, Haider’s recitation evokes the song’s roots in Pakistani history, and is a tongue-in-cheek protest Indian colonialism.

Khurram’s response, “Moji” reminds Haider that he owes allegiance to his mother, Ghazala, whose affiliations are clearly with India because of her involvement with Khurram, and it implies that Haider’s criticism of India is traitorous. To draw on a point mentioned earlier, Hamlet’s Germanic root means “home” and we can read Haider’s question, “whose mother” as suggesting that Kashmir, and not India, is his mother.16 Thus, the soliloquy, and the exchange that follows, suggests that Haider is merely a focalization for the dispossession of Kashmiris and that Kashmir, is the true Hamlet of the film.

If Haider is a focalization of Kashmir’s dispossession, Ghazala (the Gertrude character of the film) articulates a revolutionary vision of Kashmiri resistance. Unlike the play in which there is some ambiguity about whether Gertrude’s death by the poisoned chalice is accidental or intentional, Ghazala’s death in the film is a deliberate suicide — she kills herself by detonating a bomb.

As Mike Dillon argues in the context of the film The Terrorist, the suicide bomber’s subjectivity should be read through the lens of necropolitics, rather than biopolitics because it is an act intended to defy the state’s right to exert violence (biopolitics) over its citizens. Building on Membe’s theory of bare life, Dillon posits that “the suicide bomber complicates paradigms of combat and resistance, even ‘victory’ itself, by employing the spectacle of death in a manner that utilizes – no, weaponizes – the body’s existing and pre-inscribed state of (marginalization/living death/bare life) and uses it against the dominant order in an act of death-resistance” (Dillion 215).

Ghazala’s suicide is a protest against the violence perpetrated by India and by Pakistan, and in killing herself, she takes away the power of the state to commit violence on Kashmiris. In addition, Ghazala gives us an explicit framework for understanding her suicide. Just before she kills herself, she urges Haider to rethink his decision to avenge his father’s death by killing his uncle, and tells Haider “Inteqaam se sirf inteqaam paida hota hai. Jab tak hum apne inteqaam se azaad nahin honge, koi azaadi humey azaad nahin kar sakti” (Revenge only begets revenge. Until we are free from our vengeance, no freedom can free us).

Through this statement we understand that Ghazala’s suicide is not only a protest against the state’s violence, but also a protest against the ideological position taken by both pro and anti-Kashmiri activists — resistance as violence. Ghazala’s violence escapes the biopolitics of the state and the necropolitics of the revolutionary/terrorist by insisting on a third paradigm—the suffering body as resistance. In a Gandhian sense, the suffering body is itself the instrument of non-violent resistance (Gandhi 79).17

This is borne out by the last scene of the film, in which Haider, unlike Hamlet, does not kill his uncle or commit suicide.18 Haider’s refusal to kill his uncle counters the Hindu-right demarcation of Muslim male as always already a terrorist, whose only response is violence (Gabriel and Vijayan 302).19 Critic Suhas Munshi suggests, the film makes “a case for dropping arms and transforming resistance not abandoning it” (Munshi). We can read Haider’s decision, in light of Ghazala’s words and suicide, as transforming resistance as suffering.

This idea of suffering as a form of resistance is reinforced by the last song of the film which plays when the credits roll across the screen. The song, Aaj ke Naam/A dedication to today is a rendition of Faiz’s poem Intesaab/Dedication. Significantly, only the verses that could apply to Kashmir are included in the song’s rendition.  

Aaj ke naam aur
Aaj ke gham ke naam
Aaj ka gham ke hai zindagi ke bhare gulistaan se khafa
Zard patton ka ban
Zard patton ka ban jo mera des hai
Dard ke anjuman jo mera des hai

Line 1 A dedication to today and
Line 2 In memory of the sorrow of today
Line 3 The sorrow of today which is angry with the garden of life
Line 4 The forest of yellow leaves
Line 5 The forest of yellow leaves which is my country
Line 6 The society of pain which is my country (translation mine)

The poem is a dedication to the pain of the people of Kashmir. A given verse is embellished upon and reiterated until the poem gradually develops a theme of sorrow. For instance, the “forest of yellow leaves” is revealed in the following line as “my country,” which unfolds the pain and loss experienced by the people of Kashmir. The poem makes emotions such as sorrow and pain subjects in their own right, and this has the effect of centering the human subject’s suffering. Thus, in line 3 “sorrow” is angry with the “garden of life” or in other words, the suffering of the people of Kashmir has denied them any possibility of living a normal life. In line 6, “anjuman” means a gathering of people, but here the people are known by their pain, and this pain is the speaker’s country. Thus, Ghazala’s suffering is a metonymy for the pain of the people of Kashmir. The film’s conclusion decenters the narrative of the Kashmiri Muslim male as the heroic-resister/violent separatist and enunciates its own radical politics of suffering as resistance.

In Bombay cinema, Kashmir is represented either as a blank space in which the Indian army fights terrorists or as an exotic, Orientalist paradise adorned by lakes and valleys of flowers and populated by friendly locals where the romantic plot of the film unfolds. As Ananya Kabir argues, the Indian army’s devastation of Kashmir’s natural landscape and its economic and psychological destruction of Kashmiri society is entirely absent in mainstream cinema (Kabir 23).20 In bringing attention to the devastation of Kashmir, Haider’s soliloquy, Ghazala’s suicide and the poem re-inscribe Kashmir as a place of suffering and trauma rather than violence. The present-ness of the poem, its repeated iteration of today, forces the viewer to consider its immediacy, and although the film is set in the 1990’s it remains a commentary on the continuing injustices suffered by the people of Kashmir.

The Politics and Aesthetics of Haider

Haider’s literary inter-texts present a counter-discourse to the Hindu right-wing narrative of Kashmiri Muslims, and I suggest that the film’s aesthetic is inextricably intertwined with its politics. In the context of postcolonial fiction, Kwame Anthony Appiah argues that postcolonial novels “are novels of delegitimation: rejecting the Western imperium, it is true; but also rejecting the nationalist project of the postcolonial national bourgeoisie” (Appiah 439). I suggest that as a postcolonial film, Haider’s aesthetic is likewise a rejection of empire and of nationalism.

In narrating the Kashmir conflict through Hamlet, the film purposefully draws a connection between the colonial project and the postcolonial tragedy. As scholars have argued, postcolonial retellings of Shakespeare seek to destabilize the meaning of the Shakespearian text by re-contextualizing it in a specific political moment (Loomba and Orkin 7).21 By locating Shakespeare in Kashmir, Haider questions the notion of the postcolonial nation state as a stable political formation bequeathed by the British empire. It also undermines the colonial project which sought to demonstrate the superiority of British culture by suggesting that Shakespeare’s status as a world genius lay in his ability to pronounce universal truths (Neill 172).22 This is because the film “provincializes” Shakespeare, in the words of Dipesh Chakrabarty, by questioning the ahistorical assumptions that read Haider as an ontological subject parallel to Hamlet. Conversely, Haider’s remaking of Shakespeare also changes how we read the Shakespearian text for it insists on re-reading Hamlet as the dispossession of a people by (Indian) colonial forces.

The film also suggests that the history of empire is closely intertwined with the politics of the postcolonial present. The current right-wing marginalization of Urdu traces its genealogy to the British policy of Divide and Rule, in which the British sought to sow dissent among Hindus and Muslims by marking Hindi as the language of Hindu and Urdu that of Muslims. Consequently, on the eve of independence, India marked Hindi as its national language while Pakistan marked Urdu. In using the poetry of a Pakistani poet to enunciate a revolutionary politics for Kashmir, the film challenges the colonial legacy of Urdu and the contemporary Hindu-right wing discourse that perpetuates the marginalization of Urdu in the Indian public sphere. Thus, the film’s aesthetics and politics deconstruct the Hindu right-wing state’s ideological representation of Kashmiri Muslims as territorial threats to the nation from within and without.

In conclusion, Haider’s reworking of Hamlet and its use of Faiz’s Urdu poetry gestures to the impossibility of disentangling the history of colonialism from the contemporary crises of the Indian state. In this, the film articulates a postcolonial poetics of revolution as it were—it suggests that the crises of the postcolonial moment and the consequent unmaking of the modern nationalist subject is necessarily represented through an aesthetics that is always already political.  


1  As Amrita Basu argues, the Hindu right is both a social movement, which is led by the Rashtriya Sevak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), and a political movement which is led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). (Basu 163)

2  Political scientist Amrita Basu argues that the escalation of secessionist militancy in Kashmir in the late 1980’s and 1990’s was paralleled by the rise of the Hindu right (Basu 62).

3  For instance, in the film Sarfarosh/ Fervour (John Matthew Matthan, 1999) released at the peak of the Hindu right’s rise to power, the Pakistani Muslim terrorist is disguised as an Urdu poet. The linguistic “foreign-ness” of the terrorist is proof of his extra-territorial loyalties and he is thus sine non-qua a threat to the nation (Gabriel and Vijayan 300-304).

4  In a recent article, Fahad Hashmi notes, “Scholars have noted that a section of the society projects Urdu as the language of Muslims in order to urge Hindus to build their own linguistic identity. This structuring of ‘Muslim linguistic identity’ vis-à-vis ‘Hindu linguistic identity’ seeks to pit the two communities against each other” (Hashmi).

5  “This tragic narrative of associating Urdu to a particular religion and its subsequent demise have been termed by scholars as a cultural-linguistic genocide that stigmatized the language beyond repair ” (Niazi).

6  As Aamir Mufti argues “the political element in Faiz’s work cannot be read without the mediation of the social” (Mufti, 246).

7  In an essay (excerpted from his book The Curfewed Night), Basharat Peer describes Papa 2, which became the model for Mama 2 in the film, “But from the early to mid-’90s, people dreaded Gupkar Road. It was the road to Papa-2, the most notorious torture chamber in all of Kashmir. Hundreds who went there did not come back. Those who returned are wrecks” (Peer).

8  “The film, set in 90s when militancy was at its peak in Kashmir, shows the police and their informants furthering Indian agenda in Kashmir. All this while, the director has conveniently taken the army off. Everything is done by locals— local militants, local civilians and local police. Army doesn’t seem to have much to do in the film…Is the film subtly telling its audience whatever disturbance is in Kashmir it’s their own creation?” (Kashmir Dispatch).

9  “Haider suffers from a fundamental flaw. It attempts to marry the Kashmir narrative to Hamlet, a famous play by William Shakespeare….Hamlet is a revenge saga. Haider has revenge as a recurring theme running for most parts. Kashmiris seek no retribution. Ask any random Kashmiri. It was and always has been about aspirations” (Bhat).

10 This idea is hinted at in an interview where Bhardwaj speaks of his decision to leave Haider alive: “ ‘What do you think I should do? Should Hamlet kill or what?’ I asked. Suddenly as I said that, I realized -he doesn’t take revenge. He overcomes his feeling of revenge. It makes him a bigger character! It leaves hope for Kashmir. For everything” (TRM).

11 I am grateful to Amelia Worsley for pointing me to these critical sources. De Grazia, Margreta. 'Hamlet' Without Hamlet. Cambridge University Press, 2007.

12 “The figure of the Muslim from the late 1980s onwards…becomes criminalized and equated with terror, and becomes marginal to films about the globalized, yet comfortably Hindu nationalist elite which has come to dominate Indian cinema in the past two decades and whose spiritual home lies not in Lucknow, but somewhere on a Trans-Atlantic flight between New York and London” (Taneja).

13 Haider loosely draws on the Kashmiri folk tradition of Bhand Pather. In an interview, Bhardwaj explains: “Kashmir has a beautiful 200-year-old tradition called ‘Bhand Pather’, where they make stories by singing and dancing, although this folk art is almost dying today, because it’s not supported by the State.” (TRM)  

14 The U.N. resolution he cites was created to resolve the question of whether Kashmir would belong to India or to Pakistan.

15 In March 2015, the Chief Minister of Kashmir, Mufti Mohammad Syed, attempted to persuade the Indian government of the necessity of rescinding or at the very least scaling down the territorial reach of AFSPA. This petition was stoutly denied by Dr. Jitendra Singh, senior BJP leader and Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office, who declared that “the last word on this (AFSPA) should not come from political functionaries, but from security experts and security agencies.” However, leader of the People’s Democratic Party of Kashmir Mirza Mehboob Beg countered this statement and declared AFSPA unconstitutional. He says that “in the democratic setup, the final call on such issues should be of democratically elected representatives…You cannot continuously instill a sense of insecurity among people by giving vast unaccountable powers to armed forces. Yes, in 1990s when situation was bad having this law is understandable. But at present, when there is a sharp decrease in violence you cannot continue with the law." (Ganai).

16 I am grateful to Zeeshan Mahmud for this point.

17 “For instance, the Government of the day has passed a law, which is applicable to me. I do not like it. If by using violence I force the Government to repeal the law, I am employing what may be termed body-force. If I do not obey the law and accept the penalty for its breach, I use soul-force. It involves sacrifice of the self” (Gandhi 79).

18 Audiences reading Haider as an ontological subject parallel to Hamlet, indicted the film’s conclusion as either an act of anti-national sedition or as failing to convey the aspirations of the people of Kashmir.

19 “[The Hindu Right’s] suppression of dissent inevitably also became a suppression of minorities, especially Muslims, by deeming them antinational and terrorist… Furthermore, cinema’s commitment to the coincidence between political and cultural nationalism ensured that its notions of terrorism were in harmony with those of the Hindu nationalists, even while it continuously strove to reconcile these to an integrationist model of the nation” (Gabriel and Vijayan 302).

20 As Ananya Kabir argues, “The genealogy of fantasy that links these films [about Kashmir] [is] imprinted with the trauma of losing the object of desire [that is, Kashmir]” (Kabir 23).

21 Ania Loomba and Martin Orkin suggest that the colonized population adapted Shakespeare’s plays as tools of anti-colonial resistance, remaking them in their own cultural and historical context. Loomba and Orkin argue that the adaptation of Shakespeare by colonial and postcolonial subjects marks these subjects as inevitably hybrid and, “enables [them] to elude, or even subvert the binaries, oppositions and rigid demarcations imposed by colonial discourses” (Loomba and Orkin 7).

22 “For better or for worse, Shakespeare has been not merely part of our history, but (no less than for those voyagers on the Endeavour) part of the cultural apparatus by which we have learned to know that history and our place in it—for the colonizers an essential beacon of location; for the colonized, arguably, an instrument of displacement and dispossession” (Neill 172).

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