5.1.15

Shuffled off this mortal coil

"It was my duty to make a film on Kashmir. More than a duty, it was my job to reflect the reality, as I saw it." — Vishal Bharadwaj


It was a picture that had more shadows than light. I was framed beneath a tree sitting as I would in a chair, my legs crossed. There is a slight frown and a sense of dislocation in the expression. Behind the black and white print, my classmate and friend had scrawled, "For Hamlet..."

The main reason I was Hamlet was my indecisiveness, apparent in the monologue, "To be or not to be". However, it was a play that I lived with beyond the literature lectures. 'Hamlet' had opened the world for me, had mirrored life in analogies. That picture is, therefore, me and yet not quite me.





A couple of months ago when I took the leap from my picture to the big picture, I realised that analogies work best with the real. Although I tried to avoid reading critiques of 'Haider' because I wanted to go to it blank, blankness is near impossible considering it is located physically, politically and emotionally in Jammu and Kashmir.

I made a few notes after watching the film and then, perhaps one of the rare times it has happened, I did not post anything. Today, I am revisiting because its director Vishal Bharadwaj has written about the problems he faced due to unofficial censorship. There was a good deal of talk about official censorship. Truth is this:

| Applied running time: 162:18 MM:SS
| Final running time of the film: 161:50 MM:SS (of which most were voluntary deletions)

In his personal account, Bharadwaj recounts how he felt bogged down by the protection he got:

"People called Haider a brave film but you know what was the price I had to pay? Because of the threats, I had to move around with a personal security guard. No matter where I was - whether in the car or playing tennis - the guard would guard me all the time, impinging on my personal space. Forget about freedom of expression, my own body's freedom was at stake now."


In 'Haider' he used the Hamletian ideas as set pieces rather than as the kernel running through. It worked well in this case; in fact, it would not have worked in any other manner. Haider's reality had to stand out against his bouts of madness and helplessness. Life had to stand out against death and decay.

The title of my post is a phrase from the monologue in Hamlet that follows "perchance to dream". In 'Haider', the cusp between the mortal and the dream is lit by the brilliance with which 'To be or not to be' transmogrifies into 'Hum hai ke hum nahin', that can be seen as 'Am I or am I not', but also 'Are we or are we not':



"Whose side are you on," Ghazala asks her husband, Dr. Hilal Meer.
"Zindagi (life),” he says. It is a professional duty statement of a doctor. More importantly, it politically establishes whose side the director is on, despite his claims of being "an objective observer". Opinions cannot and must not be objective to be alive. Life in 'Haider' is not the opposite of death, but the affirmation of it even in the face of death. And the state of Jammu and Kashmir has seen too much death – death in custody, death in the streets, death in homes.

The political azaadi is also about emotional freedom, more pertinent today than ever (what with the regional parties willing to ally with the rightwing BJP that is using J&K to score). There was some criticism about how it was a cop-out to reiterate in the film that one has to be free of vengeance. It was seen as a critique of Kashmiris and their fight for autonomy. Far from it. This is a life-giving thought, a need to purge the soul for a people who have been forced into numbness rather than aggressiveness. That man who cannot enter his own house because he is so habituated to being frisked and pushed before he can move conveys just such a sense of stasis.

Haider is not the, or a, hero; he is the sutradhar — the chain connecting events and places. His relationships define the state.

All he shares with his 'disappeared' father are memories. The doctor who treats a militant is taken away during a parade, and it establishes without any obfuscation how the army operates in J&K. There are no checks on the manner in which authority is asserted and abused. Even had there been no torture scenes, this one sequence would have been sufficient to damn the role of the armed forces and the rightly-maligned and questioned AFSPA. Sloganeering does not always convey much. At least not in cinema.

More pertinently, the ghost of the army looms throughout. Even as the grave-diggers sing about sleeping in the graves, they are fired upon.




What Haider shares with his mother Ghazala is less obsession and more desperation. Ghazala as mother(land) is poisoned beauty ("zeher ki khubsoorat", he says, as he sniffs the fragrance she applies on her neck). The sensuality and hint of incest (taken from the original) is a metaphor for the strong sense of identity that has to slake its thirst with such passing moments. Kashmiris believe with such finality in their Kashmiriyat and yet they feel displaced in the land.

Arshia — Ophelia redux — is the polity: helpless, supportive, craven, and ultimately tragic. It is the little touch of her brother working for a multinational firm together with the two Salman Khan fans as jesters who convey the role of the mainstream in the state. They all let Haider down.

Roohdar, the ghost, is a secessionist here, carrying the message of the presumed to be dead father. That Haider is by turns suspicious and attracted to him forms the crux of displacement.

Faiz plays in the background, most tellingly in the voice of the uprooted father:

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


Let there be colours in the flowers,
For the breeze of new spring would come.
Come, so that the garden can continue to bloom

9 comments:

  1. Farzana,

    In the interim (the Haider DVD is due here on Tuesday, and who knows what the morrow will bring), perhaps I might offer a comment on your effort to attend the screening of Haider "blank," notwithstanding that "blankness is near impossible considering it is located physically, politically and emotionally in Jammu and Kashmir"? Yes, and your subsequent observation -- that an objective opinion is dead -- appears to segue quite nicely with it. As to whether the doctor's response, "Zindagi (life)," to his wife's query reveals anything about the film director's objectivity . . . well, this is somewhat less certain. Having not yet seen the film, is there room to consider Haider's father was referring to his, his wife and/or son's life, and the potential consequences should he, having the means to save the militant's life, refuse to treat him? Kind of a damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don't situation? The film, "Night Train to Lisbon" (2013), explores a similar conundrum, but with the individual in need of life-saving treatment being the head of the hated secret police, and the doctor's quite active sympathies being with the dissidents (or, rather, with one in particular among the dissidents).

    >>Even as the grave-diggers sing about sleeping in the graves, they are fired upon.<<

    In Shakespeare's version, Hamlet, returning to Elsinore with Horatio (and both as-yet unwitting to her apparent suicide), comes upon a gravedigger preparing the ground for Ophelia's interment (there had been two, but the other had lost at a game of riddles and so had been dispatched to fetch a "stoup of liquor" for the victor). This gravedigger, too, is singing while he digs, and Hamlet, too, expresses his opprobrium:

    HAMLET
    Has this fellow no feeling of his business, that he sings at grave-making?

    HORATIO
    Custom hath made it in him a property of easiness.

    HAMLET
    'Tis e'en so: the hand of little employment hath the daintier sense.

    Which might, on the one hand, be taken to mean "familiarity breeds contempt," as they say; or, on the other hand, and as you observe elsewhere and in somewhat of a different context, the suggestion of "a need to purge the soul for a people who have been forced into numbness rather than aggressiveness." With the latter, we might consider the appeal of that "stoup of liquor" (and other such "restoratives" put to similar use, e.g., drugs, music, electronic gadgetry) for which the second gravedigger had been dispatched . . .

    >>Arshia — Ophelia redux — is the polity<<

    Thanks for that, Farzana. While I had found room to see Ophelia as "helpless, supportive, craven, and ultimately tragic," I hadn't quite yet considered her in the role of polity.

    Mark

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    1. Mark:

      I'd rather wait till you've watched it...too much analysis will kill it for you!

      We shall take it up as soon as you.are done:-)

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    2. Hi Farzana,

      The Haider DVD shipped and arrived accordingly, and I viewed it last night. While I am still digesting it and will most likely view it again several more times much as I will re-read a text, I'll offer a few initial impressions. First, though, in response to your reply and for what it's worth, analysis is what I do, before, during and after. I am never partial to any one take, save that it suits for the time being. Given a better fit, the former is easily set aside. Note easily *set aside*; never wholly discarded. Like you, I will generally avoid extraneous commentary offered prior, but this is primarily to the end that my own biases, preconceptions and susceptibilities going-in be revealed to me subsequent, and not another's. :)

      In the main, I agree with you where you said, "In 'Haider' he used the Hamletian ideas as set pieces rather than as the kernel running through." I neither see Haider nor Hamlet, however, as being particularly mad or helpless. He took several shocks, certainly (destroyed childhood home; mother sporting with uncle behind the veil; doctor-sahib father's undignified incarceration), and the scene most allusive of this, his initial, shaken condition, I thought, was the blasted home (to which he later returns with mom), and the way he absently attempts to shove a rescued photo into a non-existant breast-pocket. The breast-pocket wasn't where it was supposed to be, and neither was anything else. This, in turn, raises no small irony that mother, uncle, girlfriend, prospective father-in-law and daddy's prison associates are themselves busy about the business of putting him back where they think *he* ought to be . . .

      Save for one or two panoramic shots and the snow-scapes in the woods and cemetaries (official and unofficial), the camera frame was kept fairly tight throughout (perhaps a non-negotiable condition imposed by Indian Army intelligence). I recall Dal Lake with lily (lotus?) pads, houseboats moored alongside, and smaller craft plying their wares up and down; but then, for me, that was in late summer, with cherry-trees fully laden, ghee tins strung up in the branches to scare the bears away. I remember a meatball concoction, simmered in goat's milk and served over rice. "Kufta," I think it was called.

      In terms of artistic creativity, I thought Haider's "play" meant to give uncle's conscience a good hiding especially well-choreographed. I thought the scene with Haider and Arshee embraced in the wood inspired, and the manner of dispatch for his Guildenstern and Rosencrantz on par with Hamlet's. I found myself missing Horatio, however. Perhaps he was Shakespeare's "kernel running through"?

      If there is/was one for Bharadwaj, I'd have to say it was "chutzpah." :)

      With the subtitled DVD version, I was frustrated by the apparent selectivity of translation. Some background songs were translated; some were not. This got me to thinking about the quality of translation throughout. I'm also not quite sure what to make of the concluding cemetary scene; but I do recall an earlier exchange between mother and son, where the two recall some apparent Kashmiri motherly histronics (or perhaps generally South Asian motherly histronics), and where she says to the effect, "You knew I would do it," and he replies, "I knew you wouldn't do it" . . .

      M.

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  2. 2nd viewing was with less of an eye for Bharadwaj's craftsmanship, as with an ear, perhaps, for political undertone (my eldest, on first viewing, wondered if the "Jhelum, Jhelum" song might be about control of the headwaters and flow of the river, vis-a-vis Turkey, Syria and Iraq).

    >>The title of my post is a phrase from the monologue in Hamlet that follows "perchance to dream". In 'Haider', the cusp between the mortal and the dream is lit by the brilliance with which 'To be or not to be' transmogrifies into 'Hum hai ke hum nahin', that can be seen as 'Am I or am I not', but also 'Are we or are we not':<<

    The question then becoming, "Who are we?" Essentially, Hamlet's question as well.

    >>"Whose side are you on," Ghazala asks her husband, Dr. Hilal Meer.
    "Zindagi (life),” he says. It is a professional duty statement of a doctor. More importantly, it politically establishes whose side the director is on, despite his claims of being "an objective observer". Opinions cannot and must not be objective to be alive. <<

    True enough for the director; but a doctor must possess a capacity for and willingness to exercise objectivity nonetheless. It struck me that we are offered a counterpoint to Haider's father in the doctor who administered the drug intended to keep Haider on ice through the curfew. That that professional should have refused comes through in the overly obsequious way he's portrayed.

    >>Life in 'Haider' is not the opposite of death, but the affirmation of it even in the face of death. And the state of Jammu and Kashmir has seen too much death – death in custody, death in the streets, death in homes.<<

    Fitting of Hobbes', "war of all against all;" which is certainly an argument *for* objectivity, one would think. :)

    >>The political azaadi is also about emotional freedom, more pertinent today than ever (what with the regional parties willing to ally with the rightwing BJP that is using J&K to score). There was some criticism about how it was a cop-out to reiterate in the film that one has to be free of vengeance.<<

    Well, even Shakespeare stooped, it would seem. On Guildenstern and Rosencrantz "go[ing] to't," Hamlet clarifies for Horatio:

    Why, man, they did make love to this employment;
    They are not near my conscience; their defeat
    Does by their own insinuation grow:
    'Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes
    Between the pass and fell incensed points
    Of mighty opposites

    >>All he shares with his 'disappeared' father are memories. The doctor who treats a militant is taken away during a parade, and it establishes without any obfuscation how the army operates in J&K.<<

    Ah. Parade = line-up. Having not yet seen the film, I thought you were referring to some sort of civic street procession, lol. Yes, this one sequence would have done.

    >>More pertinently, the ghost of the army looms throughout. Even as the grave-diggers sing about sleeping in the graves, they are fired upon.<<

    And here I was picturing singing grave-diggers drawing fire for their satire. :)

    Thoughts? :)

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  3. Hi Mark:

    Thank you for this wonderful deconstruction. I've attempted to add a bit, but you've covered a lot more!

    {...is there room to consider Haider's father was referring to his, his wife and/or son's life, and the potential consequences should he, having the means to save the militant's life, refuse to treat him?}

    I see him in a less survivalist mode. Life seems above mundane matters of living...note his song is "Gulon mein rang bhare..."!

    {>>Arshia — Ophelia redux — is the polity<<

    Thanks for that, Farzana. While I had found room to see Ophelia as "helpless, supportive, craven, and ultimately tragic," I hadn't quite yet considered her in the role of polity.}

    Not in polity, but as polity :-)

    -2-

    About avoiding external commentary, absolutely agree. Other words would not have killed it for you, but your own reflections on those words might have!

    {I neither see Haider nor Hamlet, however, as being particularly mad or helpless. He took several shocks, certainly}

    That fine madness? Impotent rage?

    {The breast-pocket wasn't where it was supposed to be, and neither was anything else. This, in turn, raises no small irony that mother, uncle, girlfriend, prospective father-in-law and daddy's prison associates are themselves busy about the business of putting him back where they think *he* ought to be . . .}

    This is just so well-put, I wish I had thought about it, or noticed it as perceptively as you have...

    {Save for one or two panoramic shots and the snow-scapes in the woods and cemetaries (official and unofficial), the camera frame was kept fairly tight throughout (perhaps a non-negotiable condition imposed by Indian Army intelligence).}

    I'd have thought that officially panoramic shots might boost the image of the establishment. I liked the tight frames because they served to highlight the caged/cagey feeling.

    {I found myself missing Horatio, however. Perhaps he was Shakespeare's "kernel running through"?}

    Couldn't Horatio be Haider's inner voice?

    {If there is/was one for Bharadwaj, I'd have to say it was "chutzpah." :)}

    Indeed. However, I left out any reference to chutzpah because in the film it worked for me only in the jesters scene. Otherwise, it seemed overstated.

    Wonder why the translations are erratic; the screenplay is fairly easy for transliteration.

    {I'm also not quite sure what to make of the concluding cemetary scene; but I do recall an earlier exchange between mother and son,... where she says to the effect, "You knew I would do it," and he replies, "I knew you wouldn't do it" . . .}

    The line conveys the dissonance in their understanding of each other, despite the intimacy. Or perhaps, the latter gives rise to expectations of/for understanding. It could refer to most situations they are in.. (cont)

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    1. -3-

      {2nd viewing was with less of an eye for Bharadwaj's craftsmanship, as with an ear, perhaps, for political undertone (my eldest, on first viewing, wondered if the "Jhelum, Jhelum" song might be about control of the headwaters and flow of the river, vis-a-vis Turkey, Syria and Iraq).}

      Nice thought. Also think about what it means post-floods. However, in much of Indian literature, the river is used to convey tears (as here, it goes "Dooba sooraj, kin aankhon mein/Sooraj dooba, kin aankhon mein/
      Jehlum hua khaara"...in whose eyes does the sun set that the waters of Jhelum have turned saline).

      {>>There was some criticism about how it was a cop-out to reiterate in the film that one has to be free of vengeance.<<

      Well, even Shakespeare stooped, it would seem. On Guildenstern and Rosencrantz "go[ing] to't," Hamlet clarifies for Horatio:}

      But can vengeance not be *for* the "conscience" to fight other "baser instincts"?

      {>>More pertinently, the ghost of the army looms throughout. Even as the grave-diggers sing about sleeping in the graves, they are fired upon.<<

      And here I was picturing singing grave-diggers drawing fire for their satire. :)}

      The first thought upon reading your line was Charlie Hebdo.

      Re Haider, of course one might consider sleeping in graves as satire.

      "Bewajah yahaan naa raho miyaan
      Chalo miyaan, sabr le lo
      Qabr le lo
      Ghar mein aao..."

      Don't linger here without reason
      Come on man, take patience
      Take a grave
      Come into the home.

      Home as grave more than grave as home, methinks.

      I guess I have over-analysed and need to get a DVD myself for a second viewing, and more!

      PS: The meatballs you recall could have been gushtaba, although kofta is common in all of north India.

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    2. Hi Farzana,

      Re Arshia/Ophelia's role:

      >>Not in polity, but as polity :-)<<

      Even better, thanks again. :)

      >>That fine madness? Impotent rage?<<

      Okay, okay, I'm coming around. If only one-sided, there was a discussion pertaining to a form of impotence in one of the torture scenes . . .

      >>Couldn't Horatio be Haider's inner voice?<<

      Perhaps *an* inner voice? Thinking about it, there was a boy who brought bread to the gravediggers early in the concluding cemetary scene. He pranced onto the scene as one might riding a stick-horse, much as Hamlet and Horatio arrived a-horse to Shakespeare's cemetary scene. It is also perhaps not insignificant that Haider addresses his queries as to the disposition of Alexander, et al's mortal remains to him rather than to the gravediggers . . .

      >>Charlie Hebdo.<<

      Hardly satire, if you ask me.

      >>Home as grave more than grave as home, methinks.<<

      Very nice, Farzana. It hearkens back to our introduction to Haider's mother in the schoolroom. I'm really looking forward to what your second viewing may bring.

      >>PS: The meatballs you recall could have been gushtaba<<

      Thank you. I'm less certain about what it was called than their manner of preparation. I remember being fascinated by the process, which was conducted out-of-doors on the lee side of the house. I squatted myself politely out-of-the-way so that I might observe it from start to finish. I want to say they were caterers rather than household retainers -- could be wrong, tho'. :)

      M.

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    3. Mark:

      The Charlie Hebdo remark came as a response to gravediggers and satire in the sentence. Digging of the past to profit from what they imagine to be satire. I certainly do not think so...I've written over 1500 words to prove it!

      Right. Horatio is one of the inner voices.

      Gushtaba - there is a YouTube video that shows the cooks out in the open. But I feel less guilt over things like family retainers!

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    4. Farzana,

      Thanks for the heads-up about the YouTube videos. The persistence of memory can be quite gratifying at times. Now to find the ingredients. :)

      >>I certainly do not think so...I've written over 1500 words to prove it!<<

      I didn't doubt it for a minute (your "first thought" spoke volumes). With your kind and continuing indulgence, it seemed an opportune moment to share my own.

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