The verdict is in and the praise for Vishal Bhardwaj’s Shakespearean adaptation ‘Haider’ is as unequivocal as it is universal.
The rapidly-growing fan base is as diverse – from William Dalrymple to Prabhu Deva – as it is effusive in its admiration.
Since preview screenings of the film began around the world on Tuesday, the adjectives have been flowing thick and fast: ‘brilliant’, ‘mesmerizing’, ‘heartbreakingly satisfying’, ‘bewitching’ and the list grows steadily.
Acclaimed ‘Shahid’ director Hansal Mehta – rather formal at the best of times – was so moved that he penned a love letter to Bhardwaj, praising the beautiful yet melancholic ‘painting’ that Bhardwaj has created and describing Haider as a ‘spiritual experience’ that will forever change him as a filmmaker.
The admiration for Bhardwaj will doubtless continue for many months for creating what is arguably his finest work to-date.
The film belongs as much to Bhardwaj as it does to his co-writer Basharat Peer, the Kashmiri journalist and author who adapted the Bard’s famous tale of political intrigue, transplanting it in Kashmir circa 1995.
New York-based Peer, 36, had plenty to draw on.
Born and raised in Anantnag – also called ‘Islamabad’, a place which is referenced with great subtlety in the film – Peer spent his formative years in Kashmir.
Peer is the author of arguably one of the finest ever personal accounts about life in Kashmir: the seminal ‘Curfewed Night’, a powerful, haunting and extremely vivid memoir about life in one of the most beautiful places on the planet but one riven by bloodshed, anxiety and fear.
I caught up with Peer to discuss Haider, freedoms, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and independence.
The praise for ‘Haider’ has been really fulsome. How did you like it? And how did you become involved with the film? You don’t seem like a song-and-dance kind of guy.
Well I wrote it. I knew what was there. It was good. And no I’m not a song-and-dance guy but it’s not that kind of film. Vishal had read ‘Curfewed Night’ and approached me to write the film last April. The first thing I told him was that my participation would depend on the play. At that point he was trying to choose between King Lear and Hamlet. Obviously the mood of Hamlet is quite dark with all its distorted political order, betrayals and espionage. So there was plenty of overlap for Kashmir and I thought it was ripe for adaptation. Hamlet has been a favourite adaptation in Middle Eastern countries where there has been great political upheaval – from Nasser’s Egypt to Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt; Palestinians have had a lot to say about Hamlet as well. I told Vishal that it was the perfect play to be set in Kashmir. My only condition was that it had to be a very political adaptation.
Is the end result as political as you wanted?
Well, for Vishal it is definitely a huge departure. He is a liberal, mainstream filmmaker. He’s very accomplished but there’s a difference between that and being a Kashmiri. Or a Tamil. Or a Rohingya. Personally, I would have liked to have made the film even more political and be more radical with its message. But it’s an Indian film and you need work within the Bollywood infrastructure. Also, it was a collaborative project with Vishal. I tried to make it extremely political from a Kashmiri point of view but during the writing process I had to cede some ground and Vishal had to do the same. The reason that I agreed to do Haider with him was because he agreed to film my politics to an extent which I was still comfortable. Ultimately, it’s a very brave film from Vishal.
Did you have any say when it came to casting?
For the young Hamlet, Vishal was keen on Shahid from the outset and he’s done an amazing job. The first person that I thought about when I was writing the script was Tabu because I thought Gertrude was made for Tabu. I also initially thought that Claudius HAD to be Irrfan but Kay Kay Menon was good as well.
What are the parallels between Hamlet and Curfewed Night? How much did you draw on both texts for the final script?
I definitely drew the political mood from Curfewed Night. On its own, it’s not a book that can be made into a film. There are elements from it that I have incorporated into the story. For example, about me growing up as a young boy in Kashmir or the reporter who comes back to Srinagar and records the experiences of her people. The world in which Hamlet existed has plenty of parallels with Kashmir of the 1990’s. I have used a lot of imagery from Curfewed Night and my own experiences. One of the most important things that I wanted to deal with were the disappearances and the camps for detainees. Then the symbolism of the rivers in Kashmir. I did a piece some years ago about how when Kashmiri’s dig sand from the rivers they frequently find body parts of people who have disappeared. In one of the scenes from the film, Shahid takes a boat and goes around asking people if they’ve seen his father. The boat in Kashmir has long been associated with tourism and beautiful imagery. I wanted to invert that paradigm.
And of course the Armed Forces Special Powers Act…
The Act is something that I have been writing about all my life and we have actually written it into the script: a soliloquy in which Shahid basically reads out this brutal, colonial-era act of law in one of his rants. I actually thought that it wouldn’t make the final cut but Vishal kept it.
The story of ‘Haider’ – as opposed to Hamlet – could be transplanted anywhere in the sub-continent.
Absolutely. Take a month, re-write it and it could be set in Sri Lanka or Myanmar or northeast India. The Jhelum could easily be the Mahaweli River in Sri Lanka, which once ran red as well. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act could easily be Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act. Modi could be Rajapakse.
What did you make of Nawaz Sharif’s comments at the UN last week? Have the two countries missed an opportunity by Modi refusing to hold talks with Sharif in New York?
It wasn’t surprising. It’s just a pattern. There was a dialogue between Musharraf and Manmoham Singh and that too didn’t go anywhere. Whatever peace process there was between the two countries is crumbling. Nawaz is also not in his strongest position at the moment so he’s taking a hard-line approach. It’s a defense mechanism. I don’t expect much from Modi. He’s Rajapakse times ten! Modi and Rajapakse are brothers. These are people with blood on their hands and they get to rule.
You’ve got pretty strong views. Do you find yourself looking over your shoulder constantly?
I do get a lot of hate on the internet. Name-calling, lots of hostility particularly from the Hindu right wing. The authorities don’t really care. Sure, they keep an eye on you but it’s not too intrusive. I think once you’re a little infamous, you’ve been published around the world then doing anything to me would be more trouble than keeping me alive! In some ways that saves you. Having said that, I’m very controlled in what I write. You say what you want to say but do it in a controlled way. I can’t rant. Living with that constant sense of how far you can push the boundaries actually makes you a far more creative writer. It pushes out the imagination more.
One journalist said after the London preview that ‘Haider’ is the best film about Kashmir ever made. There’s a lot of rhetoric about the issue around the world. You have visited Srinagar quite recently as well, give us a sense of what it is like on the ground.
It’s changed a lot over the years but it is still an extremely militarized place. The 90’s were extremely violent and that continued up until about 2003. Bunkers and check-points and sand bags everywhere. It calmed down a bit until the riots in 2010 when soldiers were firing on boys throwing stones. It’s calmed down a bit again but you do live in fear and anxiety. What’s also happened is that once you’ve lived with fear for a very long time – and it’s been more than 25 years – then the fear sort of dies at some point. You become sensitized to it. It’s strange. The fear is there but somehow you’re not afraid, if that makes any sense. After all that time, you start asking, what more can they do now? Being home in Kashmir is also another thing. There’s a great deal of strength that one derives from one’s people and one’s land. It changes you. I find that even though I write about many different things, when I write about Kashmir, the writing changes completely. When I wrote a piece recently about the flooding, it was supposed to be from the point of view of an observer of the but I found the piece becoming extremely political. It stopped being just about the water. And I said so.
What do you think would happen if there was a Scottish-style referendum in Kashmir next week?
They won’t vote for the Centre for sure! I think an overwhelming majority would vote for independence.
In 2014, isn’t there an argument to say that independence would be detrimental? Add to the woes of Kashmiris?
You can make an economic argument. But then economic arguments would apply to any part of India. If you go outside the metropolitan cities it’s a very poor country. Being part of a state is never just economic. The ‘better together’ argument has been made repeatedly by commentators about India being the great South Asian power and the benefits of belonging to it. But economic arguments do not hold, particularly because of the history. Srinagar has a recent history of extreme oppression and bloodshed. Edinburgh doesn’t. It goes beyond economics. It’s beyond culture. The kind of wounds that Kashmiri’s bear are really hard to erase. Take the recent floods for instance. There was an incident where these young Kashmiri men were volunteering to help people affected by the flooding. The army also joined in – they have to because they are the biggest organization in the state. Next thing you know, some Indian reporters started asking these young guys, ‘aren’t you grateful for the Indian military for saving you?’. In a matter of minutes the mood changed completely. The mood is just too visceral. The wounds are too raw. It’s not about the money. India throws a lot of money at Kashmir but it’s never just about the money.