Some Ramblings - Haider (2014) by Srinivas Kanchibhotla
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The alarms blare and the whistles blow disturbing the tranquil of an overcast day, the sleepy town wakes up to the incessant barks of the K-9 unit, the military vehicles amble through the narrow streets puffing out plumes of exhaust, loud speakers at the squares drone on instructions about how everyone in the locality should walk up to the nearest community center, identification papers clearly drawn out for inspection, form orderly queues and patiently wait to be cleared by a ranking military official or his informers. The lucky ones pass through and live to tell their take of harrow and humiliation. The not so lucky are sifted out of the main line, separated for any number of reasons - conspiracy, treason, aiding the enemy or sometimes caught in the crossfire of settling of personal scores - are never heard from again....One would be remiss to place such scene in a Jewish internment camp somewhere in Poland or Austria during the heights of the Second World War. Never can this situation be possible in a free and fair democratic nation as India...or so goes the conventional wisdom of heartland society. How disconcerted and concerned and disillusioned would a citizen get to suddenly find his country routinely indulging in such demeaning acts on a daily basis again fellow citizens in the name of 'National Security'? Until the Kargil war happened, a typical Indian's view of the map of his country had the state of Kashmir crowning over with that near impossible coif neatly parted to the left side making both a fashion and an aesthetic statement with such a pleasing symmetry. And only after the war had happened and the location of Kargil made clear did one realize that all the other international cartographical notations with 'Indian Kashmir' eaten out on both sides, one by POK and the other by Aksai Chin, that had so far been denounced by the state for misrepresentation, had indeed been true all this time. And any question to the administration on why the public is being fed with a staple diet of misinformation would be quickly swept under the 'National Security' carpet. And just like the moment of realization that inevitably beckons on the kids when they realize that their parents aren't all that omnipotent and all knowing, the rude awakening of a citizen when confronted with the unvarnished facts that his nation isn't all that saintly as it has lead on so far is just as shocking and eye-opening. Time to chuck the monochromatic glasses and don on the clear lenses.

What a difference the setting of the story makes to the movie! Siting 'Hamlet' in Kashmir was a stroke of pure genius on the part of the creative heads. What is otherwise a straightforward revenge story of a son avenging his father's death at the hands of his uncle, attains a whole different hue in the milieu of an ongoing (tug of) war for a piece of land, ironically monikered 'heaven on earth', by neighboring nations. In these kinds of geo-political stalemate situations, the terms 'heroes' and 'villains' seem out of place. Hari Singh, the Hindu king of Kashmir during Partition, sided with the Indian Union (for a variety of reasons), and that treaty is immutable claims one side. Though the ruler was Hindu, majority of his subjects were Muslim and on a partition based on communal lines, adjoining areas where majority of people belong to one community should be together, claims the other side. Once both these legitimate arguments ended in tie and military forces on either side hardened their stances, gone out of the window any chances of a negotiated settlement ushering in the routine casualties of war - decency, humanity, fundamental rights, freedom of expressions. The region is allowed to fester in a perpetual cycle of hate and mistrust while the fall outs of it - the wars, the nuclear stand offs, the domestic and imported terrorism, the shelling games - continue to cripple the daily lives of the common populace for generations to come.

The first half of 'Haider' is probably one of the most powerful segments about the human condition committed to film in Indian cinema. It moves, it frustrates, it challenges, it engages and it enrages, which is what is expected of the art form in the first place. Ironically, the second half of the movie, which is more a faithful production of 'Hamlet' is where the movie flounders unable to surpass such a high bar that it has set for itself in the preceding segment. Compared to the human drama that unfolds in everyday Kashmir, the put on drama of Shakespeare pales in comparison. Lore goes that Stanley Kubrick originally intended his 'Dr. Strangelove' as a taut Cold War thriller set during the times when imminent mutual destruction of the super powers was all but a foregone conclusion. But as the script was evolving, he found that the tone and the situations are more farcical (and comedic) in nature than to a furrowed brow spy v spy thriller. Vishal Bharadwaj should have taken this approach and let his characters go on their individual journeys than relegating them to the preordained destinies of some fictitious Danish nationalities. Vishal's characters in the first half were more believable, and real-life like than 'Hamlet's characters in the whole play. Frankly, Kashmir told a better tale than the Bard, full of betrayal, tragedy, murder, loss of hope and rich political intrigue. But credit should be accorded to both Vishal (for making it) and the censors (for clearing it) for bringing it to the mainstream the plight and the travails of a troubled land without the usual trapping of chest-beating patriotism. Patriotism, as a scholar once noted, is not merely love for one's country, it is a fundamental right of questioning one's nation, when it seems to be failing to live up to its promise. By that standard, 'Haider' is probably one of the most patriotic movies ever made in India. If only the Bard got out of the way...


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