Five Years of Haider: In the Current Political Climate, Will Any Film Honestly Examine the Kashmir Situation?

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Five Years of Haider: In the Current Political Climate, Will Any Film Honestly Examine the Kashmir Situation?

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

About an hour into Haider, Vishal Bhardwaj’s final chapter in his Shakespearean trilogy, its titular lead (Shahid Kapoor) takes a long walk in the woods with his mother Ghazala (a scintillating Tabu). Their path is laden with autumn leaves, figuratively portraying the endlessness of their journey in the perpetually troubled valleys of Kashmir. The human cost of any political conflict is only realised by those living through it; Ghazala and Haider are painfully aware of this reality. They are among the thousands in Kashmir who have lost their loved ones to a legitimised form of state excess. And yet, as they stand recounting their sorrows, the mother and son find themselves at different ends of the ideological divide.

While Haider holds a fairly sympathetic view of the separatist insurgency in Kashmir, Ghazala has always had her reservations. She has seen her husband pay too big a price for his proximity with militants – his disappearance has reduced her to the status of a half-widow. And she is resolute in not allowing her son to enter the same political mire. Haider, on the other hand, has been consumed by the pain of his father’s parting to an extent that he even fails to articulate his angst. 

Over an argument, Haider is finally rattled and pleads with his mother to try and consider another person’s point of view for once. As this scene unfolds on celluloid, it is impossible to not see Haider’s demand as a metaphor for what Kashmir is asking of mainland India – a little empathy, a little care, and an honest willingness to lend an ear to those who have never experienced freedom the way urban India has known.

Haider

In a protest gathering at Srinagar’s Lal Chowk, Haider lays bare the brutalities unleashed by the army on ordinary Kashmiris through the sinister Armed Forces Special Power Act, and articulates an uncompromising demand of absolute freedom.

VB Pictures/ UTV Motion Pictures

Ever since Independence, successive governments have induced steady doses of nationalism in India’s public consciousness. Seventy years later, India has an assertive middle class firmly rooted in patriotic sentiments. This worldview allows little scope for dissent and aggressively demands an unconditional sense of reverence for the country’s armed forces. This is precisely where urban India is cut off from the political reality that Kashmiris have been enduring for nearly three decades. 

It is somewhat convenient to pledge your unflinching commitment to the forces when you’re certain that they aren’t likely to affect or intervene in your daily affairs. But it is almost delusional to expect those tolerating the consequences of that same commitment – enhanced military presence, barbed wires, checkpoints, curfews, and communication blockades have all been synthesised with Kashmir’s idea of normalcy – to share your view. There’s a scene in Haider that represents this inherent despair that Kashmir has been forced to surrender to: In it, a man, visibly traumatised by his reality, refuses to enter the premises of his own house without being frisked first. It’s chilling yet as powerful as a callout can be.

Much of the film – a retelling of Hamlet in the backdrop of the Kashmir crisis – is dedicated to chronicling Haider’s increasing sense of discontentment with the Indian state. When a friend asks if he plans to visit every prison cell in the Valley to search for his missing father, Haider answers that all of Kashmir is a prison. He harbours in him a simmering anger against India without ever really acting on it. But when the reality of his father’s brutal execution by the military dawns on him, his disillusionments are weaponised. 

Haider is the closest any film has come to delineating the vicious cycle of the state-sponsored self-sabotage that Kashmiri youth have been forced to sign up for.

In a protest gathering at Srinagar’s Lal Chowk, Haider minces no words exposing the failure of the states of India and Pakistan to follow up on the promises of Geneva Convention, lays bare the brutalities unleashed by the army on ordinary Kashmiris through the sinister Armed Forces Special Power Act, and articulates an uncompromising demand of absolute freedom. He is no longer hesitant to picking up a gun either as he swears to avenge his father’s death.

Haider’s journey encapsulates the human cost of the Kashmir crisis: A bright student of literature, cautiously kept as far away from the conflict as possible, ends up being a sworn enemy of the state. It’s the closest any film has come to delineating the vicious cycle of the state-sponsored self-sabotage that Kashmiri youth have been forced to sign up for. One needs to look no further than the triumphant sentiments prevalent across the country after the abrogation of Article 370 – the last vestige of autonomy that Kashmir held dear, for evidence. As of today, the people have been in a state of lockdown for nearly two months. It is their new normal and mainland India is too desensitised to care.

Five years ago, when Haider released in theatres, the ruling government was still in its early days and the mood of the nation was nowhere close to the aggressive patriotism it displays today in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack, the Balakot strikes, and the striking down of Article 370. 

Even then, Haider received incessant flak and there were predictably, calls for a boycott. It is practically impossible to see the film make it past the censors in the current political climate. Perhaps no filmmaker will dare touch the subject again; much less offer a perspective of those not holding a particularly charitable opinion of the Indian state. It is also why Haider needs to be celebrated much more today.

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