The Importance of Vishal Bhardwaj

In place of a Preface:

This is  not a review of the movie Haider. I hold no qualifications, nor can I think of any reason why I should be able to critique the technical aspects of a film. By all accounts, I am told by people more knowledgeable than me that Vishal Bhardwaj’s latest is a tour-de-force of direction, acting, music, dialogue etc. I have however, within my limited ability, subjected the movie to a test of strength and seen it with as much attention to context and subtext as I could manage. This piece emerges out of that test.


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?

-Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1

One wonders if these were the words revolving around the mind of Vishal Bhardwaj as he contemplated setting Haider, his adaptation of William Shakepeare’s Hamlet in the Kashmir of 1995. He, of all people would have understood the infinite ability of people to see things where there aren’t any, to change narratives to fit their surroundings, to twist and shape the words and images of others to their own needs. He has done this with some consummate ease before-in his Omkara and Maqbool, where he used the universality of the Bard’s tragedies as the base to create vignettes of life in gangland Mumbai and Uttar Pradesh that while being robustly moored in their locations, were successful in conveying that sense of “this could happen anywhere” that pervades almost all of Shakespeare’s plays.

But even he would probably be, I daresay, surprised by the emotions that his latest film have generated, and the calls of Anti-national, ISI spy, Pakistan -sponsored, Anti-army’ that have grown shriller and shriller as the days have gone by. I know I have. Some have called Haider Mr Bhardwaj’s most blatantly political movie yet. I won’t pretend to know what that means. If one looks at his other adaptations of Shakepeare-they have both rumbled, and been driven by the impact of violence and the uneasily comfortable relationship it enters into with the government and the administration of the places they depict. In that sense, I hardly think Haider is unique. It must say something of our own peculiar way of thinking when we could see gangland murders in Maqbool, and politicians controlling their fiefdoms from jails in Omkara and applaud them ‘gritty, realistic’ cinema, and then decry the narrative of Haider as ‘anti-national’. What is a self-created cancer in one part of a body is a stab to the back in another, I suppose. This dichotomy of emotions may also say something about the way we view our politics and our police on the one hand, and the way we view our army.

But what I think it does say is how good a film maker Vishal Bhardwaj is.

I had come to watch Haider with unusually high expectations. Mr Bhardwaj’s earlier work has always been marked with a different color and a different ambition. Even a movie as bloated and overdone as “Saat Khoon Maaf” had its moments of cinematic brilliance. But his Shakespeare, his Shakespeare! I remember watching Omkara and instantly imagining what he might do with Hamlet-my personal favorite among the Bard’s tragedies. It was the beauty, the cleverness, the sheer audacity of the director’s vision that had raised hopes in me of a memorable piece of art, if and when it came. But even then, I had thought of the prospect of an Indian Hamlet as nothing more than a film- a pleasant conceit and a distraction played out on the silver screen, that would make me gasp with admiration. I had never thought it would force me to write a review.

Haider shows that aside from all the other gifts of cinema and vision that he might possess, Mr Bhardwaj possesses that intangible quality that he himself expounds on so effectively in the movie – Chutzpah. It is this undefinable chutzpah,this almost-reckless courage, that separates a great director from a good one, a true auteur from those other sculptors of film. This willingness to create something that you know might not go smoothly down the throats of everyone in the audience, and more than that, the craft to pull it off successfully, is rare.  The Indian film industry, and more so, Bollywood, sorely lacks this chutzpah. Directors fear to stretch their technical limits and the limits of the possibilities their scripts possess, they worry about audience reactions, box-office reactions, political reactions, and they end up packaging something easily palatable and comfortable to an eagerly waiting public, like a placebo,and go back to count the money they earned while the regrets and the compromises keep piling up behind them. It is a tactical retreat undertaken by the best of them, and it may be even correct and safe to do so, for we live in amazingly intolerant times. But to take a still-hurting wound head on, and remove the years of bandages and politically-correct language stuck over it, and present it to the world to see, while staying within the limits of commercial, producer-friendly cinema? That takes uncommon ability and confidence. That takes chutzpah.

And he almost, almost pulls it off.

Mr Bhardwaj’s chutzpah starts from the very roots of Haider-his decision to set it in Kashmir. His chutzpah extends to the picture of Kashmir he portrays- a picture not of shikaras on Dal lake and beautiful snow, and blood-red Chinar leaves, but a Kashmir riven and near-shattered by violence, anguish and anger. His Chutzpah, from where I stand, manifests itself in his not setting the movie in a few other places he could have. There are other regions in India where people have, or have been, ‘ disappeared’, where the terror, imagined or otherwise (for any terror, real or not, takes its toll) of AFSPA that runs rampant through Haider flows equally freely, where the guardians of the nation and the nation itself engage in a deadly conversation of misunderstanding and suspicion, where the ‘state machinery’ (whichever it may be) is still considered the ‘other’, where the indescribable beauty in nature stands in contrast to the irreconcilable hatred in some hearts  But he didn’t. He set it in Kashmir.

I wonder if the nation that so easily accuses him of being an ISI spy now, would have picked up cudgels on behalf of any of these other regions, had Mr Bhardwaj decided to shoot his movie there. I wonder if it would have mattered so much.

But ruminations of such an idle nature would take away from the other ways in which Mr Bhardwaj decides to exercise his chutzpah. Haider is Hamlet, and yet more. Vishal uses the eternal tragedy of the play and its characters to point to the greater tragedy unfolding around it. Just like the Pather within the movie where Haider  aims to ‘out’ the murderer of his father, Haider itself is a play within a larger play, a play of  murderers and victims, of promises and betrayals, of compromised pasts and uneasy futures, of mistaken identities and ideologies. This larger play is still being acted out, and Vishal’s chutzpah,perhaps wisely,does not reach out to provide this play with something resembling a resolution. He even twists the ending of the play to leave the fate of its protagonist unknown. And here is when I looked at Haider in a new mirror. In the first instance, I had bristled at this ‘compromise’ that the director had engaged in to push forward a safe, politically correct message. I had felt that the spirit of chutzpah was gone to be replaced by the familiar feeling of a visionary trying to pander to commerce by shoe-horning into his art, a borrowed piece from something familiar and known, for the audience to feel comfortable.

It is here that I think I was wrong. It is this one deviation that defines the importance, the necessity of Vishal Bhardwaj.

In Shakespeare’s play of course, Hamlet is dead, and so is Claudius. But in Haider, it is the mother, Ghazala, accused of guilt and treason by both son and husband, torn between love and loyalty, unsure of her relationship with either of the two most important people in her life, and at odds with her own dreams and the destiny being worked out for her by forces beyond her control, who takes a decision that brings the machinations of both Haider and Khurram to naught. Her death solves nothing, but in her dying, and in the living on of both the supposed adversaries whose shadows once loomed large over her life, but who now retreat, bloodied and battered as she lies in bits of smouldering flesh and bone  lies Vishal’s most poignant act of Chutzpah. He could have left Shakespeare untouched. But he didn’t. He could have ended with meaningless platitudes and fake happiness and reunions to be broken up with a ‘cut and pack up’. But he didn’t. Most of what goes on in the world remains unresolved, sometimes it even looks unreal. Most of what goes on in the world remains grey. What does remain real and red is the blood that flows down the Jhelum and makes it salty, from one end to the other. And in the end, as the lights switch on and the credits get divided up, maybe that is all there is.





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