Placards in hand, eyes drowned in tears, and a heavy weight sitting on hearts, leverage a question out of the mouths of the grief-stricken Kashmiris in Haider: hum hain ke hum nahin? (do we exist or not?). This is of course Vishal Bhardwaj’s variation on Shakespeare’s immortal line “To be, or not to be…” which Hamlet contemplates both in thought and action throughout the play. Haider (Hamlet) is Bharadwaj’s final film in the Shakespearean trilogy- Maqbool (Macbeth) and Omkara (Othello) being the other two adaptations- with the action of the film taking place in Kashmir.
It is 1995 and Kashmir is going through troubled times with separatist sentiments on the rise, criticism against AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) echoing in the valley, silenced only by frequent curfews, gun-fires and alleged disappearance of innocent Kashmiris. Haider’s father Dr. Hilal Meer, ratted on by his own brother Khurram, becomes a victim of one such routine nabbing by the Indian Army for he was harboring a terrorist in his house. Haider on his return from Aligarh engulfs himself in a relentless search for his father, and as his search furthers he is faced with many inconvenient truths, which fans his desire for revenge.
The whole of Kashmir seems to burn in the angst of existential crisis. The hum hain ke hum nahi is easily transferred to a more personal main rahoon ki main nahi, which of course is closer to Hamlet’s dilemma. Haider’s despair is reflected in the eyes of the general masses. Kashmir’s militant agitation becomes a manifestation of Haider’s scheme for revenge. Both plan to mete out punishment on the disloyal brothers. In both the case Khurram represents the disloyal brother. Just like Haider Kashmir tries to find its own course but is shackled by external forces. From Haider’s recollections we are told how he is emotionally blackmailed by his mother into going to Aligarh, and then how he is influenced by Roohdaar and other militants to pick up the gun and exact revenge from his uncle.
The movie is presented from the point of view of Kashmiri separatists yet it is incorrect to call the movie anti-nationalist. Many have opted to boycott and tried to influence others to do the same because they feel that the movie misrepresents the Indian Army as villains of the movie. They cannot be more wrong. It is neither the army nor the militants who are the real villains of the film but the idea of revenge: Inteqam sirf inteqam paida karti hai. Bharadwaj has for that matter given credit to multiple perceptions in the film. We have Dr. Hilal Meer who is a humanitarian and does not care whether he is treating a soldier, civilian or a militant, then we have Hilal’s father Hussain Meer, who does not believe in the separatist’s violent movement : Hindustan mein bhi azadi lathiwala laya tha, bandukwala nahi. And there is Roohdaar’s and other militants’ voice who want Azadi, and the military who try to shield and justify their inhuman acts. It is difficult to believe if all that Roohdaar tells Haider is actually true. Haider is probably used as a pawn to set the ball rolling in the larger scheme of things. His existence is still not free of external influence. It is only with the death of his mother Ghazala (Tabu) that he decides for himself to not to go ahead with his revenge.