Haider: to depict or not to depict...

BY SANJAY PULIPAKA| IN Media Practice | 10/11/2014
...that is the question posed by Vishal Bhardwaj's film. Why is it that women are portrayed as marginal and Kashmiri Pandits have been neglected by film makers,
asks SANJAY PULIPAKA (Pix: A still from Haider).
Recently, Vishal Bhardwaj’s “Haider” received the People's Choice Award at the Rome Film Festival. In India, there is consternation in some quarters that Haider is sympathetic to the idea of Kashmiri separatism and that it treats the Indian state harshly with a graphic depiction of false encounters, tortures, and disappearances. There have even been calls to ban it.
A brilliantly crafted movie with creditable performances from all the protagonists, the making of Haider, its release, and commercial success suggest that India is emerging as a mature nation. There are very few countries in Asia where a movie like Haider can be made, released and debated as is being done in India. It is not the contention here that there are no hindrances to freedom of expression in India. What is significant about Haider is that there is enough resilience in our society to engage in rational conversation on a bold movie. 
It is pointless to force Bhardwaj’s film into a ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ framework. An adaptation of Hamlet, the film deals with the complexities of an armed conflict. Even the suppressed voices and narratives not represented explicitly, surface now and then through the various frames in the movie.
However, I will examine two voices which are not adequately represented. First, the voice of women; these are alluded to but never acquire prominence. Second, the anxieties and pain inflicted on a vulnerable numerical minority, the Kashmiri Pandits, which are left out. First, though, a brief outline of the movie to help set the context. 
The Story

Haider (Shahid Kapoor) comes back to the Kashmir Valley on being informed that his father has disappeared. On his arrival, he notices that his uncle is courting his mother Ghazala (played admirably by Tabu). Crestfallen, he leaves home and continues his search for his father in various detention camps. Roohdaar (Irfan Khan), a separatist, reaches out to Haider and informs him that his father is dead after having been betrayed by his uncle. Enraged, Haider seeks to take revenge on his uncle (Kay Kay Menon) who has, in the meantime, married Haider’s mother. 

Arshia: “Do I Exist?”: Women remain on the fringes       

The film explores human relationships and emotions such as love, betrayal and loss in the shadow of an armed conflict. The protagonists use and are abused by the state apparatus and the separatists alike. The story depicts how the violence of an armed conflict progressively permeates all aspects of human relationships, including the most intimate moments.   

Take for example, the relationship between Haider and his girlfriend Arshia (Shraddha Kapoor). After a moment of intimacy with his girlfriend, Haider picks up the gun and says “Should I kill or should I commit suicide? Should I live or should I not?” A shocked Arshia pleads with him to give up the path of violence. From Haider’s reaction, we know that Arshia’s beseeching goes in vain. For Haider, who is obsessed with revenge, Arshia’s well-being and professional achievements are secondary. 

One wonders whether this is how revenge politics predominate during an armed conflict. Do state actors and armed insurgent groups get fixated on seeking revenge instead of focusing on the well-being of their core constituencies?

As the above scene unfolds, we realise that Arshia’s needs are never at the centre of the aspirations and dreams of people around her. Her brother seeks to confine her interactions. Her father uses her to elicit information on Haider’s interactions with the ‘terrorists’. And for Roohdaar, the separatist, she is just a medium to convey a message to Haider. For Haider too, she is always marginal to his larger concerns. 

Arshia’s character in the movie portrays how inconsequential she is, as a woman, to the people and conversations that are happening around her. Her characterization demonstrates that “Azadi” is not for women. This prompts us to ask what kind of social order separatists in Kashmir espouse and whether it gives “Azadi” to women. Just as we interrogate the Indian state on its human rights and gender rights record, we should also scrutinise the militants’ concept of social order and the role of women in it.     

Small and vulnerable, Kashmiri Pandits ignored

Bhardwaj points out that it is not merely the relationship between the state and the community which becomes militarized. The most caring relationship, such as the one between Haider and his mother, not only happen under the shadow of armed conflict but are mediated by the presence of guns, a point he makes by using flashbacks.  

Haider carries a gun in his school bag, which his mother discovers. She makes a futile attempt to convince her son to stop thinking of crossing over the border to get trained as a militant in Pakistan. On failing in her first attempt, she walks into the playground where Haider is playing cricket, points the gun at her temple and demands that he should go to Aligarh for higher education instead of crossing over to Pakistan. Haider, having no option, submits to his mother’s diktat. This conversation between a mother and her son throws light on the proliferation of small arms and the presence of robust networks to transport youngsters into training camps across the border. More importantly, it raises a pertinent question: if an argument between a mother and her son is settled at the point of a gun, can the diverse sections in Kashmiri society deliberate on various political options democratically? Wouldn’t the groups with bigger guns and greater numbers snuff out the voices of smaller groups? A case in point, sadly, are the Kashmiri Pandits, a minority group in Kashmir Valley, who were subjected to harsh treatment. 

As the insurgency unfolded, the Pandits had very few options but to move out of the Kashmir Valley to protect their lives. Migrations on such a large scale happen when there is clear and present danger to life. The insecurity that Kashmiri Pandits experienced can be gauged from the fact that they gave up their ancestral homes or dwellings built with savings of a life-time. Therefore, the grievance harboured by Kashmiri Pandits that the violence they were subjected to is rarely represented in movies made on Kashmir is understandable. 

True, every movie on Kashmir does not have to deal with Kashmiri Pandits. And yet, there is something disconcerting about the fact that, two decades after they were pushed out, their experiences have barely been portrayed on film.  

As I write these words, the fear of being unfairly branded as a rabid right-wing Hindu nationalist is very much present in my head. Have such fears also prevented filmmakers from exploring this forged migration? 

But that may explain only part of the story because we have to remember that Kashmiri Pandits are not alone in being neglected in terms of cinematic representation. It is more than four decades since the genocide happened in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). The Pakistani state made no distinction in East Pakistan along religious lines in its brutal suppression which resulted in a massive refugee influx into India. And in these past four decades, neither Indian nor foreign film makers made any attempts to reflect on the events that preceded the formation of Bangladesh. 

Therefore, as we celebrate Haider’s cinematic excellence and the international accolades that it is receiving, we must also ask: Why is it that some mass crimes get cinematic representation and not others?

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