In a dispatch from Srinagar that year, John F. Burns of the New York Times wrote: “For India, ruling Kashmir has come down to something like an occupation: an army and police force of at least 300,000, bunkers everywhere, search operations that paralyze daily life and shoot-to-kill orders. Kashmiri human rights groups say two-thirds of the 30,000 people killed in the five year conflict have been civilians.” It was also the year when militants took six foreign tourists hostage, including two Americans and two Britons.
This is the world Haider finds when he returns to Kashmir after reading the revolutionary poets of British India, a thousand kilometers away, at university in Aligarh. Against the snow-laden backdrop of sandbagged Indian soldiers battling Kalashnikov-wielding Islamist militants, the Indian army has bombed his old family home. His father, a doctor, has been “disappeared” for giving sanctuary to a militant. And his mother, a teacher, is nursing her distress by discreetly consorting with her brother-in-law. Haider resolves, as Hamlet did before him, to respond to these events in much they same way they have conspired against him—with chutzpah.
The film’s makers share Haider’s taste for the audacious. This was not an easy film to make. It had a slender budget, with Bhardwaj and Kapoor forgoing their fees. They said they wanted the film to retain a certain purity. Part of that involved accurately conveying a sense of place. When Bhardwaj set out filming, he was surprised by what he saw. “You have cars over there, you have doctors, you have the people speaking in English,” he confessed, with more than a little condescension, in a recent television interview. “They are very literate people, and very literary people.”
Male residents were paraded in front of a masked man who would determine their fate with a mere glance
The distance between the Kashmir he imagined and the Kashmir he discovered was created by depictions in mainstream cinema, Bhardwaj said. Haider would be different. “The director needs to know that world,” he said. “If you are not from that region, and if you have not gone through that conflict, or the years of that fear or terror… it’s very difficult to get the feel of that place.” Grasping for that authenticity, he enlisted the screenwriting services of Basharat Peer, the accomplished Kashmiri journalist—who, like Haider in the film, was also born in the district of Anantnag (known locally as ‘Islamabad’) and also studied at Aligarh Muslim University. Peer’s memoir “Curfewed Night” elegantly chronicles a brutal conflict that has left over 70,000 people dead.
In his book, Peer tells readers of crackdowns where Indian soldiers would surround a village and summon its male residents to be paraded in front of a masked man who would determine their fate with a mere glance. The anecdote inspires a powerful scene near the start of the film. From a distance, seated inside an armored jeep, a faceless man searches the men’s eyes for hints of guilt. With a flourish they may be spared, and can walk on. Or, if he beeps the horn, as he did when Haider’s father stood before him, they vanish.
Even in their apparent freedom, the men are subject to arbitrary humiliations. Peer himself appears in one brief scene, standing still at the threshold of his character’s home, declining entry. He stares at the ground in silence, defying his mother’s persevering attempts to urge him inside. He only yields after a passer-by, the phantasmal militant Roohdaar (played deftly by Irrfan Khan), frisks his jacket and brusquely demands his identity papers. The checkpoints have become such a constant menace that traumatized residents imagine them everywhere.
Such closely observed moments lend the film an air of authenticity that has the power to leave audiences feeling attached to a world they have never truly known. Not everyone is impressed, though. In India, the film has excited a commotion. While many reviewers have praised it as the best installment in Bharwaj’s Shakespeare trilogy, scenes showing the Indian army carrying out acts of torture have appalled nationalist-minded moviegoers. They also objected to, among other things, the film recalling a little known episode in which the Indian army clandestinely established an Islamist militant outfit of its own. For them, Bhardwaj’s audacity warranted a boycott. And before the film could secure the censor’s imprimatur, 41 scenes had to be excised—33 of which Bhardwaj says he volunteered.
“The film is against the ideology of Pakistan,” a censor board official said
A film about Kashmir that highlights the Indian army’s human rights abuses would normally arouse keen interest in Pakistan. But across the border, in the only other country where millions devotedly watch Bollywood films without subtitles, cinemas have so far been denied viewings. The local censor has objected to the film’s allegedly “controversial and propagandist nature.” The censor board doesn’t have a principled aversion to propaganda–this year’s bestselling film, Waar, was an unabashed exhibition of it. What they are suspicious of are thoughtful films that don’t chime with their officially sanctioned account of the truth.
“The film is against the ideology of Pakistan,” a censor board official told the Karachi-based Express Tribune newspaper. “We have a professional panel of reviewers that assesses films while keeping in mind factors that a layman can’t understand.” In their lofty wisdom, the censors have decided that though certain Hindi terms used in the film may appear harmless to “an average audience member,” they “can have adverse effects on our culture.” And so we have the curious spectacle of Pakistan’s soi-disant guardians of the public good signing up to a boycott that is led by the Indian nationalists they loathe.