Thursday, October 9, 2014

To Thine Own Self Be True: Basharat Peer on Haider

Midway through  Curfewed Night, his non-fiction book about growing up in Kashmir in the 1990s, Basharat Peer describes an incident that took place in the aftermath of the infamous Gowkadal massacre. On 21 January 1990, a group of Kashmiri protestors on the Gowkadal Bridge in Srinagar was fired upon by CRPF jawans. In the book, Peer draws upon the memories of one Farooq Wani, an eyewitness who survived by pretending to be dead and being carted off with the dead bodies. At the hospital, Wani remembers a teenager leaping from the pile of bodies, soaked in blood, shouting "I got no bullets. I got no bullets. I am alive." It's a moment worthy of a movie. What remains to be seen is whether Vishal Bhardwaj's Hamlet adaptation, Haider, which Peer has written the screenplay for, is a movie worthy of these moments.

Bollywood, so partial to pre-conflict-era Kashmir, has never been comfortable with addressing the militancy years in the valley. Only a handful of films — Roja, Mission Kashmir, Yahaan — have tried to tackle the issues that have plagued this region: terrorism, local unrest, army occupation. Few have been successful; of the Kashmir-set Hindi films I've seen, only the Srinagar segment of Onir's I Am manages to convey what it must be like to live in a militarised state. Haider, therefore, has a lot riding on it. In the first place, it will be compared to Bhardwaj's earlier Shakespeare films, Maqbool and Omkara, landmarks of modern Hindi cinema. It may also have to shoulder the burden of being a one-size-fits-all representation of the Kashmir issue — not least because its screenwriter is a journalist who's written passionately about the valley and its problems.

When I met Peer at a café in Nizamuddin East, he brushed off concerns about the added scrutiny the film might have to undergo. "You can't get the entire story of Kashmir in one film," he said. "It's not reportage, but it's informed by reality. We're trying to be true to Shakespeare, and we're trying to be true to Kashmir." His involvement with the project happened by chance, when Bhardwaj read a copy of Curfewed Night and decided to set his third Shakespeare film in Kashmir. He called Peer up and asked him if Hamlet or King Lear made more sense as a Kashmir story. Peer immediately suggested Hamlet; as he told me later, "Kashmir is a place where ghosts speak." Bhardwaj asked him to try his hand at a treatment, and upon hearing the results, hired him as screenwriter. Peer flew to Bombay, and in just 10 days, they'd worked out a broad structure for the film.

Peer had written as a journalist for publications ranging from Granta to the New Yorker, but he'd never attempted a screenplay before. In the beginning, the dialogue he wrote was long, descriptive. But as he progressed, he realised that "the visuals convey so much that you have to be very precise in your choice of words". He worked closely with Bhardwaj on the screenplay, writing drafts which the director would then revise. Sometimes, Peer would have to rein in Bhardwaj, whose Urdu writing style (Maqbool,  Dedh Ishqiya) tends towards the ornate. "I'd have to tell him 'He's a Kashmiri lawyer, he can't sound like Vishal Bhardwaj. You're a poetic man, you're friends with Gulzar...'"

Part of the fun of Bhardwaj's Shakespeare films is spotting the references to the original texts; in Maqbool, for instance, the witches of Macbeth turn up as sycophantic policemen. There are several ingenious parallels to Hamlet in Haider, some too pivotal to reveal, others already in the public eye — like the musical number "Bismil", a Bollywood version of "Mousetrap", the play-within-within-a-play that Hamlet stages. In the film, Haider is a student at Aligarh Muslim University (Peer studied there as well) who returns to his home in Kashmir to find his father dead and his mother, Ghazala (Tabu), married to his uncle, Khurram (Kay Kay Menon), a lawyer who's also involved with a brutal counter-insurgency militia. Shraddha Kapoor plays Arshia, a combination of Ophelia and Horatio — which will hopefully play out better onscreen than it does on paper — while Irrfan Khan is the Ghost, or, at least, a ghost.

Though it's been adapted on film more often than any other Shakespeare play,  Hamlet has rarely been given political overtones on the big screen. (The windswept 1964 version by Russian director Grigori Kozintsev is, to some extent, an exception.) Haider should correct, possibly even overcorrect, this. While writing the screenplay, Peer, a film buff, re-watched certain films with a sharp political core, like Michael Winterbottom's Welcome to Sarajevo  and Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers. The latter in particular reminded him of growing up in a militarised state. "The first 10 minutes of Battle of Algiers, the surrounding of the Casbah, similar things used to happen in Kashmir," he said. He was clear from the start that Haider, even with mainstream trappings, would remain a political film. "I'm a political writer. I can't think about Kashmir in any other way. I think Vishal knew that. Bollywood is not the most liberal forum for politics, but what we tried to do was push the limits."

This piece appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

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