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Through the lens of Haider: (Re)-reading nationalist discourses

By Payel Pal 

Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider (2014) appears to be one of the most powerful cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. While Indian cinema has always been informed by the ethos of nationhood, nationalism, and nation-building in one way or the other, Bhardwaj’s Haider unmistakably takes a leap ahead in re-negotiating these concepts. Against the backdrop of a family conflict and an emotionally charged mother-son relationship, Bhardwaj in Haider takes up the sensitive politics of Kashmir and brings to foreground the skewed discourses of the dominant state and nationalism. Unlike earlier films such as Haqeeqat (1967), Lalkar (1972) or the more recent ones such as Border (1997), Gadar (2001), and Swades (2004), Bhardwaj’s Haider neither champions zealous patriotism nor romanticize the indomitable heroism of the Indians. On the contrary, Bhardwaj’s film enunciates the hideous operationalizing of the state machinery that often degrades to severe forms of authoritarianism under the pretext of nationalism. Portraying the mayhem and massacre that have been commonplace in Kashmir since the last few decades, Haider dexterously interrogates the discourses of state and nationalism that perpetuate militant violence and terror. Quintessentially, Bhardwaj’s film lays bare the ambiguities and paradoxes in the project of nationhood, in turn showing how our understanding of and approach to it undoubtedly demands nuance.

Before proceeding to explore Bhardwaj’s critical delineation of the politics of Kashmir, a short overview of the Partition is in order. Since the day of independence in 1947, the territory of Kashmir is rife with violence and strife. Pertinently, the tension that still engulfs the region is one of the fallouts of the decision to divide the Indian sub-continent into two nation-states, namely Pakistan and India. While this separation was based on religion, despite a majority Muslim population, Kashmir remained a ‘princely state’ under Maharaja Hari Singh, deferring its decision to become part of either Pakistan or India. Initially, Maharaja Hari Singh rejected Jawaharlal Nehru’s proposal to come under the ‘Dominion of India’ and refused to sign the ‘Instrument of Accession.’ However, it was later in 1947, when Pathan tribesmen invaded Kashmir that Maharaja Hari Singh was compelled to ask for military help from the Indian government. No wonder, Nehru capitalizing on this vulnerable situation convinced the Maharaja to sign the ‘Instrument of Accession’ and thereby incorporated Kashmir as a part of the Indian dominion. Indian army successfully combatted the Pakistani forces and the tribesmen, hence protecting the people of Kashmir. But such an agreement failed to solve the political tensions that continued to arise from the majority of the Kashmiris’ demand for freedom from India. Down the decades, this settlement proved to be futile in addressing the rights of the Kashmiri citizens. To add to this, Pakistani encroachments in Kashmir and the latter’s own agenda of liberation aggravated unrest, disorder, and lately terrorism. As a consequence of this, Kashmir remains one of the most dangerous conflict zones in the world. In a bid to subdue the escalating violence, the Indian state imposed AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) in 1990. Unfortunately, the arbitrary power attributed to the army compounded the situation further. Bhardwaj in Haider makes this a starting point, capturing how the government-sanctioned peace measure for protecting the larger national interests deteriorated the political climate.

The implementation of AFSPA that empowered the Indian army to arrest, detain or kill anybody on the grounds of suspicion without any prior information and explanation, proved detrimental to the effort for peace in Kashmir. The Indian Army has since been involved in massacres and mass rapes of Kashmiri people. If the supremacy of the army was seen as a necessity in preserving the political integrity of the nation, then the indiscriminate abuse of humanity that followed was disparaging. On many occasions, AFSPA has been condemned as draconian and several appeals made to revoke it. One of the recent editorials in The Hindu (2011) states, “More than 23 years after the bombing that signaled the beginning of the murderous insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir, India’s strategic establishment is demonstrating a curious unwillingness to grasp the fact that the war to restore peace has been won”. The wariness with AFSPA is well recorded in the words of a retired army official, “Sometimes we behaved like militants and the militants like security forces. The State machinery was perceived as a tool of oppression and seldom seen as a guardian. AFSPA is a bad Act. But if you remove AFSPA the army will lose whereas if you continue with AFSPA for 25 years then India is surely losing the war” (2016). Paradoxically, the enforcement of AFSPA that aimed to subjugate lawlessness and pacify the dissenters unleashed a new form of violence aggravating vengeance and vindictiveness among the Kashmiris against the dominant state. Haider evidences this critical aspect highlighting the fissures in the objective of consolidating a unified nation.

Significantly, the film opens with the senior Hamlet-figure, Dr Hilaal Meer trying to save the life of a Kashmiri militant after he is shot by the Indian army. Bhardwaj deftly puts forward the crucial question through Ghazala, Meer’s wife (the filmic version of Gertrude). Wrestling back Dr Meer from doing so, Ghazala asks, “Kis taraf hai aap?” (Which side are you on?), intriguingly pointing to the insidious conflict that looms large between the state and the Kashmiri militants. Dr Meer’s reply, “Zindagi ki” (On the side of life) resonates the message of humanity that has been piteously sidelined by either of these camps. Condemning this life-saving gesture as a treacherous act, Dr Meer is arrested by the army. On hearing the news of his disappearance, his son Haider comes back to Kashmir. From this part, the narrative takes a sharp turn gradually unveiling the faultlines of the Indian political system. Similar to that of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Bhardwaj portrays young Haider as bereaved, perplexed, and disturbed. Discovering Ghazala’s amorous liaison with his uncle Khurram Meer, Haider writhes with anger and frustration. For a large part, the film represents Haider’s love-hate relationship with his mother. No less, Bhardwaj also plays upon the oedipal undertones by showing Ghazala’s overwhelming possessiveness for her son. Several scenes focusing on the primacy of Ghazala’s emotional bonding testify to this. Entrapped in the memories of his father and enraged with his mother’s decision to marry his uncle, Khurram (the Claudius figure), Haider is led into more confusion when he encounters the regimentalism of the Indian army. Bhardwaj reconstructs Hamlet effectively, putting forth Haider not only as a son fighting a family feud but also as a helpless subject confronting the surreptitiousness of the dominant state.

Notably, Haider’s quest for his father brings him closer to many of the state-sanctioned hypocrisies. Haider searches for his father in police stations, camps, and morgues but nowhere is able to trace him. Contrary to his expectations, he is discouraged to look for Dr Meer. It is at this point in the film that Bhardwaj introduces Roohdaar, a Kashmiri Muslim militant, who claims to be a co-prisoner of Dr Meer in the army prisons. Roohdaar is unmistakably Bhardwaj’s translation of the ghost-figure in Hamlet. In the course of a never-ending search, it is from Roohdaar that Haider comes to know about his father’s torture and death at the hands of the army. As Roohdaar chronicles the extremities of the army, Haider develops a strong hatred against the system. Predictably, Haider incited by Roohdaar decides to wage a crusade against the brutalities of the state machinery. This crystallizes when Haider discovers that his uncle Khurram is a spy of the army and was instrumental in the arrest of Dr Meer. In a nuanced manner, Bhardwaj thus coalesces the personal vengeance with the political grievance of a Kashmiri citizen and thereby testifies how the interests of the state accelerate a vicious cycle of violence.

Bhardwaj’s critique sharpens through his portrayal of Ghazala. If in Hamlet Gertrude’s representation is most compulsive in the closet scene, then Haider differs from it in enunciating a different polemic through Ghazala. Essentially, the film focuses on the liminality of Ghazala’s position. In her private meetings with her son, Ghazala desperately tries to ensconce him to understand her distressing predicament as a “half-widow”. Though the film follows the Shakespearean plotline by showing Ghazala marrying Khurram, yet it more prominently highlights Ghazala’s anxieties and precariousness aspiring for peace and familial stability. Bhardwaj delineates the hapless fate of the Kashmiri women surviving with the flickering hopes of return of their husbands and sons. Not surprisingly therefore, the film also voices a compelling message of non-violence through Ghazala. While Roohdaar initiates Haider into militancy and incites him to take revenge for his father’s death, Ghazala endeavors to make her son understand that violence can never be the harbinger of peace. She tries to drive Haider away from the heinous mission of ‘inteqaam’ (revenge) that, as Ghazala mourns, is destructive for all. Earlier, Ghazala had sent her son to study outside Kashmir to keep him away from the overriding violence that is ubiquitous in everyday life. Haider’s indoctrination into militant violence that happens only after he meets Roohdaar eventually dismantles the mother-son bonding. Haider’s anger and hatred intensify against Khurram whom he condemns as the culprit for his father’s death and an enemy of the Kashmiri masses. Finally, in open combat as Haider encounters Khurram, Ghazala makes her last attempt to persuade Haider to give up arms.

The film ends with a macabre scene of a cemetery covered with dead bodies. We witness Khurram lying maimed miserably calling for death to consume him and a blood-smeared Haider meandering through the carnage. The gory image is a stark reminder of the dreadful future of humanity in Kashmir. In throwing scorching light on the role of the Indian state and army, Haider, thus, provides a strong commentary on the rising tide of violence in Kashmir. Significantly, the film interrogates the pervasive discourses of nationalism that have failed to ensure a democratic atmosphere in Kashmir and guarantee the individual rights of the citizens. As dramatized in Haider, the Kashmiri masses are horribly entangled in a web of aggressiveness, surviving as victims of the militants or the army. In a way, Haider compellingly adapts the personal tragedy of Hamlet to produce a stringent picture of politics in Kashmir and thereby sharply comments on the flaws of the Indian state and polity. To sum up, Haider assumes a much wider significance on the canvas of Indian cinema in interpreting the insidious workings of the state and nationalism. Demystifying the continuum of Bollywood movies that have either propagated jingoist nationalism or reinforced a sense of pride for the motherland by promoting Indian culture and values, Haider undoubtedly makes a subversive move. The movie jolts the audience out of a complacent stupor and compels a rethink about the dominant ideologies of the state that often upstage the issues of the minorities and the marginalized.



“Kashmir: Why AFSPA must go.” 29 October, 2011, The Hindu. Accessed on 10 July, 2016.

Bhattacharjee, Kishalay. “The Emergency that Continues: 25 years of AFSPA in Jammu & Kashmir.” 05 July, 2015, Accessed on 13 July, 2016.


Payel Pal 
is Assistant Professor of English, Amity School of Liberal Arts, Amity University Gurgaon. She can be reached at


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Archita Dutta #

    This is infact a great piece of work !! Seriously your angle of research and the way you have connected the movie “Haider” with Kashmir’ history, Literature (Shakespeare’s Hamlet) and Indian polity is commendable…..Well done Payel… Not only loved reading but I am completely impressed by your writing….

    December 6, 2016
  2. Ankit Verma #

    Nice article, albeit, very harsh on the Indian army. Improvement of the situation in Kashmir is largely due to the presence of the Indian army in the state.

    A minor correction required in the text. “Significantly, the film opens with the senior Hamlet-figure, Dr Hilaal Meer trying to save the life of a Kashmiri militant after he is shot by the Indian army”. From what I remember, the militant is suffering from appendicitis and Dr. Meer brings him home to perform an appendectomy. The militant has not been shot by the Indian army. After that, Ghazala, in her paranoid state, informs Khurram of the militant recuperating at their home. Khurram, being an army informant, relays this news to police and then the story unfolds.

    December 8, 2016
  3. Well written… continue writing, you write well

    December 20, 2016

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