Like many Americans, I remember studying Shakespeare’s Hamlet in high school. As part of my Hamlet experience, I had to adapt and then perform a segment of the play. One objective of this exercise was to learn about how different staging choices could produce drastically varied results, even from the same source text. Looking back, I might’ve earned a better grade on my performance if I’d gained some inspiration from the 2014 Indian film Haider — which I’ll shamelessly say is the best Hamlet adaptation I’ve ever seen.
Imagine Hamlet with AK-47s. Or, to be more accurate, imagine Hamlet with AK-47s…. and RPGs… and grenades… and armored vehicles. That’s the clickbait way to pitch Haider. This isn’t some mindless Michael Bay explode-a-thon though; Haider offers a rare combination of not only action-packed entertainment, but also literary panache and geopolitical enlightenment.
Another way to describe Haider is “Hamlet in Kashmir”. The film takes place in 1995, amidst heavy clashes between Indian security forces and pro-Pakistani separatists in the Indian-controlled areas of Kashmir. Our titular character Haider (a.k.a. Hamlet but renamed) is the son of a prominent doctor (a.k.a. King Hamlet) who’s “disappeared” by the Indian military for aiding a rebel leader. With her husband out of the way, Haider’s drama queen mother (a.k.a. Gertrude) shacks up with his two-faced uncle (a.k.a. Claudius), an aspiring politician. Along the way we also meet the localized versions of Polonius, Ophelia, Laertes, and — as probably the most amusing characters in the film — Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Haider retains Hamlet’s timeless appeal.. and then adds more, much more. The film somehow feels faithful to Shakespeare’s script whilst innovating and localizing in ways that strengthen the story. We see Hamlet’s famous soliloquy weaved into multiple scenes, the most memorable of which is a satirical jig about the Armed Forces Special Powers Act — a controversial (and real) law that arguably gives cover to human rights abuses in Kashmir. “Alas poor Yorrick” takes the form of a Bollywood dance number, one that doesn’t actually feel too cheesy. Kashmiri poetry, with odes to the Jhelum River, accompanies shots of misty alpine forest. The movie’s ambience, thanks to a combination of distinctive sound design and Kashmir’s inherent natural beauty, is simply superb.
Oh right, did I mention the AK-47s? Violence pervades “Haider”, but it serves a purpose beyond entertainment. You can’t talk about a conflict zone without acknowledging the intimate role that violence plays in people’s lives. What does it mean to grow up with a curfew — imposed not by parents, but rather by soldiers? When family and friends are detained without due process, is it surprising if schoolboys traffic weapons from “freedom-fighting” terrorists?
As director Vishal Bhardwaj said in an interview, “Haider is the first film where we see Kashmir from the inside.” I take this both literally and figuratively. As noted in its end credits, “Haider” was filmed on site in Kashmir without incident — unprecedented for a mainstream Indian movie and a sign of positive progress in the region.
But beyond that, “Haider” is an exploration of the psychology of conflict, occupation, and displacement. “To be, or not to be” takes on new meaning when layered with questions of national identity, when juxtaposed against suicide bombers who “take arms against a sea of troubles”. If you re-read that soliloquy after watching the film, you’ll get chills. That’s how powerful “Haider” is, and that’s why (OK, the AK-47s help too) it’s the best “Hamlet” adaptation you’ll ever see.
Haider (Hindi: हैदर) — India. Dialog in Hindi and Kashmiri. Directed by Vishal Bhardwaj. First released October 2014. Running time 2hr 42min. Starring Tabu, Shahid Kapoor, Shraddha Kapoor, Narendra Jha, and Kay Kay Menon.