Dir: Vishal Bhrdwaj   Year: 2014

(While most Bollywood films are meant to be seen during the weekend and forgotten over the week, there are a rare few that stay in your mind for years. One such film for me in recent times has been  ‘Haider’.  After seeing it three times in the theatre and once more on DVD, I still haven’t had enough of it. Here is my revisiting of the film. )

The first time we see Haider is when we see his slightly troubled face through the window of the bus as it winds down the valley road and stops at the military check post. He is coming back from Aligarh where he is doing his PhD on revolutionary poets of British India. He is interrogated on suspicion of being a terrorist by Indian army personnel. He doesn’t help his case when he says he is from Islamabad, when he could have answered Anantnag the other name of the Indian city. So we have a bit of a rebel here, don’t we? Ultimately it is his friend Arshia, an aspiring journalist and the daughter of the local police officer who comes to his rescue. As she is driving him away he asks, ‘Where are we going?’

 ‘ To your mom’s place ( moji’s)’.

‘ And where is moji?’

‘ She is with your chacha.’

‘ Turn back. I want to go home.’

 ‘Haider, there is nothing home-like left at your home now.’

Cut to the burnt remnants of Haider’s erstwhile home. He picks up a half-burnt cricket bat. Then one of  his abbuji’s shoes. He picks up a photo frame and takes out the photograph, tucks it into his jacket pocket.


Night. Child Haider sidling between abbuji and moji and snuggling against Moji. Morning. Running down the  stairs with wooden balustrades,  he polishes abbuji’s shoes.

Dabs a little attar on moji’s nape and places a kiss there. Moji cuddles him.

Gulon mein rang bhare… we can see Haider’s father Dr Halil Meer humming. Young Haider asks abbuji for some money. Abbuji aks him to complete the shair. ‘…Chale bhi aao ke gulshan ka karobar chale’, the boy rattles off and snatches the note form his father’s hands.

Cut to the burnt house.

‘Haider, stop fighting with yourself.’


‘ Cry, for god sake.’

He picks up the other shoe. Dusts it.

‘Haider, Haider. Ro lo please.’

Then they kiss.

I haven’t seem more exquisitely written and more perfectly staged scenario in an Indian film in a long time.


The scene that follows, and in fact every scene the film, has the mark of that perfect control over the dramaturgy, insight into human behaviour  and empathy for the characters,  put together with a fine poetic sensibility  and masterly visual flair.

We see Haider approaching chacha Khurram’s house. Inside, oblivious to the approaching Haider, Khurram is singing some Kashmiri folk song, quite out of tune of course. . Ghazala ( moji) is amused and laughs, mockingly taunting Khurram. Khurram: ‘So why don’t you teach me? Make me your shagird…be my ustadin..I have been entreating since college days. Now you sing it. Please.’   Ghazala sings in a muffled silky voice. Khurram dances with  comical gestures and awkward movements. Ghazala  guffaws indulgently, even as her overall demeanour remains mournful. .

Haider enters. Ghazala stops singing. Khurram stops dancing.  They are stunned.

‘Yeh chhup chhup ke naach ganna pehle bhi hota that ya abhi shuru hua? Abbuji ke baad?’

( Gazala slaps Haider )

‘Budtameez . Aise baat karte hain moji se? Aane do inke doctor saab ko.’

Haider storms out. Khurram pacifies Gazala. ‘He is a kid, I will explain to him’, he says.

But we know the spark has been lit. The only possible end is a fatal explosion.

Of course the film has already started with an explosion. Dr Hilal Meer has brought home an injured terrorist for an emergency surgery. ‘Whose side are you on, Doctor saab?’, his concerned wife Gazala asks. ‘ On the side of humanity,’ he answers. That sets the moral tone of the film. Of course the doctor is picked up by the army, joining the ranks of the ‘missing persons’. His house is blown up to destroy the terrorist sheltered there. ‘No terrorist dead or alive is worth the life of my soldiers,’ the commandant justifies the action.

As the film progresses from hear on one marvels at the ease with which Vishal has managed to keep all the main characters and the plot twists of Hamlet without anything appearing forced. If you don’t know anything about Hamlet you lose nothing because the story evolves organically, with all characters being driven to their inescapable destiny.


The delineation of Gazala deserves our special attention. What an every-woman character Vishal has created here! And with what luminous grace and intensity has Tabu played her! She is a woman who wants it all. He wants a noble husband in Dr. Meer. Once he becomes a ‘disappeared person’   she falls back on Khurram who has been her college-days admirer. And all along she has this relationship with her son Haider, which is a kind of a cat and mouse game full of emotional blackmail, playful banter and Oedipal jealousy. The scenes of young Haider dabbing attar on her neck, reprised later by the older Haider is staged with masterly control, bringing out the special relationship between the mother and son which has been special from the time Haider was a child. It is easy to call it Oedipal, but what does that tell us? What Vishal does is to map the contours of this relationship in such detail that we can feel it for real.

Let us sample some of the exchanges between the two. This one happens immediately after the attar dabbing scene.

““Aap kehte thay bade ho kar moji se nikah rachayenge. Aur Abbu jab mujhe chhute thaye toh tum unse ladhte thay aur aakar hum dono ke beech so jaate thay.”

 “ Ab toh chacha tumhe chumte hain. Ab mein kya karoon?”

This one happens earlier when Haider returns home after days of absence. She is serving him food and going all emotional.

“ If you are willing to go to Delhi your job is assured.’


“ National School of Drama. Stop all these tantrums now.”

But while the relationship between Haider and her mother is that of both love and mistrust, there is no questioning the undying loyalty that Haider nurtures for his father. That is clear from his taunt to Gazala after his mike-testing speech at the Lal Chowk.

“Aap ro kyun rahe hain? Aap ke liye toh khush khabri hai. Ab aap aadhi bewa nahin rahe. Abbuji mar gaye. He is dead. Sach kh rahaa hoon. Mein toh dead body dekh ke aaya hoon. Ab aap dono mom chuup chhup ke duet gaane ki zaroorat nahin hai. See! Dead abbuji.”

Even her relationship with Khurram is revealed through the following banter which takes place when Khurram suggests that she goes back to her teaching job at the school.

“Bachche bahut yaad karte hain.”

“Ek baar puri ho jaaoon.”

“To ab kya hain..aadhi?”

“Aadhi bewa hoon. Aadhi dulhan.”

“Aadhi paagal hain aap.”

The relationship between Haider and Arshia on the other hand is painted with different strokes, using much more bright and playful colours. We get to see the intensity of their relationship in the beginning of the film when she gets him out of the security seize and they visit his burnt down house. Later in the film we get to see a more romantic and playful side of their relationship. This particular exchange goes something like this, after Haider talks of killing those who are responsible for his father’s disappearance.

Tum aisa kuchh nahin karoge, baat sach nikle ya jhoot. Kasam khao meri. I have lavawed you all my life.’

‘ Not lavawed..loved. Say Kicked” “Kickawed.”

“ Plucked” “Plackawed “

“Sucked” “Sackawed.”

“F.. “

“Fakka. You bastawrd!”

( The gag works because we have already been introduced to this eccentric pronunciation in  the speeches of Gazala and Khurram with words like lavawd, sikool and falas.)

Then we are led into the song where Gulzar combines romanticism and eroticism in equal measure:

“Lab tere yun khule jaise harf thay

Honth par yun ghule jaise barf thay

Tu hi tu hai, main kahin nahi

Hmm.. khul kabhi to, khul kabhi kahin

Hmm.. main aasmaan, tu meri zameen

Jhuk ke jab jhumka main choom raha tha

Der tak gulmohar jhoom raha tha

Jal ke main sochta tha:

Gulmohar ki aag hi mein phenk doon tujhe”

If Vishal has managed to weave in the main characters of ‘Hamlet’  seamlessly into the narrative of ‘Haider’, what is more amazing is the way he has incorporated  characters like Rosencratz and Guilderstern, Hamlet’s father’s ghost and the grave diggers into the weave. Take Salman and Salman. True to Shakespearean ethos, they are populist comic characters but here they double up as villains too. Them being video store owners, stocking VHS cassettes of Salman Khan films, fits in so well with contemporary Kashmir! Using Roohdaar as equivalent of Hamlet’s father’s ghost is another masterstroke. Irrfaan Khan plays him perfectly and eliminates the need for any supernatural elements to be introduced.

“Are you a doctor?”

“ I am the soul of the doctor.”

‘ Roohdaar tum shia ho ya sunni?

The answer is:

“Dariya bhi mein, Darakht bhi mein

Jhelum bhi mein, chinar bhi mein

Daer hun, haramm bhi hun,

Shia bhi hun, Sunni bhi hun

Mein hun Pandit;

Mein tha, mein hun aur mein hi rahunga”

The lines are a mashup Lal Ded’s:

“Aassi aiys ta asi aasav

Aassi dur kur patu-vath

Shivas sari na zyon ta marun

Ravus sori na atu-gath!”

“We did live in the past and we will be in future also:

From ancient times to the present, we have activated this world.

Just as the sun rises and sets, as a matter of routine,

The immanent Shiva will never be relieved of birth and death!”

The gravedigger’s scene too is staged in a masterly fashion. The guitar riff that precedes the song ‘Aao Na’ puts your mind on the edge. The wizened faces of the old men and Gulzar’s lyrics do the rest.

Naa shaam na savera

Andhera hi andhera

Hai roohon ka basera, so jaao!

Are aao na ke jaan gayi jahaan gaya so jaao

Are aao na ke thak gayi hai zindagi so jaao”

The dancing boy and his exchanges with the gravediggers is the icing on the cake.

 Old Man 1: Apni kabar khodo aur so jaao.

Boy: Yeh saari khopdi hanste kyun hian?

Old Man 2: Tere toh rote hue milenge.

Old Man 3: Ho sakta hai jis kulhad se kahva pi rahe ho woh Sikandar ka mitti ka bana ho!

The only grouse I have with the narrative is the way the doctor is shown goading Haider to revenge through Roohdaar.

 ‘Uski dono aankhon mein goliyan daakh dena, jin aankhon ne uski maa par fareb daale thay, jo aankhein use yateem kar gayi.’

This does not sit well on the doctor’s personality. Also maybe Roohdaar was inventing this to instigate Haider. The story would have worked better and Haider’s soliloquy  ‘ shaque pe yakeen karoon ya yakeen pe shaque’ would have had better resonance if this aspect was left ambiguous. This could have been achieved by Roohdaar mouthing the Doctor’s lines or using only the doctor’s voice without actually showing him speaking the lines.


The film is full of literary and cultural allusions. Faiz is invoked with ‘ Gulon mein rang bharien’ as well as ‘ Hum dekhenge’. Manto is referenced delightfully with the sequence where a Kashmiri (cameo by Basharat Peer) won’t enter his own house without going through frisking. So used he has become to talaashi. The folk performance traditions of Bhaand and Dhamali are echoed in Haider’s crazy act with the bird at the Marriage of Khurram and Gazala and the dance performed at the Martand Temple to invoke the dark deeds of Khurram.

“Ho.. sunle zamaana samjhaata hoon

Teri kahaani doharata hoon

Aye dil-e-bulbul bulbul-e-bismil

Aye dil-e-bulbul bulbul-e-bismil

Ik joda tha nar-maada ka

Bholi thi bulbul, nar saada tha


Bismil bismil bulbul-e-bismil

Mat mil mat mil gul se mat mil”

Gulzar’s wonderful lyrics are brought alive by Shahid Kapoor’s energetic dance choreographed using elements of Dhamali.

Vishal does something wonderful with the best-known property of Shakespeare’s Hamlet : To be or not to be. He plays on a number of such dual possibilities: Hum hain , ya nahin. Jaan loon, ya jaan doon, etc.

“Shaque pe hai yakeen toh, yakeen pe hai shaque mujhe…”

“ Though I trust my doubts, I also doubt my trust. Roohdaar’s tale is true, and Chacha’s story false? Or the other way around? Whose lie is a  lie, and in whose truth there is no truth? It is, or is not? That’s the only question, and the answer to the question is a question again. If I listen to my heart, it is; and if I go by mind’s logic, it is not. Should I take a life, or give mine. Should I remain, or I don’t exist?”

In fact Vishal does some wonderful thing with language in the film. The shiniest example of this is what he does with ‘ Chutzpa’. He introduces the word as a word that sounds like AFSPA. Then he tries to give a sense of the word is about at two different points in the film through two different stories; one where the young man accused of murdering his parents pleads for leniency from the judge on the ground that he is now an orphan; and the second, where a guy robs a bank and walks to the manager with the cash he has picked up and wants to open an account. Then the word is used by different characters at different times to demonstrate how words gain their power to express things beyond their meaning, sometimes through phonetic closeness to another word ( Chutzpa- AFSPA). “ Humara saath chutzpa hua hai’, Haider says in his ‘ Hello, mike testing’ performance. Here we cannot help thinking of the word ‘ chutiyappa’. The Salmans use the word while trying sell a Salman Khan video to some foreign tourists. Here they perhaps are using chutzapa as a substitute for charisma. He is a load of fun, this new Vishal Bhardwaj, post-Kaminay, more free, more confident, more playful.

Of course , one cannot talk of Haider without talking of its politics. Many have accused the film of being anti-Indian and say it portrays the Indian Army as villains. It does nothing of that sort. All the army personnel have been shown as suave, likeable persons. And it is Khurram Meer, Haider’s uncle played by Kay Kay Menon who is the villain of the tale. Yes, the Indian Army is shown to be using torture to get information, to be ready to blow up suspected terrorists causing collateral deaths of innocents rather than risk losing its own men in a combat, and to have created the Ikhwan-e-Muslimoon, a force made up of captured militants, to combat the militants. But then everyone knows that these are true, and most think these to be acceptable in the given circumstances of Kashmir. In fact the films co-writer Basharat Peer, whose Crossword Prize winner ‘Curfewed Nights’ is an eye-witness account of the Kashmir conflict, grew up as a child in Kashmir and studied in Aligarh Muslim University , like Haider in the film. His knowledge of the material dealt with in the film is unquestionable. Many key incidents shown in the film are based on well-known real events.

The story of missing doctor in Jhelum comes from Jalil Andrabi murder case of 1996. The bit about they young boy found alive in a truck of dead bodies, and then dancing comes from Gawkadal Massacre of 1990. The Gawakadal massacre was named after the Gawakadal bridge in Srinagar, Kashmir, where, on January 20, 1990, the Indian paramilitary troops of the Central Reserve Police Force opened fire on a group of Kashmiri protesters in what has been described by some authors as “the worst massacre in Kashmiri history”, along with the Bijbehara Massacre in 1993.

Many have raised questions about the absence of the Kashimiri pandits and the silence about the role of Pakistan in stoking cross-border terrorism. These accusations, again, are false. The Kashmiri pandits issue is mentioned.  Brig. TS Murthy ( Ashish Vidyarthi) asks, ‘Three lakh Kashmiri pandits have been thrown out of their homes, spending their lives in camps. Will you not count them as disappeared persons?’ The killing of innocent persons has been alluded to in the scene where captured militants are given the third degree treatment.  Pakistan’s role in training the militants is explicitly mentioned. At one point, one of the army officers says, ‘Those who are training terrorists to kill innocent women and children, in 1948 soldiers from the same country came disguised as kabadis and looted the Kashmiris, raped their women, cut up their children. If we are not here they will do the same again.’ No, a full 360 degree perspective of the political scenario is presented. It is thoughtless to mention out that these counter views are dispensed off in minutes. Naturally. The story of Haider and the tragedy does not permit digression into other strands. You cannot create a coherent screenplay and be true to the tale you are telling by trying to be politically correct.  If the director has any political position on the issue it is presented through the character played by Kulbhushan Kahrbanda who says, ‘If everything had moved as per law this won’t have been the condition of Kashmir today. Pandit Nehru in his speech at Lal Chowk promised plebiscite. Forget plebiscite. Talk of the first step towards plebiscite – demilitarization – did it happen? Neither by Pakistan nor by India. When two elephants fight it’s the grass that gets trampled.’ He also says, at another point, ‘Azadi …Hindustan mein bhi lathiwala laya tha , bandhookwla nahin.  Bandhook sirf intequaam lena jaanta hai.Jab tak hum intequam se azad nahin tab tak azadi humein azad nahin kar sakta.’

The history of the Kashmir problem has been encapsulated imaginatively by Vishal in the ‘ Hello, hello, mike testing’ monologue. It is so well written, and performed so fluidly by Sahid Kapoor that it is a pleasure to go through it again and again. It is a lesson for anyone writing a log scene for an actor to perform.


Hello, hello, mike testing. 1..2…3…Awaz aa rahi hai aap logon ko? Helllo..hello…

UN Council resolution No 47 of 1948. Article 2 of the Geneva Convention. And Article 370 of the Indian constitution.

Bas ek sawal uthata hai…bas ek..…hum hain ki hum nahin.

Hum hain toh kahan hain, aur gaye toh kahan gaye? Gaye kis liye  thay, aur kaise gaye thay kab?

Zanab. Hum thay bhi ya hum thay nahin.

Chutzpah ho gaya humare saath. Chutzpah jaante hain aap log?

Ek baar ek bank mein dakaiti hui. Dishkiyan…dishkiyan. Dakait ne cashier ke sar par pistol rakha aur kaha paise de, nahin toh maut le. Aan ..haan ..Aaan .haan. Cashier  ne saare paise utha ke dakait ko de di..aur dakait ne usi paise ko le kar agli counter pe gaya .. ( whistle)…Excuse me. Ek form dijiye..  Mujhe account kholna hai.  ( Laughter from the crowd. Clapping.)

Yeh hota hai chutzpah. Chutzpah.  Besharam…gustaq…..jaise AFSPA.

( Khurram to Ghazala: Aap…aap  jaaiye..mein le kar aata hoon usse.)

Savdhan. Armed Forces Special Powers Act 65, Rule 4.a. Any commissioned officer..ji salaam…Warrant officer…ji salaam…any non-commissioned officer…ji salaam….Or any other officer of equivalent rank of the armed forces…may in a disturbed area …if he is of the opinion that it is necessary to do so, for the maintenance of public order after giving due warning as he may consider necessary,  fire upon or otherwise use force… even to the causing of death… aah.. aah.. against anyone acting in contravention with  law….or order. Law… and order….law …order ( claps…the crowd claps with him) na hai law na hai order..jiska law hai  uska order….We don’t need law and order. India Pakistan ne milke…Khela humse border border….Ab na hum chhode Hindustan….) (Put put put)Ab na hum chhode Pakistan…( Put put put) Arre koi toh humse bhi poochhe ki hum kya chahte hain…( Crowd: Azadi. Azadi) Is paar milenge ( Crowd: Azadi) ..Uss paar milenge..( Crowd: Azadi). Hum lekar rahenge ( He beats his palms on his head. Crowd silent. He spits out: Azadi)

Khuram moves forward towards him: Haider.

Haider: Saare jahan se achha…Hindusata hamara

Shahid manages to pull off this difficult act, giving us a credible indication of the slow onslaught of madness born out of grief and anger. He has to traverse the grey area between being really mad and pretending to be mad so that he can say all the outrageous things he wants to say. And he does well. Kay Kay Menon as Khurram and Irrfan Khan as Roohdaar are impressive. But it is the luminously beautiful Tabu who is the soul of the film. “ What a piece of work is woman”, one feels like paraphrasing  Shakespeare watching her performance,  and one is tempted to title the film ‘ Gazala’ as well.


Quite apart from the edgy and evocative narrative, the film provides pleasures of the highest order at so many levels: emotional, intellectual, visual and aural – all of these weaved organically into the film without any attempt to impress or show off.  Vishal the composer is in top form here. I have mentioned the guitar riff in the grave-digging scene. Then there is the plaintive twang of the ud during the ‘ Jhelum Jhelum’ song. The film looks gorgeous with beautiful farming of the patterns on Ghazala’s shawl and the pillow covers, carved wooden beds and doors, the stained glass windows of the prayer halls, the snowman with red scarf that Arshia makes for her father, the balls of wool that Arshia absent-mindedly unravels as she absorbs the grief of her brother’s death, the chinars on snow fields and the smouldering fire against the white snow.

‘Maqbool’ was striking in its sparseness, ‘ Omkara’ was brash and boisterous, but it is ‘Haider’ which offers the whole spread  of Shakespearean delights blended with Vishal’s unique flavor for us to feast upon. Again and again.

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