Haider: Why is 'Indian Hamlet' controversial?

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Critics have praised Shahid Kapoor for his performance in HaiderImage source, UTV
Image caption,
Haider's story is set in Kashmir

Bollywood director Vishal Bhardwaj's Indian adaptation of Hamlet has been hailed as "one of the most important movies of the year".

The director is known for his admiration of William Shakespeare's works. He based his 2003 hit Maqbool on Macbeth and returned with Omkara in 2006 as his adaptation of Othello.

But his third film, Haider, based on the English writer's work is getting wider media attention due to its controversial backdrop.

The movie is set in Indian-administered Kashmir. In Bhardwaj's film, Shahid Kapoor is Hamlet, Shraddha Kapoor is Ophelia, Tabu plays Gertrude and Kay Kay Menon is Claudius.

The movie has successfully adapted the play's well-known twists and turns in the backdrop of the armed insurgency in the Kashmir of the 1990s.

Haider is a poet who returns to Kashmir at the height of the insurgency to find that his father has disappeared and his mother is in a new relationship with his uncle.

The film revolves around Shahid's character who embarks on a dangerous journey to find his father and ends up getting dragged into the politics of the state.

Critics say Bhardwaj has succeeded in bringing out the raw emotions of Hamlet in the film, while keeping his focus firmly on Kashmir.

The region witnessed its worst armed struggle throughout the 1990s as separatist groups violently clashed with security forces, demanding freedom from "Indian rule".

Kashmir, claimed by both India and Pakistan, has been a flashpoint for more than 60 years and the South Asian rivals have fought two wars and a limited conflict over the region.

And India has often accused Pakistan of interfering in its internal affairs and supporting armed groups.

Image source, UTV
Image caption,
Critics have praised Shahid Kapoor for his performance in Haider

But Bhardwaj's film largely stays away from the rivalry of the neighbours, focusing instead on the alleged human rights abuses in the state.

Activists often accuse security forces of torturing and kidnapping local youths in illegal detention camps - an allegation the army has always denied.

Jason Burke writes in the Guardian that "Haider includes graphic scenes of torture in Indian army camps and other human rights abuses by Indian officials".

This bold portrayal has received praise from film critics and Bhardwaj's fans.

Most analysts feel that earlier films based on Kashmir largely failed to highlight the real issues and Haider tries to fill that gap.

The Hindu says "it takes some amount of guts, ambition and skill to ride two wild horses - at the same time".

Bhardwaj "churns out the best of his Shakespeare trilogy, an adaptation of Hamlet… which is also an unflinching look at the recent political history of Kashmir".

The paper says that "there is no denying that mass graves of disappeared people were indeed found".

Image source, UTV
Image caption,
Shahid Kapoor and Shraddha Kapoor (right) play leading roles in the film

An article in the First Post says "portraying the uncomfortable political reality of Kashmir" is a great challenge and "more so when the issue lies at the heart of tension between the people of Kashmir and India".

Kashmir continues to be one of the most controversial political topics in modern India and evokes strong emotions.

Bhardwaj is also facing some backlash over what many describe as his "unfair" portrayal of the armed forces.

But he has defended the plot of his film.

"I'm also an Indian, I'm also a patriot, I also love my nation. So I won't do anything which is anti-national. But what is anti-human, I will definitely comment on it," he said.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Vishal Bhardwaj has defended the plot of his film

Indian Twitter users are divided over the film and the sentiment has been reflected in two rival hashtags.

The hashtag #BoycottHaider has received more than 75,000 tweets since Friday.

But others see Haider as a true expression of real cinema in India. The hashtag #HaiderTrueCinema has attracted more than 45,000 tweets since Friday.

Despite the controversy over the film's plot, some analysts say it shows that India is becoming more open to sensitive subjects.

"As democratic traditions strengthen in the country, more and more such movies will be made and people will be educated. Haider is the first step in that direction," says Dr Zakir Hussain, senior analyst at the Indian Council of World Affairs.