Handling Kashmiri “Madness” through Film

Published: 2019/12/11 Number of words: 1970


The movie Haider revolves around the unfolding psychological drama of young Haider. He is sent to Aligarh University, the symbolic institution of North Indian Muslims, by his family to keep him from joining the militant movement against the Indian military in Kashmir and to experience a different type of Indian Muslim experience which is supposedly ‘free’ (Harris 2014). Pakistan appears in this story as ever-present as well, with Pakistani-Marxist poetry sung by Haider’s father and the presence of, supposedly, an intelligence agent in the midst of a separatist group. Haider, on returning to Kashmir, finds his father ‘missing’ and his home bombed. Haider discovers the death of his father at the hands of his brother, who informed on him to the Indian military for secretively operating on a militant leader with appendicitis. Haider thereafter feigns madness and he is shown to use his persona for revolutionary ends as well as to get into the house of his uncle, who also has married Haider’s mother, to avenge his father’s death. The rest of the film is a blood bath as all the main characters either get killed or commit suicide. Haider survives miraculously and has a second chance to kill his uncle, who begs for this so that he can live without guilt, but Haider lets him live. His grandfather’s and mother’s parting words convince him to seek true freedom which is “freedom from revenge”.

Kashmir under Pakistan’s shadow

During the film Haider’s father is shown to chant leftist revolutionary songs from a Pakistani poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz. This shows a deep rooted prejudice in the Director’s aesthetic choices. Could not Agha Shahid Ali have been chosen instead, one wonders? The right wing Kashmiri is obviously pro-pakistani according to this film’s narrative, the left wing as well according to the aesthetic leanings. The rest of the Kashmiris appear as cunning janus-faced, difficult to pin down characters since they will cheat their own for getting ahead in life. Why, you could ask, do we have such an unsubtle exposure to Kashmiri culture? Why shift the narrative of militant Kashmiri to a cultural trait of conniving?

Politics of Madness

Madness is the biggest victim of this movie. There is no sophisticated view on the self-reflexive madness narratives as in Shakespeare’s Hamlet like:

“I essentially am not in madness,
But mad in craft.”
(III. iv. 187-8.)

But come / Here, as before, never, so help you mercy / How strange or odd soe’er I bear myself- / As I perchance hereafter shall think meet / To put an antic disposition on- / That you, at such times seeing me, never shall, / With arms encumbered thus, or this headshake, / Or by pronouncing some doubtful phrase /…. That you know aught of me – this do swear, / So grace and mercy at your most need help you. (Act 1, Scene 5, Lines 177-189)

Shakespeare’s Hamlet takes on the garb of a madman, yet he becomes mad in the process as the taken-up persona takes over his life as the play progresses. That psychological empathy with madness as one of many states of being on the spectrum of human possibilities is lost upon Vishal Bardhwaj, the Director of Haider. Madness is not shown as self-consciously feigned to begin with in Vishal’s Haider, it seems rather politically motivated as he appears on the city square amusing a gathering of politically charged admirers. This is a common trope in post-colonial sates where madness and dissidence is confounded (Good et al. 2008).

Haider is then shown as being haunted by the voices of his dead father and mother. Here again, revenge as emotion is given precedence over an exploration of madness. The question: ‘is he really mad or is he feigning madness?’ is an irrelevant question for Vishal, nothing more than a rhetorical appearance from his mother without any substantive narrative connection.

Madness as political strategy, or madness as feigned behavior to gain the trust of one’s family seem to be the only options given to the viewer. What about, one may ask, madness as it appears to Haider, after all is not his view the most important one when it comes to the experience of madness? Why were we viewers not made to connect with the universal human psycho-somatic experience of madness with visual and auditory hallucinations, tout court. That would have made for some great experimental cinematography. One only wishes Haider were depicted as Shakespeare depicted Hamlet. A view of Hamlet as he appeared to himself, psychologically more honest and complex.

Rather, the bleak manipulation of the madman persona is shameful to say the least. Especially, in a highly securitised context like that of Kashmir, madness would have been a fascinating theme to think through. Yet, facile manipulative uses of the ‘fool’ figure both by the salman’s and by Haider’s dance performance suggest that madness does not really exist. It’s just a ploy, an option. It is a cultural trait. They are too cunning these Kashmiris to be genuinely and naively mad! What are we left with as a nuanced understanding of madness after this film? When all nuance is lost on the Director in the attempt to appeal to different audience prejudiced expectations of Kashmiris. Is not a Director meant to question the audience’s assumptions and leave the audience with discomfort about their strongly and wrongly held beliefs?

Love thy brother (and his wife)

Kashmiri elite of all ilk seem to be sleeping with each other with no hint of guilt associated with pre- or extra-marital sex. Another aspect of the slippery nature of Kashmiris depicted here is that they are not really ‘muslim’, they do not even take Islamic sexual ethics (Hélie and Hoodfar 2012) too seriously either. This appears as an attempt to differentiate Kashmiris then from a wider more sexually conservative South Asian culture (Osella and Osella 2006), since that lot of humanity is hardly ever depicted as incestuous or promiscuous in Bollywood. All this sleeping around suggests to the undiscerning viewer that even pro-state Kashmiris are not purely ‘pro-India’ since they are probably sleeping with the enemy militants and suicide bombers. A very dangerous conclusion that the viewer is expected to reach based on these culturally relativist ideas deployed in an already overflowing and highly politicised field of representation (Kabir 2009).

Secular Bollywood taming ‘Religion’

A second noteworthy observation apropos religiosity in Haider. Personal devotional prayer, shrine shrouds and swearing (or not) on the Quran seem to be the only role religion managed to find its way into the narrative. Every other aspect of religion is blissfully ignored (Tareen 2014), the jihad motivating factor, non-existent. Critical leftist revolutionary religiosity rooted in Kashmiri Muslim traditions of struggle against oppression (Rai 2004), nowhere in sight. The pulpit used as a political platform for all tendencies in Kashmir (Zutshi 2004), invisible.

One wonders why this other extreme was chosen by the director of veiling religion and choosing to unveil veiled ‘fair’ Kashmiri women on screen? Perhaps, the Director took the advice of the military man to heart who, hinting at Haider’s veiled girlfriend, advises him to ‘take care of such beautiful inspiration!’ (of his revolutionary poems). Desire for the ‘fair-skinned’ Kashmiri beauty (Gelles 2011) is mixed here with the voyeurism of the omnipresent state, how does the gaze of Bollywood differ from that of the State, if the difference is not made explicitly clear?

‘True’ Freedom is Revenge-free

The message is pretty clear coming from an old Kashmiri wise man, Haider’s grandfather, repeated by Haider’s mother and the final voice of the dead mother in Haider’s head that stops him from committing revenge murder. The only weapon, however, possible to deal with countering revenge (Gandhi 2014) is shown to be violence in this film as everyone other than the madman dies in a blood bath. What are we to take away from this about the nature of revenge in life. By focusing on revenge, the sophisticated and systematic struggle of Kashmiri activists is of course maligned here, at the same time the Indian State is not understood in its truest most insidious sense of being a State, the sole purpose of such an entity is to tame its subjects. The Indian state does not operate as a parochial, revenge-taking machine either! What century is the director living in? So the subject of revenge free freedom seems rather irrelevant for the context described.

Vishal Bardhwaj’s Haider was a disappointment but then again my expectations may have been too high, I was expecting an attempt at great art adequate to its inspiration Hamlet’s Shakespeare (yes the inversion is intentional). It was neither a sophisticated view on madness nor on Kashmiri culture. Haider reveals more about Vishal (and his prejudices) than Vishal is able to unveil about a typical Haider, if one exists out there somewhere. Is this film to be credited for shifting the debate about Kashmir to invite us to think about the psychological and psychic experiences of the toll of violence on a people? Or should we instead see this film as another sophisticated North Indian prejudicial representation of the Kashmiri other? I leave that to you, the reader, to make up your own mind after seeing the film.


Chitralekha Zutshi, 2004, Languages of Belonging: Islam and Political Culture in Kashmir, Hurst Publishers, London.

Gandhi Leela, 2014, The Common Cause: Postcolonial Ethics and the Practice of Democracy, 1900-1955, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Gelles Rebecca, 2011, ‘Fair and Lovely: Standards of Beauty, Globalization, and the Modern Indian Woman’ Independent Study Project (ISP) Collection. Paper 1145 http://digitalcollections.sit.edu/isp_collection/1145

Good Mary-Jo DelVecchio, Hyde Sandra Teresa et.al (editors), 2008, Postcolonial Disorders, University of California Press, Los Angeles.

Harris Gardiner 2014, For India’s Persecuted Muslim Minority, Caution Follows Hindu Party’s Victory, The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/17/world/asia/india-muslims-modi.html?_r=2

Hélie Anissa and Hoodfar Homa (eds.), Sexuality in Muslim Contexts: Restrictions and Resistance, 2012, Zed books, London.

Kabir Ananya Jahanara, 2009, Territory of Desire: Representing the Valley of Kashmir, University of Minnesota Press, Minessota.

Osella Caroline and Osella Filippo, 2006, Men and Masculinities in South India, Anthem Press, London.

Rai Mridu, 2004, Hindu Rulers, Muslim Subjects: Islam, Rights, and the History of Kashmir, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Shakespeare William, Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, http://shakespeare.mit.edu/hamlet/full.html

Tareen Sherali K., 2014, ‘Islam, democracy and the limits of secular conceptuality’, Journal of Law and Religion, 29, 1-17.

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