Hamlet in “Haider”: A Political commentary

Marlyn Pereira
9 min readApr 17, 2020


(Spoilers ahead)

“…To believe or not to believe, to kill or not to kill…”

“… do we exist or do we not”.

Vishal Bhardwaj’s “Haider” adapts the plot of Shakespeare's Hamlet while simultaneously exploring other elements of cinematic and narratorial adaptation freely. It does not maintain a strong fidelity towards the play as a primary text. “Haider” is a movie that focuses on a setting that is constantly ridden with political turmoil, along with the psychological turmoil of its characters through the plotline and the story. As Linda Hutcheon rightly calls film adaptations a palimpsestic narrative, she also establishes that an adaptation need not be a remake of the text, but there is a need for it to be an interrogation and reevaluation of the primary text. Vishal Bhardwaj presents not merely the Shakespearean plot but also a re-reading of the play Hamlet in a different context. This exploration emphasizes the aspects like the dramatic psychological portrayal of characters, the extremely politicized setting, the power dynamic, and the larger narrative that Hamlet is known for, by displacing the plot into a different temporality and spatial setting.

The movie is set in Kashmir, infamous for its political and social unrest. Elements that are deemed personal such as familial ties, love, compassion, and emotional states are juxtaposed against a political narrative of power, authority, and revenge. Bhardwaj attempts to Indianize Hamlet and provides a perspective of socio-political life in Kashmir. The subtext of the movie highlights the constant policing, surveillance and control as well as the corruption of the institution of law and order. Along with a masquerade of emotional instability, Haider is also a strong critique of the festered law and order in states like Kashmir that are drenched in political and nationalist conflicts.

The introduction of Haider, played by Shahid Kapoor is one that aligns with the play in context to Hamlet’s stoicism and dismissal of mourning as a process for the death of his father. As soon as he returns to Islamabad, a mentally disturbed Haider begins his search for his father or even his corpse in different camps set up for the militants, by the army. As a character with so much emotional baggage, Haider is never seen seeking catharsis or even granting expression to his emotions, even when Arshi (the mixture of characters of Ophelia and Horatio) asks him to, in the scene where he visits the debris of his destroyed house. Bhardwaj marks the drastic transition of Haider from a distant, stoic, and expressively numb young man, to a deranged, mentally unstable, vengeful character.

As the movie progresses, we see Bhardwaj using the element of nostalgia to provide depth in the personality of each character, therefore revealing layers of his palimpsestic adaptation. Through the tool of memory, we see Haider as a rebellious adolescent mixing with the infamous militants who are the cause of social unrest in Kashmir. His mother, Ghazala (Gertrude) is seen emotionally blackmailing him in order to get him to agree to go away to study, to protect him. Her character seems to be indifferent in an unhappy, unsatisfied marriage which is revealed later during another dialogue sequence between Haider and her. Khurram Meer (Claudius) in snippets from the past is seen making inappropriate advances at Ghazala. Haider’s father, Hilaal Meer, often addressed as Doctor Saab or Doctor, is not a person in power like Hamlet’s father is in the play, but is a doctor driven to do good, regardless of the identity of the patient, which ultimately leads him to his doom.

Political turmoil is present throughout the movie and is central to the plot of the movie. This social situation is explored through constant curfews, checking, interrogations and policing. There is constant surveillance throughout the state. This adaptation of the conflict between Fortinbras and Denmark is transformed into an internal conflict between the Indian army and militants. The strong element of corruption among people in power and the dynamic of looseness of the law is explored through the movie. We see Khurram Meer, an informant who gives up his brother, Hilaal Meer, to be tortured and then killed to gain political power and as an added benefit, Hilaal’s wife as well. The imprisonment and claustrophobia Hamlet feels in Denmark, in his castle is explored through a single but effective dialogue by Haider, as he says the whole of Kashmir to him, is a prison. There are two dominant narratives as far as the politics of the state in the movie is concerned, one is the narrative of the army, and the other of the common people. Nostalgia is a tool used to show us the narrative of the people, for instance through the snippets of the past violence, desolation, and protests throughout the state, and the army’s narrative is given a voice and a presence. It could be assumed as a technique to legitimize a kind of a narrative or both, through various means of representation. Power as an element is not placed in the domain of one individual like in Hamlet in the domain of Claudius alone but is diffused and spread out through the levels of the power structures, that is, in the police department, the military, as well as the politicians.

Haider as a movie also broadly emphasizes the relationship between Ghazala and Haider more than the one between Haider and Doctor (his father). The Oedipal thrusts are explored with little or no subtlety through the body language, expressions, intimacy and dialogues between Haider and Ghazala. There are clear indications to Haider’s Oedipus complex: Haider’s statement about marrying his mother when he grows older, and his evident annoyance and fights with his father if he touched his mother. Their relationship, however, is not just explored through a libidinal lense. There is complexity between the characters, there are understandings and conflicts right from the beginning of the movie until the end. Ghazala is seen blowing herself up, along with the other soldiers brought by Khurram Meer to arrest Haider, after an intense conversation of confrontation with Haider. It becomes her act of liberation.

Bhardwaj not only experiments with spatial and temporal contextuality but also with the contexts of Hamlet’s famous dialogue “to be or not to be”. This very well known soliloquy is given three different contexts in the movie. The usual psychologically traumatic monologue drenched in suicidal tendencies, indecisiveness, rage, vengeance, and an existential crisis: “to believe or not to believe…”. The second: comic relief introduced through characters of Salman and Salman as they are seen conflicted whether to follow Haider and Roohdaar as they state “to go or not to go.” and the third: “do we exist or do we not”. The first two are dramatic monologues in the movie and the second merely a fleeting dialogue, however not insignificant. The contextuality for each of these versions of “to be or not to be” is an important exploratory device that Bhardwaj uses to create a narratorial critique in each of them. There is a scathing critique of the law and order in the monologue “do we exist or do we not”. Here we see Haider as completely transcended into derangement, publicly criticizing the law, the government and is also one of the introductory scenes for his emotional and mental instability. This existential and social crisis delivered by an outraged Haider who is driven by vengeance is significant with respect to the social unrest that is prevalent in Kashmir. The camera focuses on Haider’s facial expression and an emphasis on his eyes full of rage and angst, along with the emotional and dramatic delivery of his monologue, renders the audience uncomfortable and unsettled. Soon after Haider is seen giving Ghazala the news of his discovery of his father’s corpse in a rather unstable, comical and sadistic way, heightening the experience for the audience, of a psychological journey of Haider’s mind. Haider’s mental state is finally explored to its suicidal tendency, its existential crisis, and the purpose of revenge in the monologue “… to believe or not to believe”. This monologue is used to unveil Haider’s mental state not only to the audience but also to Arshi. This is traditionally in alignment with the Shakespearean plot.

Divergence from the plot of Hamlet is seen in another important instance: the haunting and the presence of the ghost. Roohdaar, a character is introduced, in the middle of the movie very much as an eerie presence and as a supposed messenger for Haider. Roohdaar evidently states “main doctor ki rooh hoon”, that can be directly translated into “I am the soul of the doctor” (implication on the reference to Hilaal Meer, Haider’s father). Roohdaar is also seen establishing his omnipresence in a dialogue between him and Hilaal Meer in the prison cell, as he states, I was, I am and I will always be. The eeriness that is explored through Roohdaar’s character is heightened when Haider walks away from him and he seems to utter the same ghazal that Hilaal Meer, Haider’s father used to sing. This divergence becomes a creative adaptation of the presence of the ghost of Hamlet’s father in the play. The characterization of Arshi differs from the conventional Shakespearean characterization of Ophelia. Arshi is infused with the characterization of Horatio as well, therefore she is the lover, as well as the friend who aids him to find his purpose of vengeance. She is not docile and vulnerable and as easily bullied as Ophelia is, but is assertive of her agency, however only against her brother. Arshi’s dynamic with her father is not the aggressive kind like in Hamlet but is the passively manipulative instead.

The narrative of noble revenge that is the major subtext of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is problematized by Bhardwaj. Haider is seen conflicted in the end when he gets the chance to kill Khurram Meer, his uncle and avenge the death of his father because of his mother’s words “inteqaam se sirf inteaqaam hi paida hota hai” which means “revenge begets revenge” that echo in his mind. This reversal of Haider’s character, rage and edged purpose for revenge is a significant divergence from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Bhardwaj questions the nobility and the glorification of revenge through the ending of his movie. Ghazala’s words echo in the mind of Haider, and his purpose is blunted by his conflict in the end. Even though Bhardwaj uses the characterization of Hamlet to create Haider, he chooses to make a statement by deviating from the very core of Hamlet’s character: his mind driven by vengeance. Haider subverts the idea of the noble revenge as a duty, bestowed upon the son.

There is an evident use of elements like music and song in order to introduce Bollywoodesque elements to the adaptation. The song Bismil is an adaptation of the theatrical act in Hamlet when Hamlet instructs the actors to enact the death of his father in their drama in order to evoke fear and guilt in the hearts of his mother and uncle. Haider similarly plays with and on the emotions of his mother and his uncle but enacts the dramatic sequence through music himself. The elevated and upbeat music sets the tone for the elevation of guilt from the innermost psychological corners of Ghazala and Khurram. The pompous, fast-paced music also adds to the unsettling and restless undertones, preparing the audience for a big reveal. The song of the gravediggers is another instance of comic relief. The clowning aspect is explored through this song in the middle of the movie, in a more conflicted and disturbing period than ever: the climax of the movie. There is a sense of comedy infused in the preparation for a funeral. There is a dialogue exchange between a child and Haider that emphasizes the existential crisis underlying the narrative, the idea that life in its circularity and the imminent return of humans to dust. It is a critique of the grandeur of life and how fulfillment is simply an illusion. This deeply layered scene is simply portrayed as a light conversation between the two, while Haider casually toys with a skull he unearths. It is rather unsettling, the way elements such as sadism, gruesomeness, violence, and death are portrayed in the film.

The camera angles used are not wide or vertical evidently. Wide shots are only taken to highlight desolation, for instance in the last scene of the movie, the graveyard is captured from a height to emphasize destruction and death. The camera tends to focus on the faces of the characters so as to show an intimate reflection of the psyche through their well-lit eyes. Close up shots are used to highlight guilt, lies, contemplation, and fear in various scenes. Bhardwaj takes a primary text and places it in an Indian context, in order to present an ode to the people who lost their lives in the political and social unrest of Kashmir throughout the years. Haider is a narrative written in a Shakespearean discursive plot but has an Indianised political subtext. It is also an adaptation of the desolation, everyday life and death in Kashmir due to the presence of conflict, unrest and the consequent violence it faces.



Marlyn Pereira

“Taste is an ideological discourse” says John Storey and this is an attempt at delineating the two.