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New Shakespeare Movie Puts Hamlet In Kashmir


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Avenge my death - one of the most famous quotes in literature. Now those words are uttered on-screen in a different tongue in another time.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).

SIMON: Shakespeare's "Hamlet" adapted to Indian-controlled Kashmir in the mid-1990s in the new film "Haider."


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing in foreign language).

SIMON: The screenplay was written by this Basharat Peer, the journalist and author and the director is Vishal Bhardwaj.

Mr. Peer joins us in our studios. Thanks much for being with us.

BASHARAT PEER: It's a pleasure being here.

SIMON: Why put "Hamlet" in Kashmir, this storied territory that seems forever in dispute?

PEER: Well, in the South Asian context when you think of a tragic place, of a sad place, a storied place, Kashmir is an obvious choice. When the Kashmir insurgency was going on it was at its peak in the mid-nineties. One of the tactics of counterinsurgency that the Indian government chose was to raise a militia of detainees, surrendered militants, all kinds of characters who were willing to sign up. There was this militia of several thousand men, Kashmiris, who were armed and given a license to kill, they were run by the Indian army and really let loose on a population and told to kill the militant groups and their sympathizers because they were part of the society, they knew who worked, how and they knew everyone. And to me, the question of a brother betraying a brother, that the unit of a family is torn into two - the moment we thought of "Hamlet," I went back to read the play and as I looked at Claudius there were these figures, you know, as a reporter I covered the place and I've written about these phenomenon. I had these various faces of real people who were figures in this militia that I'd interviewed kind of leap up to me and that's when I knew.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Singing in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Singing in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (Singing in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Singing in foreign language).

SIMON: Vishal Bhardwaj also wrote the music for the film.

PEER: Vishal is a brilliant composer. He's a multi-talented man who started his life as a music composer for Bollywood films and he does music very well. It's a big strength of the film.

SIMON: In fact, we want to listen to it. Maybe we can set up the scene. Is this the grave digging scene?

PEER: Well, towards the end of the film, the final act of the play, you have the duel where Claudius eggs on Laertes and Hamlet to fight, and Gertrude gets killed and Hamlet eventually kills Claudius. So when we were filming it, we sort of knew it can't be a duel in terms of a medieval duel, but more like a gun battle, a modern gun battle and as a side of a gun battle, we also wanted to give a sense of Kashmir as a place where there have been too many deaths. So we chose to have this gun battle on a snowy mountain slope by a graveyard and that's when you see this Hamlet arriving at the graveyard and these old men as gravediggers, kind of hinting at the old men who had lost their sons now picking up arms and joining the fight with Hamlet.


UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Foreign language spoken, singing).

SIMON: I gather the film has been doing well.

PEER: It's been doing very well. Commercially, it's been a big success and we have had largely fair (unintelligible) reviews, but there's also been some trouble.

SIMON: Is that sometimes divided along political lines?

PEER: It's a completely polarized debate in India. The Hindu right and kind of the jingoistic nationalists really went after the film. They ran a campaign on Twitter saying boycott "Haider," for it's an anti-national film, it shows the Indian army in a negative light. Partly because you know, the films that have dealt with the subject of Kashmir have largely been state propaganda and glorification of the soldiers - posted and counterinsurgency - and we have a few scenes which are critical and they're based in reality.

SIMON: We get an idea from this distance that Kashmir is quieter than it has been in recent years, but now you have, obviously, a new government in charge in New Delhi. What do you foresee?

PEER: There are no signs of any progress on Kashmir. It still remains one of the most militarized places in the world, with the highest number of soldier to civilian ratio. It's still a volatile place, but the new government in Delhi hasn't really moved in the direction of reinvigorating the peace process, or starting a serious conversation on Kashmir yet.

SIMON: I think - I mean, I could be corrected - but I believe the position of several Indian governments has been, Kashmir is ours, we don't reassess the position.

PEER: Right and this is the most right-wing of all Indian governments that we have seen so there will be a far more hard-line position on Kashmir. How things turn out, we'll have to wait and see.

SIMON: Basharat Peer is co-screenwriter of the new film "Haider."

Thanks very much for being with us.

PEER: It's a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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