Cultural Politics

Why exactly is 'Haider' offending India's Twitter nationalists?

Those asking for a boycott of the film don't realise it actually shows the army in a realistic light.

Patriotic Indian Twitter users are asking people to not see Haider. I wonder if they saw the same film as I did. The Tweeple who made #BoycottHaider trend all Friday on Twitter say the film shows the Indian army in a bad light. On the contrary, the film is a tribute to the masterful way in which the Indian army (and other security forces) suppressed a popular rebellion against India.

That 1989 rebellion was by people India calls Indians, but the people were trained and backed by a neighbouring state. That is how powerful the rebellion was. Haider shows you how the Indian army saved the Kashmiri territory. As for the Kashmiri people, India had lost them anyway. It is these people, the Kashmiris, that the Indian security forces turned against each other.

I once met an Indian army officer in a flight and discussed many things with him. I asked him about the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and the human rights abuses that it protects. He argued that the army’s job was to fight wars on the border or train in the cantonment. If we were to make the army do things that civilian authorities are supposed to do, such as maintain law and order within India’s borders, it would do it its own way. The Indian army, like any army in the world, is trained in only one way: to kill the enemy. If you were to train the Indian army to work within the rules of the Indian Penal Code, do you think it would be able to fight a war on the border?

The army way

The enemy in Kashmir were and are Kashmiris, people we call Indians. If the army is to be deployed to save Srinagar for India from the city’s own residents, it can’t serve arrest warrants. That is why the Armed Forces Special Powers Act is to be used to suspend the Indian Constitution’s guarantee of the right to life. That’s as good as suspending the Constitution.

No popular rebellion in the world has been suppressed without human rights excesses. When two sides have guns, it’s a war. Human rights excesses, or any kind of violence for that matter, are only a symptom of war. The real problem is political. Politicians only worsen the situation by leaving it to the security forces.

Haider is not the first Bollywood film to show army excesses in Kashmir. Rahul Dholakia’s film Lamhaa did so in 2010. If Vishal Bharadwaj really wanted to show the Indian army in a bad light, he could have shown corruption by the army in dealing with militants, as Lamhaa did. A number of books and documentary films have been far more critical of the army’s role. Haider even ends with a note saluting the army’s role in rescuing people in the Kashmir floods.

One suspects the Twitter nationalist’s real problem with Haider is not that it shows the army in a bad light, but that it clearly shows Kashmiris wanting azadi, and being disenchanted with India. That’s a truth we try to hide. Yet, Haider shows this mildly. When a young Shahid Kapoor brings home a gun from school and confesses he wants to go across the border, he is not even allowed to explain why.

It is great to see the Twitter hyper-nationalists call for a boycott rather than a ban. In not wanting the film to be seen, our hyper-nationalists seem to be on the same page as the government of Pakistan, which has not allowed the film to be screened in Pakistani cinema halls.

In the late 2000s, we had a new Kashmir uprising with stones as much as books, films and social media. Kashmiris wanted to make a point. They wanted to tell the world about the excesses of Indian security forces in the ‘90s. They wanted to speak and be heard, something that was denied to them in that decade. They wanted to say they were not a defeated people just because New Delhi had more guns and soldiers.

Appropriating the narrative

That silence was broken and caused some discomfort, but today Bollywood is happy to appropriate it and render it toothless as a means of rebellion. You’re complaining about human rights excesses? Sure, let’s make a sexy Bollywood thriller about it. It will end with a Kashmiri mother telling her son that the real azadi will come when we give up the easy desire for revenge. That the otherwise-difficult censor board clears films like Haider and Lamhaa showing army excesses tells you how much the Indian state is affected by that narrative. Kashmiris lost the rebellion when they took to guns, when they took to stones, and now the narrative war has been masterfully dealt with too.

Haider has its moments but in the end it is a sloppily made, forgettable Bollywood film with action, comedy, suspense, sex, romance and everything thrown in like a roll call. There’s even some dancing around the trees. The filmmakers seemed to have put it out much in advance that it would be controversial, and the Twitter hyper-nationalists seem to be falling in their publicity trap.

Haider ends like most Bollywood action films do: (almost) everybody dies. That's what the Kashmir conflict is like. That is also what life is like.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

Play

This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.