‘If I am not a leftist, I am not an artist’

As “Haider” garners applause over the first weekend of its release, director Vishal Bhardwaj talks about his relationship with Shakespeare

October 05, 2014 04:19 pm | Updated November 16, 2021 06:46 pm IST

Bollywood director Vishal Bhardwaj.

Bollywood director Vishal Bhardwaj.

For a guy who grew up in the machismo-driven environs of Meerut, Vishal Bhardwaj’s fascination for the lilting text of William Shakespeare is baffling. “In school I was scared of Shakespeare,” says Bhardwaj settling for an exclusive chat on a Sunday afternoon. Unlike his peers, he doesn’t come firing quotable quotes. Like his film you have to be patient with him. “In school and college everything that needs to be mugged scares you. It was like let’s finish it and then we will go and play. The fact that I was more inclined towards cricket than academics made me wary of Merchant of Venice ,” reflects.

Be it Maqbool or Omkara, even a student of literature will find it difficult to find that these films are adaptations of Macbeth and Othello . They come across as original stories on screen. As he completes the trilogy by adapting “Hamlet” as Haider has it become a marketing tool for him? “From my side it is like giving credit to the original source. If it becomes a marketing tool than nothing like it! I know if I don’t tell people they won’t get it. Many have not read it and most have forgotten. These days people don’t tend to move beyond the synopsis and character introduction. I am talking about the general film going audience in the country. But I am not the first one to give credit to the great writer. In Gulzar sahib’s Angoor , we get to know that the film is based on Comedy of Errors only when Shakespeare winks from a photograph. In fact it made me realise that Shakespeare was not all that boring as I used to think. That he wrote such comic double roles. Even after that I didn’t go to bookshop to buy Comedy of Errors .”

Many years later, during a train journey he came across an abridged version of Shakespeare through a child and read Macbeth .

Vishal says he wanted to adapt “Hamlet” against the backdrop of militancy in Kashmir for a long time. “But I am not from Kashmir and have not been to Kashmir. Whatever Kashmir I have seen it is through television and films. Whosoever is slightly awakened about today’s India would know about the problems of Kashmir. But the issue doesn’t make a film. I used to feel alien about the everyday life.”

Then he came across Basharat Peer’s “Curfewed Night”. “After reading his account of growing up in those conflicted times, I got the link I was looking for. I literally went back in time with Basharat to understand the mid ‘90s. The fear of that time….” Basharat in fact proved to be a model for Haider. “Like many Kashmiris when he was growing up his parents sent him to Aligarh to study to keep him away from militancy. Haider also goes to Aligarh.” Dedh Ishqiya

As part of the research he watched different adaptations of Hamlet on screen. “Akira Kurosava made a nice adaptation of ‘Hamlet’. Then I watched Mel Gibson’s version. I really liked the Russian adaptation by Grigori Kozintsev. Almost all of them use Shakespearean language. Even the one made in 2004, which is set in contemporary corporate world uses the same kind of language. I think the West hasn’t come out of the Shakespeare’s shadow. I have no such hangovers.”

Many find Shakespeare, akin to a master screenplay writer for a Hindi blockbuster. “He wrote for the masses at that time. Many of us miss that point. His greatness was that he never lost touch with human consciousness. If somebody is a king, he doesn’t cease to be a human being.”

Whosoever has read “Hamlet” can figure out that while Shakespeare suggested that there is no point in blindly following the king. Vishal has replaced the king with the leadership of separatists. While Claudius killed his brother for the throne, here Khurram colludes with State to eliminate his brother to get political mileage. “I am not making a political point. I am trying to look at the problem with a human eye through the turbulent life of a family. But at the same time I haven’t turned the eye from political issues. AFSPA, half widows, which is a step ahead of what our films have made of Kashmir problem. I hope the film will make audience rise above the jingoism and understand that the situation is not as simple as it is made out to be.” Isn’t he asking the Kashmiris to look within? “Not just them, every stakeholder. Indians should also look within. What we have been doing in the State is not right all the time. Everybody has to look within. At least I have looked within.”

One asks him if that was reason behind a section of Kashmiris protesting against shooting in the Valley? “No. If you don’t get to see the shooting it can happen anywhere, Omkara ” he reasons hoping the Kashmiris will get to watch the film as soon as life gets on track after the floods.

Over the years literary commentators and psychoanalysts have read multiple meanings in the Bard’s play. And one of them is Oedipus complex. “It is not there on the surface. At least I have never found it on the surface. It is much later that some people have analysed it in different ways. Some analysts have said that ‘Hamlet’ is angry more because his mother has married his uncle and less because the uncle has killed his father. If you want to look it that way then certain things start to appear. I have explored whatever can be within the parameters of our society.” Also, he adds, Oedipus complex is not part of the conscious mind. “The moment you know about the feeling the feeling goes away. It is a complex as long as you are not aware of it.”

He is one of the few Indian filmmakers, who captures the whimsical side of life on screen but sometimes the absurd loses touch with reality as in Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola, an adaptation of Brecht’s play.

“We are all so complex from inside and we all live in a real world but still it doesn’t reflect in our mainstream films. I try to be real. May be in Matru I didn’t present it the way it should have been but at the time of production I was sure. You never really know….that’s the curse of the art.” Of late the chasm between the acting standards of his lead actors and the supporting actors is increasing. If one could notice it in Saat Khoon Maaf , it became glaring in Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola . Vishal admits that he loves supporting actors more than the lead actors. Many feel that if two actors of different calibre are on screen, mainstream film audience usually don’t get it.

“In commercial films the standard of acting is usually abysmal but people find the difference in my films. Once in the Censor Board some members were against the climax of Kaminey . They found the bloodshed too much. I contested that you give U/A certificate to films which show much more violence and in my film it is more of a comic book kind of climax. They said they also understand this but the violence is so real that we get worried. In those films people feel they are watching a film. In your film they feel they are watching reality. I think this is my fortune as well as my misfortune. The audience might not know the reason but they feel the difference in the level of acting because I try to be realistic. When they find that difference in the so-called commercial films they ignore it because there they don’t go to watch acting. They go to pass time.” So he casts these stars for commercial concerns? “Of course, otherwise why will I do it,” he laughs.

His films are assuming leftist leanings. “If I am not a leftist I am not an artist. The kind of inequality India has if that were to happen in a European country it would have faced six revolutions. For centuries we have played with the psyche of the masses. That your deeds in the last birth are responsible for your present miserable state of affairs. It is given a religious tinge so that he should not revolt. What if he said he wants the same bread that the rich are having? It is like I have been told that your films don’t make 100 crores because your cinematic vision doesn’t appeal to the popular taste. And I say is janam mein hi 100 crore bana ke dikhayenge .”

And if it doesn’t happen we will bring your stars into our fold. Perhaps it is because of this streak that his critics feel that he has been diluting since Maqbool . “I am the same kind of man. You can’t lie on screen. I don’t care about the audience.” Really? “Why should I? The audience hasn’t given me anything. I have been appreciated by the intellectuals, the critics and the connoisseurs of cinema. And it is because of them what I am. I don’t follow the popular taste. I want to hold out the hand. It’s up to them whether they want to hold it or not. I don’t make something that I won’t be able to own publicly.”

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