“So Jao”: Sound, Death and the Postcolonial Politics of Cinematic Adaptation in Vishal Bhardwaj’s “Haider” (2014)
The beginning of this year witnessed a significant reportage on films inspired by the Kashmir conflict in India, occasioned by the release of Vivek Agnihotri’s The Kashmir Files on March 11, 2022. The polarized reaction to the film, which single-mindedly focuses on the exodus of Kashmiri pandits from the valley and the violence they were subjected to at the hands of their Muslim counterparts, makes visible the complexity of the understanding of Kashmir’s political history in contemporary India. While Agnihotri’s film, whose propagandist agenda in favor of the state won approvals from the ruling political party in India, Vishal Bhardwaj’s 2014 film Haider, despite its extremely sensitive and responsible treatment of the problem of militancy in Kashmir was targeted for passing over the plight of Kashmiri pandits. But eight years after its release, Haider, which won five National Awards in 2015, still wields the power to move its audience regardless of their religious and communal bearings through its portrayal of a terrible human tragedy in the wake of Kashmir militancy in the 1990s.
Bharadwaj’s Haider completes his trilogy of cinematic adaptations of Shakespearian tragedies: Macbeth, Othello, and Hamlet translate as Maqbool (2004), Omkara (2006), and Haider (2014) respectively, in their Bollywood avatars. Bhardwaj, in his unique style, imports the original tragic plots into an identifiable and contemporary Indian context, through the assimilation of the plot material with the personal life stories he tells in his films. The plot of Haider centers around the disappearance and death of Haider’s father, which exposes the dark menagerie of political corruption and murders that Haider’s uncle is embroiled in. The pursuit of this traumatic truth sets the stage for Haider’s alienation from his mother and the motherland.
Integral to Bhardwaj’s style is the use of music in a typical Bollywood blockbuster formula, with song and dance sequences interrupting the linearity of cinematic storytelling. While certain film adaptations of Shakespeare operate simply as vehicles for the transmissions of ideology, Graham Holderness argues in “Radical Potentiality and Institutional Closure” (published in Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism), others “block, deflect or otherwise work on ideology in order partially to disclose its mechanisms.” Holderness evaluates the possibility of the film form to be a radical medium to challenge dominant ideologies or value systems. Analyzing Akira Kurosawa’s film adaptation of Macbeth—Throne of Blood (1957)–he argues in favor of the film’s dynamism to be able to liberate the original text.
Holderness’ reading of Kurosawa raises important questions for the postcolonial film importing from the English literary canon to speak uniquely to a postcolonial audience. In Bhardwaj’s undertaking, this import is singularly anchored and strengthened in a powerful musical idiom. Instead of containing the meanings of the original text, Bhardwaj’s Haider expands and pluralizes the levels of signification that Hamlet produces. By making the stock Hamlet plot be the medium for staging the tragic history of Kashmir, Bhardwaj’s film is a direct address, on one level, to the former imperial master discourse. On a more immediate and radical level, the film hits back very strategically at the Indian state and the numerous killings that have been sanctioned in the name of controlling terrorism in the recent past. In this capacity, the film liberates the textual Hamlet, making its echoes reverberate in a new sound and a new linguistic register.
Through a strategic integration of dance and music–both diegetic (within the frame of the film) and non-diegetic (for the audience’s listening only)– Bhardwaj’s film not only succeeds in delivering its radical political message to a popular film audience, it also speaks back to the former imperial discourse. Non-musical sounds are also key to Haider (2014) as a careful sonic anchoring of the story. The abstract potential of musical and non-musical sounds open up new horizons of meaning in the film, exceeding the confines of the original verbal register of the literary text. The loud, blaring and constant sound of the army car’s horn, for example, signals the death of Hilal in the beginning scenes of the film triggering the tragic plot. The unsettling tones of despair, melancholia and death which open the film remain a haunting and pervasive presence throughout.
“Jhelum” the song that sings the lament of Hilal’s tragic loss, invokes the river that passes through the valley. The song describes the elemental quality of the river into whose womb-like depths Hilal’s body receded till it was posthumously discovered by villagers. The fading melancholic melody of the song seems to suggest the slow disintegration of Haider’s sanity, as he is seen staring into blankness in several shots as well as attempting to merge with the river in an act of suicide. The opening sounds evoke a song that comes later in the narrative, “Bismil,” that stands in place of the play within a play sequence in Hamlet and expands the affective reach of the themes of death, love and betrayal.
One of the most intriguing moments in the film is the musical rendition of the gravedigger scene, an archetypal commentary on human mortality in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Performed by three old men in a snow-covered graveyard in conspicuously tired voices, the song “So Jao” (“Sleep!”) has a deceptively bare and sparse quality. The song opens with the rough, scratching of the gravedigger’s shovel scraping the cold hard ground, a sound that becomes the acoustic base for the bizarre lullaby-like deathsong. The choppy, staccato-like rhythmic impact of the metal on the resistant icy ground announcing “the final rest” is executed with a disturbing sonic clarity and certitude. This gritty foreground sound is supported by the reverberating sound of the rubab that transports the tune from an immediate closed verse recitation into an expanded musical interlude, as the vocals echo “Arey ao na…!” (O come…!) stretching the last syllable into a dying, falling note. “So Jao“‘s loaded simplicity dispassionately delivers this bare truth: that all life is inevitably moving towards its end, or as Freud says in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1922) towards its inanimate origin.
While the men who perform “So Jao” are past their prime in life, they are far from being incidental characters in the film as they are in Shakespeare. They are woven into the narrative as militants who protect Haider and do not hesitate to wield heavy duty weapons when the time comes. It comes as no surprise that they are digging their own graves, even as the seriousness and fear of death are subsumed in the larger political cause they serve in the plot. The sound of the shovel overlaps with Gazala’s first phone call to Roohdaar, the embodied ghost who brings Hamlet’s father’s message to the son (the Urdu word rooh literally translates as soul or spirit), signifying an ominous anticipation in the narrative at this point. The grave, as the song says, is ultimately where you sleep your longest sleep. The scene is one of the three men lying supine each in his own hole, with one in the center housing the little boy who enters the frame perkily dancing into the gray and barren scene. His sprint-like entry walk carrying bread and sustenance for the gravediggers, the well-choreographed lifting of his body to the beat of the song heightened just very slightly by the clinking bell sound once every four beats is an unsettling reminder of the happy ignorance that we immerse ourselves in being simultaneously aware and oblivious of the inevitable imminent end. These stark juxtapositions in the gravedigger’s song works as a telling sonic metaphor for the state of hopelessness, confusion and despair that has historically assailed Kashmir for many, many decades. The song is also a commentary on the futility of violence instigated in the name of religion, when man must ultimately surrender to one common fate, one common remainder.
Haider’s presence in the graveyard song introduces the inevitable vectors of vengeance and death that awaits his fate following the knowledge of the truth of his father’s institutional murder. The further breakdown of his psyche and the increasing dissociation from his world is dramatized brilliantly in the song “Bismil” that publicly calls out Khurram on his crime (1.44.59). The song marries the allegorical with folk costumes, and incorporates exaggerated and physically intense dance steps to impose the serious weight and inescapable gravity of the accusation of murder that Haider ascribes to Khurram. The song and dance sequence are staged as a public performance, one that happens a few scenes before in the film too, when Haider is seen surrounded by a crowd in a new avatar with shaved head and grown beard (1.25.53). This distinct change in appearance along with the masques he uses later in Ghazala’s wedding (1.40.51) and the “Bismil” song are markers of Haider’s increasing dissociation from his absurd reality—one that he can only make sense of as a character in a play. Khurram’s crimes are not separate from the questionable workings of the Indian state, and Bhardwaj does a good job tapping into the folk idiom and the song-and-dance format to critique what Haider calls the state’s “chutzpah” (pronounced tʃəʊzpə, not ˈho͝otspə), the infamous Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). The alteration of the first syllable is possibly to bring in an echo of a popular north Indian abuse word to take a jab at the impunity enjoyed by state officials for the crimes committed on the Kashmiri people.
Haider remains a brave directorial undertaking not only aesthetically but also politically, given that the issue of Kashmir’s independence (azadi) is still a burning issue in India 27 years since 1995, the year in which Haider is set, and 8 years since the film’s release. Bharadwaj’s self-composed music in the film is not simply a placeholder for the dazzling verbal exchanges of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The music in Haider magnifies and intensifies the local mood of the scenes where they feature. This function is not only limited to the background soundtrack which, in its haunting atmospheric quality, renders a hollow despair and anguished hopelessness throughout. The songs additionally step in to carry the expression beyond the register of words and visuals to render a poetic and sonic intensity to the film, making it more memorable and impactful to a wider audience. In Haider, the formula of the Bollywood blockbuster film is effective not only as good entertainment, but also as a means to tie the story together in a haunting soundscape which refuses to fade long after the film ends.
Featured image: screen capture from Haider created by SO!
Abhipsa Chakraborty is a PhD candidate in the English Department at SUNY Buffalo. She holds a BA, MA and MPhil from the Department of English, University of Delhi, and has worked as an Assistant Professor (Ad-hoc) at University of Delhi. Her research interests include Modernism, Sound Studies, Digital Humanities, and South Asian cultures. She is a trained vocalist in Hindustani Classical Music and hopes to integrate her musical knowledge with her academic research on aurality and narrative styles in 20th-century novels.
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Conceptualized at a time of rampant increase in anti-immigrant violence, Immigrants Wake America is a creative response to the growing bias and violence against immigrant women in the U.S., as seen in the Atlanta shootings, the rise in hate crimes since the onset of Covid-19, and the US-Mexico border crisis. We believe that storytelling allows us to find similarities and differences between ourselves and others, offering a humanizing counterpart to harmful media narratives. The podcast creates a living archive of stories not yet heard, serving as an audio intervention into how immigrant women’s (hi)stories are narrated and passed on.
Immigrants Wake America is a public humanities, community-engaged project of digital storytelling through podcasts, in partnership with the Tenement Museum in New York. It features storytellers who share their family stories about migration and the centrality of women in their life histories. These storytellers have submitted stories to the Tenement Museum’s digital archive Your Story, Our Story (YSOS),
Founded in 1988, the Tenement Museum, focuses on immigration and immigrants to “foster a society that embraces and values the role of immigration in the evolving American identity.” YSOS cofounded by Annie Polland and Kathryn Lloyd, is a digital archive that houses stories associated with immigration, migration, and cultural identity. Some of the storytellers are first generation immigrants, while others are descendants of immigrants, born and raised in the US; their great-grandparents or grandparents migrated to the US ages ago. Through YSOS, the Tenement Museum invites people across the country to share their stories in the online digital storytelling exhibit. Each story reveals one individual’s experience. Together, the stories help us see how the unique histories shape the nation, and the patterns that bind us together.
Through exploring and curating stories from Your Story Our Story, we facilitate conversations that supplement and expand it. This makes possible the conception of an archive that is both dynamic and collaborative. Such an archive resists the colonization and appropriation of lives and narratives of our storytellers. We navigate through the ethical conundrums that one might structurally and personally face in this collaborative endeavor. In our engagement with the archives at the Tenement Museum, we believe that our podcasting project really opens up the possibilities for an expansion of the archive.
We released our first episode, the Introductory Episode on January 15th, 2022, and have since been consistently releasing one episode per month.
While our podcast does not claim to retrieve or lay out these microhistories in their entirety, at an early stage of its development, we came to realize the potential that the form of the podcast itself offers for a different kind of storytelling. In our podcast, we treat stories as primary documents instead of marginalia. Michelle Caswell (2014) uses the term “symbolic annihilation” to describe the absence or misrepresentation of marginalized communities in archives. She advocates the powerful forces of community archives in countering “symbolic annihilation.” In thinking about archives in The Archaeology of Knowledge, Michel Foucault is concerned with “the density of discursive practices” wherein he observes “systems that establish statements as events and things (145)” This system of statements (as events or things) is what contributes to the law of what can be said. Processes of digital communal archiving such as those done by South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA) or the Tenement Museum attempt to extend or expand the systematic possibility of events and things. Caswell and her colleagues have demonstrated the importance and success of the SAADA project. They have also pointed to the impossibility of representation in a traditional archive which is built on violence committed on colonized and enslaved bodies, also eloquently pointed out by Saidiya Hartman’s scholarship.
Through our experience we’ve learnt that podcasts can serve as a transgressive-dynamic expansion of digital archiving, given their unique ability to cut across racial and gendered lines of preconceived sonic notions and their potential to expand the current techniques and media of digital archiving. We map this formal potential of the podcast in the way it intersects with digital archiving in the following ways:
First, narratorial voice.
We wanted our project to act as an intervention in the way in which immigrant women’s (hi)stories are consumed and passed on. We wanted to provide counter narratives. It was essential that the storytellers share their stories in their own voices, literally! The audio medium allows us to produce a space for listening to voices that are otherwise marginalized and/or demonized.–Le Li and Shruti Jain
Among the several unique and inspiring stories of resilience that the Tenement Museum houses, one such is a story by an immigrant case manager at the American Civic Association in Binghamton, Goretti Mugambwa. The museum and our podcast make it possible for her story to be narrated by herself in her voice. With her experience of working with the refugee and immigrant community she also does not just remain an individual voice, but acts to further a collective assertion.
Next, sonic variations.
Our storytellers’ voices are not just “characteristics” of the story but are an essential part of the story itself. We believe that each immigrant and their descendent brings to the story their unique tonal texture. This diversity destabilizes what immigrants and their descendants are expected to sound like. The sounds we add in the editing process are minimal. We try not to impose emotional cues and responses upon our listeners.–Shruti Jain and Le Li
The multiplicity of voices in our podcast–and therefore in the archive–are not just “characteristics” of the aural storytelling or listening process, but are as much an essential part of the story itself. In line with what The Sonic Color Line reminds us, our work also finds that, “sound frequently appears to be visuality’s doppelgänger in U.S. racial history” (Stoever 4). This leads to the coding of race as not just visual but aural too. We want to clarify that the white constructed ideas of how people of color must sound flatten out the complexities in how people within and across communities do sound. At the same time, these notions of white sonic normativity also create a strong sense of what one must or must not sound like in order to succeed in the racial capitalist world order. The storytellers of our podcast and we ourselves are of diverse backgrounds. This, for us, is a way to demonstrate the “complex range of sounds actually produced by people of color” (Stoever 43). As Nancy Morales argues in “Óyeme Voz: U.S. Latin@ & Immigrant Communities Re-Sound Citizenship and Belonging,” the sound of ‘everyday voices’ mobilized against—and remarking on—the nation-state’s attempts to mark immigrant communities as vulnerable exerts an impactful and profoundly material agency.” With its conversational and collaborative format, our podcast serves as a dynamic medium to represent (his)stories that complicate generic conventions in critical ways.
We have also been personally deeply impacted by the process of working on this podcast. We have made lasting bonds with our colleagues and storytellers alike. The storytellers of our podcast act not just as guests, but as collaborators and stakeholders. Instead of interpreting the stories in our own way and retelling the stories, we collaborate with the storytellers, and facilitate the unfolding of hidden stories by the storytellers. Dr. Lisa Yun, Professor of English at Binghamton University, and Kathryn Lloyd, Senior Director of Programs, Tenement Museum, have been advisors and the executive producers of the podcast. Together with Lloyd and Yun, we built a project on the ethos of collaboration.
The editing process of IWA too, is different. Rather than making individual editorial decisions, we engage the storytellers directly in post-production. After finishing a first edit of an episode collaboratively between ourselves, we then send it to the storytellers for their feedback and approval before releasing it. Sometimes, the storytellers do suggest changes. Based on their feedback, we re-edit the episode and eventually release it after the storytellers approval. We have also innovated methods of community editing, where we edit in groups of as large as 15 people.
The podcast medium makes Immigrants Wake America an ideal project for the public humanities. As opposed to lengthier podcasts, each episode of our podcast is edited down to 15-20 minutes. These can be used by educators as an in-class resource to generate discussion and activities. Community listeners could tune in during lunch breaks, get-togethers, cooking, driving or doing chores. Our episodes can also serve as conversation starters and help facilitate affective bonds among immigrants and non-immigrants alike.
The final episode of our first season, “Finding Our Grandmother in the Records,” aired just last week, and a second season is in the works.
As a way to expand this project, our second season will feature storytellers from our local community in addition to Your Story, Our Story. We plan to have units within our project dedicated to translation, recording and editing, and creating teaching resources. We aim for meaningful and engaged conversations and try to blur the supposed boundaries between the university and the community. Join us!
The first season of Immigrants Wake America was sponsored through the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at Binghamton University and a Public Humanities Grant from Humanities New York. Dr. Lisa Yun, Professor of English at Binghamton University, and Kathryn Lloyd, Senior Director of Programs, Tenement Museum, have been our advisors and the executive producers of the podcast. IWA is available on major streaming platforms such as Spotify, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music, Soundcloud, and Audible.
Le Li and Shruti Jain are pursuing their PhDs at Binghamton University in the Translation Research and Instruction Program and the English Department respectively. They were Humanities New York Public Humanities fellows (2021-22) and graduate fellows of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH) at Binghamton University (2021-22). Through their podcast project and their work with digital community archives, Le and Shruti are currently working on exploring intersection between podcasts and digital archiving. They try to capitalize on the unique ability that the form of the podcast offers to cut across racial and gendered lines of preconceived sonic notions, which makes possible the conception of an archive that can be both dynamic and collaborative. Le’s research interests include translation studies, cultural studies, diaspora studies, and public humanities. Shruti’s PhD focuses on the Enlightenment, British Empire and the relationalities between race and caste formations.
REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig all this good stuff about sound studies pedagogy! Good luck with Fall semester, folks!:
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