“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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I first heard about voice donation while listening to “Being Siri,” an experimental audio piece about Erin Anderson donating her voice to Boston-based voice donation company, VocaliD. Like a digital blood bank of sorts, VocaliD provides a platform for donating one’s voice via digital audio recordings. These recordings are used to help technicians create a custom digital voice for a voiceless individual, providing an alternative to the predominately white, male, mechanical-sounding assistive technologies used by people who cannot vocalize for themselves (think Stephen Hawking). VocaliD manufactures voices that better match a person’s race, gender, ethnicity, age, and unique personality. To me, VocaliD encapsulates the promise, complexity, and problematic nature of our current speech AI landscape and serves as an example of why we need to think critically about sound technologies, even when they appear to be wholly beneficial.
Given the extreme lack of sonic diversity in vocal assistive technologies, VocaliD provides a critically important service. But a closer look at both the rhetoric used by the organization and the material process involved in voice donation also amplifies the limits of overly simplistic, human-centric conceptions of voice. For instance, VocaliD rhetorically frames their service by persistently linking voice to humanity—to self, authenticity, individuality. Consider the following statements made by Rupal Patel, CEO and founder of VocaliD, in which she emphasizes the need for voice donation technology:
These are just a few examples from a larger discourse that reinforces the connection between voice and humanity. VocaliD’s repeated claims that their unique vocal identities humanize individuals imply that one is not fully human unless one’s voice sounds human. This rhetoric positions voiceless individuals as less than human (at least until they pay for a customized human-sounding voice).
VocaliD’s conflation of voice and humanity makes me wonder about the meaning of “human” in this context. For example, notions of humanity have been historically associated with Western whiteness—and deployed as a means of separating or distinguishing white people from Others—as Alexander Weheliye points out. Though VocaliD’s mission is to diversify manufactured voices, is a “human-sounding” voice still construed as a white voice? Does sounding human mean sounding white? Even if there is a bank of sonically diverse voices to choose from, does racial bias show up in the pacing, phrasing, or inflection caused by the vocal technology?
I am also disturbed by the rhetoric of humanity and individuality used by VocaliD because the company adopts the same rhetoric to describe the AI voices they sell to brands for media and smart products. Here’s an example of this rhetoric from the VocaliD AI website: “When you need a voice that resonates, evokes audience empathy, and sounds like you, rather than your competitors, VocaliD’s AI-powered vocal persona is the solution. Your voice — always on, where you need it when you need it.” Using similar rhetorical strategies to describe both voiceless people and products is dehumanizing. And yet, having a more diverse AI vocal mediascape, especially in terms of race, is crucially important since voice-activated machines and products are designed largely by white men who end up reinforcing the sonic color line.
Interestingly, the processes VocaliD uses to create a custom voice reveal that these voices are not, in fact, unique markers of humanity or individuality. It’s hard to find a detailed account of how VocaliD voices are made due to the company’s patents, but here are the basics: VocaliD does not transfer a donated voice directly to a voiceless person’s assistive technology. VocaliD technicians instead blend and digitally manipulate the donated voice with recordings of the noises a voiceless person can make (a laugh, a hum) to create a distinct new voice for the recipient. In other words, donated voices are skillful remixes that wouldn’t be possible without extracting vocal data and manipulating it with digital tools. Despite perpetuating narratives about voice, humanity, and authenticity, VocaliD’s creative blending of vocal material reveals that donated voices are the result of compositional processes that involve much more than people.
Further, considering VocaliD voices from a material rather than human-centric perspective amplifies something important about voices in general. All voices are composed of and grounded in an ecology. That is, voices emerge and are developed through a mixture of: (1) biological makeup (or technological makeup in the case of machines with voices); (2) specific environments and contexts (geography may determine the kind of accents humans have; AI voices have distinct sounds for their brands); (3) technologies (phones, computers, digital recorders and editors, software, and assistive technologies preserve, circulate, and amplify voices); and (4) others (humans often emulate the vocal patterns of the people they interact with most; many machine voices also sound like other machine voices). Put simply, all voices are intentionally and unintentionally composed over time—shaped by ever-changing bodily (and/or technological) states and engagements with the world. Voices are dynamic compositions by nature. Examining voice from a material standpoint shows that voices are not static markers of humanity; voices are responsive and malleable because they are the result of a complex ecology that involves much more than a “unique” human being.
However, focusing solely on the material aspects of vocality leaves out people’s lived experiences of voice. And based on online videos of VocaliD recipients—like Delaney, a seventeen-year-old with cerebral palsy—VocaliD voices seem to live up to the company’s hype. Delaney appears delighted by her new voice, stating: “I was so excited to get my own voice. I used to have a computer voice and now I sound like a girl. I like that. And I talk more.” Delaney’s teachers also discuss how her new voice completely changed her demeanor. Whereas before Delaney was reluctant to use her assistive technology to speak, her new voice gives her confidence and a stronger sense of identity. As her teacher explains in the video, “she is really engaged in groups, she wants to share her answers, she’s excited to talk with friends. It’s been really nice to see.” For Delaney, a VocaliD voice represents a newfound sense of agency.
It’s important to recognize this video is not necessarily representative of every VocaliD recipient’s experience, or even Delaney’s full experience. As Meryl Alper notes in Giving Voice, these types of news stories “portray technology as allowing individuals to ‘overcome’ their disability as an individual limitation, and are intended to be uplifting and inspirational for able-bodied audiences” (27). While we should be wary of the technological determinism in the video, observing Delaney use her VocaliD voice—and listening to the emotional responses of her mom and teachers—makes it difficult to deny that donated voices make a positive impact. For me, this video also gets at a larger truth about humans and voice: the ways we hear and understand our own voices, and the ways others interpret the sounds of our voices, matter a great deal. Voices are integral to our identities—to the ways we understand and think about ourselves and others—and the sounds of our voices have social and material consequences, as the SO! Gendered Voices Forum illustrates so clearly.
It’s worth repeating that VocaliD’s mission to diversify synthetic voices is incredibly important, especially given the restrictive vocal options available to voiceless individuals. It’s also necessary to acknowledge the company has limitations that end up reproducing the structural inequities it tries to address. As Alper observes, “In order to become a speech donor, one must have three to four hours of spare time to record their speech, access to a steady and strong Internet connection, and a quiet location in which to record” (162-63). With these obstacles to donating one’s voice in mind, it’s not surprising that all the VocaliD recipient videos I could find feature white people. Donating one’s voice is much easier for middle to upper class white people who have access to privacy, Internet, and leisure time.
This brief examination of VocaliD raises questions about what a more equitable future for vocal technologies might look/sound like. Though I don’t have the answer, I believe that to understand the fullness of voice, we can’t look at it from a single perspective. We need to account for the entire vocal ecology: the material (biological, technological, financial, etc.) conditions from which a voice emerges or is performed, and individual speakers’ understanding of their culture, race, ethnicity, gender, class, ability, sexuality, etc. An ecological approach to voice involves collaborating with people and their vocal needs and desires—something VocaliD models already. But it also involves accounting for material realities: How might we make the barriers preventing a more diverse voice ecosystem less difficult to navigate—especially for underrepresented groups? In short, we must treat voice holistically. Voices are more than people, more than technologies, more than contexts, more than sounds. Understanding voice means acknowledging the interconnectedness of these things and how that interconnectedness enables or precludes vocal possibilities.
Featured image: 366-350 You can’t shut me up, Jennifer Moo, CC BY-ND
Steph Ceraso is an associate professor of digital writing and rhetoric at the University of Virginia. Her 2018 book, Sounding Composition: Multimodal Pedagogies for Embodied Listening, proposes an expansive approach to teaching with sound in the composition classroom. She also published a digital book in 2019 called Sound Never Tasted So Good: ‘Teaching’ Sensory Rhetorics—an exploration of writing, sound, rhetoric, and food. She is currently working on a book project that examines sonic forms of invention in various contexts.
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What is a Voice?–Alexis Deighton MacIntyre