“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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In 2015 a video of a child in an Internet café in the Philippines began to trend on social media sites. Titled, Kanta ng isang Anak para sa kanyang inang OFW “Blank Space“ (“Song of a child for her overseas foreign worker mother”), the video shows a girl singing via Skype to her mother who is working in an unnamed location, presumably outside of the Philippines. “Ma kakantahan ulit kita ha?” (I’ll sing for you again mom), she says, and starts singing Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space”. Her mother attentively watches and listens to her song, soon beginning to cry in longing for a daughter she has not seen in a long time. The girl’s attention is divided between the screen that shows the lyrics, the camera that films her singing, and her mother who quietly observes. This video has over 110,000 views and is one of many archived messages from a child singing or speaking to their mother who labours transnationally. Despite the videos’ jittery framing and low quality, the intended message of shared longing across cyber and transnational borders is clear.
The Spanish-American war (1899-1902) resulted in the relinquishment of the colony of the Philippines from Spain to the United States. This transfer of power instituted the imperial specter that continues to grip the archipelago. The many performances of American pop music on Youtube and on stages throughout the Philippines are what Christine Bacareza Balance calls the “musical aftermath of US imperial cultures” (2016). Having amassed over 97 million YouTube views in the Philippines, Taylor Swift’s overwhelming popularity is evidence of this continued imperial presence. In the video, the young Filipinx girl sings lyrics written by Swift: “I’m dying to see how this one ends. Grab your passport and my hand.” When sung by this child these lyrics take on different meaning than Swift likely intended. Perhaps she is anticipating an end to the necessity of separation between mother and daughter.
Using song, the video provides evidence of what Hannah Dyer calls the ‘asymmetries of childhood innocence’ (2019), reminding its audience of the ways transnational labour and global capital impact children’s experiences of kinship and development. Dyer suggests that some children are withheld the protective hold of childhood innocence. She writes:
“Childhood innocence is a seemingly natural condition but its rhetorical maneuvers are permeated by its elisions and attempted disavowals along the lines of race, class, gender and sexuality. That is, despite the familiar rhetorical insistence that children are the future, some children are withheld the benefits of being assumed inculpable (2)”
Ascriptions of childhood innocence thus require a child to replicate social norms including the production of the nuclear family. In the Philippines, where the liberalization of international trade and high levels of unemployment have disproportionately impacted the labour migration of women, structures of the nuclear family are being re-organized (Parreñas 2005; Tungohan 2013). Women who work outside of the Philippines and away from their families are paradoxically celebrated for their “sacrifice” while also subject to disapproval over their absence (Tungohan 2013). When mothers leave the Philippines, the care-arrangements for children are shifted. There is a growing recognition of the changing nature of motherhood within transnational contexts and the concomitant emotional consequences of negotiating “long distance intimacy” (Parreñas 2005). The demands for transnational labour reconfigure Filipinx family formations and necessitate fraught intimacies between parent and child across borders. Cyber technologies like cell phones and the Internet initiate creative opportunities for children to be “virtually present” in the lives of their mothers and vice versa.
Drawing from Dyer, we might think of children who live without the physical presence of their mothers as “queer” to normative theories of childhood development that affirm overwrought expectations of maternal presence. She suggests that discourses of childhood innocence intend to subjugate the queerness of childhood and that these elisions hold bio-political significance. Faced with social inequities, Dyer emphasizes the importance of a child’s symbolic expression. She argues that children express their psychic and social conflicts aesthetically. A child’s imagination elaborates resistances to the enclosure of childhood innocence as a barometer of value. In this way, this article suggests a child’s singing and dancing are aesthetic expressions that take notice of the entangled traces of colonialism and nation, while resisting hierarchal structures that deem some childhoods more valuable than others.
The child’s sonic performance in the YouTube video is a queer offering that creatively procures transnational connection. Her singing registers a queer frequency that destabilizes normative theories of child development that assume a mother’s physical presence as necessary to developmental success. The girl’s performance suggests that psychic and political reparations can occur in the sounds the child makes. The tactile, spatial and physical qualities of her voice forge a new relation to her mother. Her voice is affecting, seemingly moving her mother to tears and rousing the onlookers at the Internet café to reorganize their bodies and sing along. In this video, we are invited to witness a child whose world has been altered by globalization and the continued geo-political violence’s enacted by the American empire. Given these circumstances, her “creative re-interpretation[s] of kinship” serves as a reminder that the affective fortitude of her voice tests physical and emotional borders (Dyer 2019). The restraint of normative conceptions of family is ruptured when the child remakes her relation to her mother in ways that stir joy, collectivity, and pleasure.
By observing and listening to the child’s song more closely, we can listen for its potential to re-sound and re-imagine the parent-child relationship across borders. The sounds of “OFW Blank Space” linger after the clip has ended. By listening for what is in excess of the video’s content, we can consider the affective registers that enunciate alternative understandings of migration, family and belonging. There is a humming that is ubiquitous in the video. Perhaps, it is the sound of the electric fans that run to combat the tropical heat of the Philippines. Maybe it is the collective buzzing from the computers that have been set up to provide the Internet to its cybercafé patrons. The acoustics of the space are at once mundane and haphazard, and at the same time, cogent indicators of the geopolitical truths echoing throughout the scene. With limited access to Internet in the home, the cybercafé has been a site that children frequent to communicate with family working in another country. The convergence of sound, technology and diasporic subjectivity becomes audible when the practice of listening is attuned to these methods of transnational connection.
While listening to the pedagogical potential of the cybercafé more broadly, a focus on the vocal performance of the child reveals my investment in what the sound of her voice tells us. The video starts with greetings spoken in Tagalog, the primary language of the Philippines. When the backing track begins, the child makes a seamless transition into singing in English. In her vocal performance of the lyrics, her Filipino accent is almost undetectable. She sings with a dulcet tone that is clear and appealing. Her voice sounds well-trained and confident. If not for the video, one might believe the child to be a professional American performer. In this scene, it is her voice that is marked and constituted by a narrative of American imperial conquest and Filipino assimilation. But in a creative adaptation of American cultural production, the child re-writes this racialized script and uses American pop songs as a mechanism of care for both herself and her mother.
The economic instability in the Philippines has created a state instituted transnational workforce. Women have been disproportionately affected by the demand for work in care industries such as nursing, childcare and care for the elderly (Francisco-Menchavez 2018). These gendered and racialized structures of employment privilege the presence of Filipinx women in families other than their own. The child is withheld a future that assures her the presence of her mother and their physical proximity is denied as a result of the demand for labour and capital exchange between nation-states. However, despite these circumstances, the child uses her voice to summon a beautiful intimacy, one that does not disavow the imperial history that marks its possibility, but instead uses loss as a resource to creatively mourn their separation. For the child, the act of singing is a replacement for her lost object, her mother. In the video we witness a child who is full of joy and whose strength of voice quells, if not, temporarily, whatever longing for her mother she might have. Relatedly, the child is also perceptive of her mother’s needs and uses music as a method of offering her care. Her performance creatively re-routes the presumed directionalities of care (from mother to child) which globalization has fundamentally altered.
Featured image: “Children” by Flickr user Clive Varley, CC-BY-2.0
Casey Mecija is an accomplished multi-disciplinary artist, primarily working in the fields of music and film. She played in Ohbijou, the Canadian orchestral pop band, and released her first solo album, entitled Psychic Materials, in 2016. Casey is also an award winning filmmaker whose work has screened internationally. She is completing a PhD at The University of Toronto, where she researches sound, performance studies and Filipinx Studies as they relate to queer diaspora.
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