Row over Hamlet remake Haider shines light on India’s culture wars

Contemporary version of Shakespeare play has become focus of battle between religious conservatives and creative artists

in Mumbai, The Guardian, 28 November, 2014

Original link is here

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Shahid Kapoor stars in Haider the controversial film remake of Shakespeare’s Hamlet


The tone is uncompromising. The language is harsh. The sovereignty and integrity of India has been attacked with impunity, the court documents claim. The unity of the nation has been undermined.

But the source of the alleged threat to the world’s largest democracy is a somewhat surprising one: a cinematic remake of Hamlet.

Shakespeare’s great tragedy has always provoked strong emotion but it is rare that anyone seeks to ban productions of it on the grounds of national security.

On Friday, a court in a northern Indian state will hear that a recently released film of the play in a contemporary local setting should be banned to preserve the emerging economic powerhouse and its 1.25 billion inhabitants from further harm. The lawyers bringing the case are from a group calling itself “Hindus for Justice” and claim to be acting on behalf of the 80% of citizens who follow the faith.

The film has now finished its run, so the move to ban it is largely symbolic. But the case in Uttar Pradesh is being closely watched, seen as yet another skirmish in a long-running cultural war pitting conservatives who say they are defending India’s culture, security and identity against creative artists who argue that they should be free to express themselves.

The film – called Haider – is set in Kashmir, the former Himalayan princedom where separatist insurgents have fought Indian security forces for 25 years. Scenes showing the Indian army committing human rights abuses and the use of a temple for the “play within a play” sequence performed by dancers wearing shoes, are “anti-Indian … divisive [and] hurt the sentiments of Hindus”, the legal petition says.

“Every artist has the right to express whatever they want but … without hurting the sentiments of any community,” said Ranjana Agnihotri, secretary-general of the group bringing the case. “We definitely represent the Hindu community and we feel confident and strong.”

Some commentators say the new Indian government, in power since May and led by a prime minister, Narendra Modi, whose political origins lie in a hardline Hindu revivalist organisation, has inadvertently encouraged an intolerant atmosphere. Others argue the new administration is simply caught in the middle.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if certain elements misappropriated the [new government’s] mandate … for their virulent ways of living and thinking … but they will be disappointed,” said Samir Saran of the Observer Research Foundation, a Delhi-based think tank.

Liberal commentators and writers were targeted through social media during the heated atmosphere of the election campaign and some say they have detected a new edge in recent months.

Sonia Faleiro, a prize-winning Indian journalist, said that abuse was becoming more direct and more overt.

“It is the most startling thing. Some are not even trying to hide their identity. I think there is a sense of empowerment. It is as if there is no reason to pretend any more.”

Ramachandra Guha, a liberal commentator and historian who is himself regularly the target of abuse, said most was aimed at people who were seen as both influential and a threat.

“I’m seen as an apostate, a Hindu who should know better. But the most debased and vulgar abuse is directed at women, particularly liberal and secular women, and especially women who are not Hindu,” Guha said.

The abuse – and attempts to ban the Hamlet film – appear part of an upsurge of efforts to protect what a hardline fringe deem to be “Indian values”.

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Indian Bollywood actors Shahid Kapoor, left, and Shraddha Kapoor at a promotoional event for Haider in July 2014. Photograph: STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images


Pramod Muthalik, leader of a group based in the southern state of Karnataka calling itself the Shri Ram Sena, the Army of (the deity) Ram, said the film “encourages terrorism”.

The organisation also mounts expeditions against what Muthalik and other extremists call “love jihad”, the alleged systematic seduction of Hindu women by Muslim men.

“It is a serious problem. There are 30,000 cases in Karnataka alone,” Muthalik said. His members regularly launch “operations” in parks, one of the few spaces in conservative India where unmarried couples can spend time together, usually sitting chastely together on a bench or walking holding hands.

“Sexual activities in public places may be all right in America or Germany or UK but this is [India],” Muthalik said.

Though lacking broad popular support, such groups are a challenge for the government. The BJP has its origins in the nationalist and religious revivalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), or National Volunteer Association, but has tried to distance itself from the more hardline elements in recent months. Rajnath Singh, the home minister, has said allegations of love jihad are baseless. Modi said last week that terrorism has no religion.

“That many ministers are from the RSS is reality, but that does not mean [the organisation] has an undue influence on policy … We are simply following up on our electoral pledges to bring development, prosperity to all Indians and to fulfil all Indians’ aspirations,” said Nalin Kohli, a spokesman for the BJP.

Singh last week described the relationship rather differently, explaining that because so many members of the government were from the RSS, there was no need for the organisation to interfere. “When we ourselves are from the RSS, then what influence will it have to wield? One could have understood the argument of any organisation influencing the government if it had a different identity, a different ideology,” the home minister said.

Observers point to evidence of a careful balancing act as Modi, who spent decades as an RSS organiser, looks to convince hardliners within the Hindu nationalist movement that he is protecting local industries and agriculture and taking a strong stand against neighbouring powers.

Guha said: “It’s yet to settle. There’s an ambivalence. Modi wants to present himself as a reconciler and a moderniser but has to give his pound of flesh to the RSS because they won him the election. He’s made clear that on economics and foreign policy he will not listen to the Hindu right but has been less clear on cultural issues.”

In recent elections in the state of Maharashtra, which includes Mumbai, Modi campaigned on the same platform of governance and economic development that won him the national polls in May while a longstanding alliance with the local hardline rightwing Shiv Sena party was broken.

Saran said Modi, 64, was “steering towards a centre-right position. He is not an agnostic prime minister. He is a Hindu prime minister and will follow his belief system … But he knows that if he wants to be a 10-year prime minister he needs to reach out.”

Clashes over culture have long been part of India’s raucous democracy. In February, conservatives forced a book on Hinduism by well-known US academic Wendy Doniger off the shelves, claiming it was insulting to the faith. An editorial in the Times of India at the time condemned “the growing power of bullying self-appointed censors” displaying “a Victorian hangover with a Taliban temperament”.

In the same month, a press conference held in Mumbai by a band from Pakistan which plays rock influenced by traditional Islamic devotional music was disrupted by Shiv Sena members. The group regularly targets such events.

A spokesman for the group last week said their protest was justified. “We’ve plenty of bands here in India. Why bring one from Pakistan when they are cutting off the heads of our [soldiers],” he told the Guardian.

Other faith communities have also sought to limit freedom of expression. Sale of the Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, remains proscribed and its author was unable to appear at the Jaipur literary festival in 2012 after Muslim organisations protested.

Politicians too have sought to ban or restrict the sale or production of books. In 2010, MPs loyal to Sonia Gandhi threatened legal action to stop the sale of a “fictionalised biography” of the Congress party leader.

Last year, the government of the southern state of Tamil Nadu blocked the release of a film after complaints that it portrayed the Tamil Tigers, the violent Sri Lankan separatist group, as “terrorists”.

Many of the recent efforts of the Hindu groups appear prompted by rapidly-evolving social behaviour in a fast-changing nation. Some of the conservatives’ objections to Haider, the Hamlet remake, might have been familiar to contemporaries of the author of the original. In the play, one of the hero’s principal grievances is his mother’s hasty marriage to his recently deceased father’s brother.

Ranjani Agnihotri, of Hindus for Justice, said the film gave a bad impression of local women, portraying them as lacking modesty. “That a widow should remarry so quickly is really very shocking,” she said.

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