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Basharat Peer’s favourite Shakespearean play is The Merchant Of Venice. “Shylock fascinates me!" says Peer, eyes agleam; he first read his Shakespeare in school, in Charles and Mary Lamb’s translations, like generations of young people. Peer’s first Shakespearean venture, though, has been rather different.

The journalist, and author of the acclaimed 2009 book Curfewed Night: A Frontline Memoir Of Life, Love And War In Kashmir, recently collaborated with director Vishal Bhardwaj on the screenplay of the forthcoming film, Haider. Based on Hamlet, it completes the trilogy Bhardwaj started with Maqbool (2003), following it up with Omkara (2006)—the first an adaption of Macbeth, the second of Othello. And like its predecessors, Haider, too, is set in an indigenous context—in Kashmir in the mid-1990s, to be precise.

A poster of ‘Haider’
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A poster of ‘Haider’

Some sequences were relatively easier to imagine because of his closeness to the geographical terrain, admits Peer, who was born in Anantnag, Kashmir, in 1977. “The gravedigger scene, for instance," he points out. “Every village and town in Kashmir had new graveyards after the conflict escalated in the 1990s." Creating suitably credible characters was tougher.

Peer cast Dr Meer, a medical doctor played by Irrfan Khan in the film, in the role of King Hamlet. Imagined as one of the hundreds of ordinary Kashmiris who routinely disappeared through the 1990s, to be either found dead or never again, he is the trigger for the action in the film—just as King Hamlet’s death is in the original play.

Peer made Haider—young Hamlet, played by Shahid Kapoor—set out in search of his lost father through “the underbelly of a heavily militarized state", like thousands of men of his age once did. In Peer’s rendering Hamlet’s famous “To be, or not to be" soliloquy is turned into an artful reference to the sinister phenomenon of forced disappearances.

“The most noble characters in Kashmiri society are the doctors," Peer says. “They are true heroes. Some of them are politically involved in the cause, working inhuman hours at the hospitals, often for paltry fees or nothing, and bravely manning the emergency rooms during times of crises." There were physicians, says Peer, who would put their lives at stake by not refusing a patient. In some instances, they were tortured or killed for treating a “terrorist".

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Actor Tabu during the shooting of the film ‘Haider’ in Srinagar last year. Photo: Bilal Bahadur

Other parallels are more obliquely woven into the film.

“I conflated Ophelia and Horatio (Hamlet’s betrothed and best friend, respectively), in the figure of the journalist Arshia (Shraddha Kapoor)," says Peer, “But one of the major difficulties was to present the ghost." While not wanting to give away the manner in which he overcame this problem, Peer says he could not, of course, simply turn it into a bhoot. Polonius, Ophelia’s father, becomes Pervez, a man, like the courtier in Shakespeare’s play, who uses his daughter (Arshia, in the film) as a mere pawn to achieve a certain goal.

Turning a literary text into moving images is, of course, a far more complex activity than transposing characters and situations from one context to another. “An action that spans several pages can be summarized in a single touch in a movie," Peer says. Such condensation is anyway a necessity even during stage performances of the play—an unedited version of Hamlet can take nearly 4 hours to finish, and is seldom performed in full. Peer also watched earlier screen adaptations of the play, especially the ones by Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh, while he worked on his version.

In the case of cinematic adaptation, transformations happen at several levels: The script is re-drafted and shifted around during shoots, actors tend to improvise while speaking their lines, and finally, the magic that happens at the editing table defines the shape of the story.

“Having worked on this project, and taking Hamlet home, I have grappled with the meaning of the play in a way I have never experienced before," says Peer. “I can’t ever look at the text in the same way again."

Haider releases in theatres on 2 October.

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Take five

Hamlet’s many lives on screen

uLaurence Olivier’s ‘Hamlet’ (1948): A vintage edition from the black and white era, it brims over with melodrama and reductive psychological takes on the characters.

uFranco Zeffirelli’s ‘Hamlet’ (1990): This luscious remake had a star cast comprising Mel Gibson (Hamlet), Glenn Close (Gertrude), Alan Bates (Claudius) and Helena Bonham Carter (Ophelia).

uKenneth Branagh’s ‘Hamlet’ (1996): Tried to do the full text, stretching on to 4 hours. It included several flashbacks and subplots not part of the original, such as an appearance of Yorick in a non-speaking part.

uTom Stoppard’s ‘Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead’ (1990): Based on the absurdist, existentialist play he wrote in 1966, the British playwright directed a film of the same name. This is Hamlet’s story of disintegration told through the eyes of his two friends.

uMichael Almereyda’s ‘Hamlet’ (2000): Starring Ethan Hawke in the title role, this is one of the sexiest reimaginings of the play, a punk version set in the 20th century, shot with handycams, Polaroid cameras, and CCTV cameras (on which the ghost first appears).

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