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Shakespeare in Bollywood

Shakespeare in Bollywood

by Farrukh Dhondy December 9 2021, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 10 mins, 30 secs

Shakespeare travels, writes Farrukh Dhondy, in his piece on how well and how not so well the bard’s writing has been adapted in Indian sub continent.

The appeals of the universal characters, the transcultural truths of the plots he gave flesh and eternal currency to but didn’t himself invent, have traveled across borders and languages for four hundred years. Rare is the society in which star-crossed lovers have not formed trysts of which their warring families disapprove. Ruthless ambition stoops to murder, the temptations of the imagination deceive and lead in order to betray humans in deepest consequence. Supposed tyrants are murdered or deposed by conspiring forces.

The much-vaunted universality of Shakespeare’s vision has over four centuries, and demonstrably since the invention of cinema, taken on a particularity in the Indian subcontinent. His stories, the dilemmas his characters face and address, their circumstances and the resolutions they seek, have found precise echoes in the realities of contemporary India. The parallels have generated, through the early decades of the twentieth century till today, Indian films, which are shameless, and sometimes shamefully inept, adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays.

From the earliest adaptations in the 1930s and ‘40s to films currently being made, Indian cinema has treated its acquisitions and modifications of Shakespeare with more respect for the transferability of sensibilities and situations than for the poetry or subtleties of character. They blithely transform the deadly antagonism between Montagues and Capulets to that between the Muslim Mustafas and the Hindu Kapils. Then again, in the subcontinent, despite the show of judicial process, the power of life and death over supposed transgressors very often lies in the hands, as in Measure for Measure, of moralizing tyrants.  

In any society through history, since Jehovah destroyed Babel and divided the human race into antagonistic tribes, the stars have crossed and contrived against the love of a Romeo and a Juliet. Bollywood has taken at least five stabs at this plot. The subtlest of these was Qayamat se Qayamat Tak, from Apocalypse to Apocalypse, which treated Shakespeare’s plot and intentions with respect. Another venture entitled Ishaaqzade - the children of love - took extreme liberties with the story, getting the Romeo character to coerce Juliet with a gun and tie her up till she succumbs to his charms.  

This particular adaptation was consistent with the waywardness of Bollywood, as the industry in general is no respecter of conventions, or copyright laws. Indian films have been known to transcribe American box office hits, without acknowledgement, scene by scene and translated-word for word, sentimentalizing the bits that wouldn’t resonate with their strictly limited Indian audience.

There are, though, Shakespeare adaptations, even the very popular ones, which are devoid of these distortions and are still hits at the box office. By the 1990s Bollywood, having passed through a phase of fantasy gangster movies and Hollywood rip-offs was ready for a touch of observed realism. The director Vishal Bhardwaj, known now for his three renowned Shakespeare adaptations, responded, adapting Macbeth, calling his protagonist Maqbool and placing the drama in the criminal underworld of Mumbai. Maqbool is the trusted lieutenant of Mumbai’s most powerful Mafioso. The film begins with two high-ranking policemen discussing the actions and fortunes of Mumbai’s underworld gangs. They are both amateur astrologers and make predictions as to who will fight or eliminate whom.

I was asked to script-edit the project, and, having read the first draft of the screenplay, asked the writers whether the prognostication of the policemen was clairvoyance or whether their predictions were prompted by intelligence work and the symbiosis between Mumbai’s criminal underworld and the police. My question was not aimed at eliminating the possibility of supernatural soliciting from the drama. The audience need not be told that the ‘witches’ look into the possible future through networks of informers. They can be left guessing as the origins of the forecast are less dramatically important than the temptations and actions it triggers: the promptings of naked ambition and the urgings of ‘Lady Macbeth’, in this case the mistress of the old don who is really in love with the younger Maqbool. The murders and the rise of Maqbool parallel Shakespeare’s plot and the betrayal in deepest consequence and death follow - a Karmic fate?

In Elizabethan society the divisions between black and white and Jew and gentile are reproduced in viscous forms in Europe and America today. In the subcontinent, the religious divide between Hindus and Muslims, and in Pakistan especially Christians and Muslims, is predominant. Vishal Bhardwaj, in transforming Othello to an Indian setting chose as his dividing factor not religious antagonism but that of caste within the Hindu community. His ‘Othello’, called Omkara is from a lower Hindu caste, which in prejudiced Indian tradition is akin to the divides of race in the Venice of the original. Caste discrimination is outlawed in India, but then so is racism in Europe and America. The low-caste Omkara marries the film’s ‘Desdemona’ and is driven through jealousy to the tragic end. The film uses the still perniciously prevalent taboos, stigmas and prejudices of caste to plant the worm of suspicion in Omkara’s mind, a worm that develops into a monster, which consumes his nobler emotions and himself.

Bhardwaj completed a trilogy of Shakespeare adaptations with Haider, a contemporary take on Hamlet set in the conflict in Kashmir. Haider is a student who returns from University to his home in Kashmir to investigate the mystery of his father’s death. The plot, though it deviates substantially from the structure and thematic intent of examining the psyche of the will to action, parallels the original in its portrayal of the conscience and fate of Gertrude, Claudius, Ophelia and even her windbag of a father.

Haider does go crazy but not quite in the same way that Hamlet suffers a paralysis of intent. For today’s Western audiences the murder of Hamlet’s father, the contrivance of the players reviving Claudius’s troubled conscience to prove his guilt, the dispatch of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the death of Ophelia are plot devices, which call for a suspension of disbelief in favor of absorbing the poetry and dramatic play of emotion. In the setting of Kashmir these plot devices did strike the audience as everyday happenings in the political turmoil of the insurrectionary northern state of India.

Shakespeare’s Lear dramatizes the dissolution of filial love, of truth and trust and the relationship between daughters and their father. If he based his drama on an observation of the mores of sixteenth century European society, his insight finds a parallel in the India of today in which the rapid economic transformation gives rise to a rift in the ambitions and allegiances of generations within a family. 

In the 1980s I adapted the play for the London stage. The play, commissioned by the Shaw Theatre London, carried the story, drama and characters of Lear into a Bollywood setting. A movie mogul filmmaker of India, at the premier of his swan song, announces his retirement from Bollywood and his intention to bequeath his studios to his daughters whom he calls upon to flatter him. The older two, married to ambitious men in the trade, do an adequate job and are rewarded, each with a third of the empire. The youngest, trained in the British school of TV and film, speaks her mind and tells daddy that his mythologizing, triumphant and profitable creations for the Indian screen have destroyed the population’s ability to view its own poverty, exploitation and degradation. His films have provided escape from reality. The Mogul is furious and disinherits her.

The play followed the plot of Lear with the inheriting sisters turning the old father away and he with his faithful fool abandoning the luxury of affluent India and descending into its abject poverty, which I used as a metaphor for the storm (which of course critics point out is a metaphor for Lear’s internal turmoil). Lessons are learnt, reconciliations affected but the adaptation doesn’t end with tragedy as in the original, but has a twist pertaining to the Bollywood industry itself, a Borgesian sting in its tale.

In 1947 when the British surrendered its Indian colony it created nations, which hadn’t properly joined the modern world. The economies of India and Pakistan had scant, if any, capitalist enterprise. The two names that stood out in a proverbial way as the pioneers of capital in this era were the Tatas and the Birlas. The first were Parsi traders who had acquired their fortune as merchants in the British opium trade with China. The Birlas began as rural moneylenders and then landowners. The two families were acclaimed as the founding capitalists of India.

These families never came into dramatic conflict, but suppose, just suppose, very early on in the nineteenth century one of the ships that the Tata family was contracted to was in trouble and the scion of the Tatas urgently needed a loan to help a friend’s marriage proposal. Suppose then that he went to the Birla family to get one…

The supposition is based of course on Antonio’s resort to Shylock for a loan when the audience learns that there is a running antagonism between the two, which Karl Marx would characterize as the conflict between merchant’s capital and usurer’s capital. This conflict between the entrepreneur and the moneylender, without using any family names, has been reflected in many Hindi films, some of them borrowing parts of the plot of Shakespeare’s original. One early film of the 1940s uses the very conflict but veers off into Shakespeare’s sub-plot of the apostasy of Shylock’s daughter Jessica, which the writer must have thought was more suited to Indian circumstances of religious allegiance.

A more recent venture into a sub continental adaptation of Shakespeare comes from the British Pakistani producer-writer-director team of the Jamal brothers who adapted Measure for Measure and curiously but effectively dedicated it to the Muslim battle against fundamentalist   Islamism. The film, in Urdu, aimed at a sub continental audience, was called ‘Rahm’, which means divine mercy and is advertised as “A Sufi adaptation of Shakespeare.” The bard could have written the story and the dilemmas, which portray the hypocrisy of fundamentalists, with modern Pakistan in mind. The scenes, the plot, the denouement and even the dialogue closely parallel the original. And one may even argue that Shakespeare’s purpose in attacking hypocritical religious bigotry is the most urgently adaptable by contemporary sub continental film.     

So also with the themes and settings of the comedies. Imagine a holiday resort in India where the movie moghuls of Mumbai take their mistresses. In the resort they may encounter two fugitive couples and the warring husband and wife who own the resort and spa and even the husband’s loyal servant who has a profitable side line selling marihuana and hallucinatory drugs to the tourists on the beach and at the resort. So far so plausible…

The hallucinatory drugs, some voluntarily taken and other administered through spite and guile could very well result in the quartet of lovers falling into confusion about who is paired with whom and also in the spa owner’s wife making a fool of herself in swearing frantic love to a fugitive from the town’s local carnival dressed in an animal costume. You have A Midsummer Night’s Dream transformed to a compellingly plausible Goa or Kerala setting. The film is even now being considered for production, its potential backers wondering whether an ensemble production without the single star hero and star heroine will succeed at the box-office.

And though it hasn’t been attempted yet, I am sure a majority Indian audience who would follow its conceits and condescension, while it may come up against feminist objections to uncensored presentation in the West, would applaud a play like The Taming of the Shrew. Even the final plays with statues coming alive and characters running off the stage pursued by bears would, in the Indian context where miracles are taken as everyday occurrences and one does encounter bears on walks in Himalayan towns, be seen as abject realism.

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