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The Bard and Bollywood-Shakespeare in Indian Cinema

Chapter 1: The Bard of Avon

by Aritra Dey

The Bard of Avon is undoubtedly the most influential English author/dramatist/poet ever.

The Premise

William Shakespeare is perhaps one of the most recognized men in this entire planet. The Indian Subcontinent, given its rich association with the British Culture, is well aware of the Bard of Avon, and his occupation. Perhaps there never will be anyone quite like that man in the field of English Literature. One of the notable figures behind the English Renaissance movement, William Shakespeare influenced the style of play-writing which would have a profound impact on the generations to follow. The sheer magnanimity of his concept and the detailed characters he brought about in his works are still revered today. It would be an act of sheer audacity to comment on the man’s works.

For my part, I have grown up studying his writings and wondering how one man could do them all. In parallel, this same feeling was directed to two other personalities, both from Bengal – the Great Poet, Rabindranath Tagore and the Master Auteur Satyajit Ray.

Rajat Kapoor’s Shakespearean dramas have taken the theater world by storm.

The Problem

Enacting Shakespeare’s plays on stage isn’t an uncommon phenomenon. Difficult. Yes. But not unheralded. Adapting the plays for a movie however poses a different sort of challenge. In India, theater attracts an elite intellectual class; most of whom are well aware of the story. To present the soliloquy of Lady Macbeth before them is not a difficult task for the director. For he knows the audience will judge the play on the parameters of direction and performance, and not comment on the lack of ‘mega-stars’. Knowing that the judgment would depend on skill alone encourages the director. That is the reason behind the escalating numbers of Shakespearean play adaptations in modern day themes. Rajat Kapoor’s production is the latest in the market.

The audience for movies is a mixed crowd, the majority of them being entertainment-seekers. Presenting the theme of King Lear before a crowd habituated with cheering for Salman Khan’s exploits, is an uphill task. Presenting it with an Elizabethan theme would increase the problem. It would be awkward and none save the intellectual class would be able to relate to it. The film would be a financial disaster for sure. The producers would never take such a risk.

Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Romeo + Juliet’ was a grand experiment.

The Possible Solution

The other option is to mold the play to suit the present day scenario. The core concept would remain the same. The setting, the character names and the dialogues would vary to suit the modern day. Yes. That could work well with the fickle Indian audience. If the story was narrated lucidly, the ignorant audience would get it and might even appreciate the ‘hatke’ story. The stingy producers would loosen their purses when they have a sniff at this new commercial venture. Baz Luhrmann had tried this on a grandiose scale with ‘Romeo + Juliet’. He had kept the Shakespearean dialogues, but set the entire story in present Italy. It was a novel idea, and a decent crowd had dug into it.

The Uttam Kumar Bengali comedy, Bhranti Bilash is one of the earliest examples of Shakespearean adaptations.

The Start….

The Bengali Film, ‘Bhrantibilash’ is perhaps the earliest documented adaptation of a Shakespearean drama in India. Released in 1963, it served as an inspiration for ‘Do Dooni Chaar’ in 1968 and the Gulzar classic ‘Angoor’ in 1982. The comedy, ‘Comedy of Errors’ was the play on which these films were based. None of these films used the classic setting, but delved into the local streets with the story-line.

Vishal Bharadwaj’s Shakespeare Trilogy turned quite a lot of heads in Indian cinema.

Mainstream Bollywood and Vishal Bharadwaj…

However, it wasn’t until the advent of Vishal Bharadwaj, that mainstream cinema sat up and took note of Shakespeare. In 2003, he took in the relatively young couple of Tabu and Irrfan Khan in ‘Maqbool’. Based on the classic tragedy, ‘Macbeth’, he achieved the impossible of combining both spice and substance. ‘Maqbool’ enjoyed immense critical success and had a decent commercial run as well in the theaters. He followed it up with ‘Omkara’ (Othelo) in 2006 and ‘Haider’ (Hamlet) in 2014. This trilogy is among the best Bollywood films made till date. Bhadrawaj’s skill in direction and storytelling became evident. And the Bard of Avon had carved a niche for himself in the rusty old well of Bollywood.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali with his elaborate color sets, painted ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in a grand form.

The Romantic Quotient…

Romeo & Juliet’ is easily the most popular of Shakespeare’s dramas. The heartbreaking love-story is light and tragic, unlike his other works. No wonder, the world simply gulped it whole. While several films like ‘Qyamat se Qyamat tak’ played loosely with this tale, the declared adaptation came in 2012 with ‘Ishaqzaade’. Starring debutantes Arjun Kapoor and Parineeti Chopra, the film was set in the dusty lanes of Northern India. Sanjay Leela Bhansali followed with his epic ‘Goliyo ki Rasleela – Ram Leela’ a year later. Both the films enjoyed a decent commercial and critical success, owing mainly to the cast and the music. Honestly, both the films were quite enjoyable watches, for the most part at least.

Sharat Kataria’s ‘10 ml LOVE‘ is widely unknown. ‘A Midsummer’s Night Dream’ was the source of this 2010 film. Few people know about it and fewer have watched it.

Srijit Mukherjee’s ‘Zulfiqar’ has a star-studded cast. but fails miserably in bringing out the essence of the dramas.

Bengal’s Sorrow…

2016 was the year of Shakespeare in Bengali cinema. Veteran directors, Anjan Dutta and Aparna Sen, along with Srijit Mukherjee took turns in adapting Shakespeare’s works for the Bengali audience. Anjan Dutta made ‘Hemanta’ from Hamlet. Aparna’sAarshinagar’ starring the imbecile Dev was an insult to ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Srijit’s ‘Zulfiqar’ was a summation of Julius Caesar and Anthony & Cleopatra, but could do justice to neither. If the Bard were alive, he would have stopped himself from penning down the dramas after watching the last two films.

From Us…

We are starting a new series, ‘The Bard and Bollywood’ in THE LOST REEL. Every week, we are going to take down one Indian adaptation of Shakespeare’s dramas and lay it on the autopsy table. We will only be reviewing the films which are direct adaptations, not where Shakespeare was referred obliquely. So, Rituparno Ghosh’s ‘The Last Lear’ will be excluded from this list.

Do follow the Facebook page for updates regarding the articles. Have a great time!!

The author is a software engineer at Infosys and a passionate film and football buff, with a special interest in deciphering the literature behind the movies.

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