On Shakespeare’s birth anniversary: The bard in Bollywood

Bollywood doesn’t care for literature. And Shakespeare to them is all Greek. Except of course Vishal Bhardwaj who had done 2 commendable Shakespearean adaptations

Shakespeare: Always contemporary
Shakespeare: Always contemporary

Subhash K Jha

Bollywood doesn’t care for literature. And Shakespeare to them is all Greek. Except of course Vishal Bhardwaj who had done two commendable Shakespearean adaptations and has been threatening to do a third for a long time. There are other filmmakers too, ambitious enough to look Shakespeare-wards. Read on:

1. Mehboob’s Khan’s Aan(1952): A lot of this kitschy flamboyant costume drama directed by Mehboob Khan is taken from Shakespeare’s The Taming Of The Shrew. The tall tale of royal intrigue and proletariat revenge has a whole plot point of the commoner-hero Dilip Kumar “taming” the princess played by Nadira. If you look carefully at how Dilip Kumar castrates the Princess’ haughty tomboyish arrogance you will be reminded of Shakespeare’s tongue-in-cheek misogyny. The film in splashy technicolour is remarkable for featuring Dilip Kumar in a lighthearted avatar after a series of psychologically complex and dark characters.Just like Shakespeare taking a break from his intense tragedies to write something light.

2. Raj Kapoor’s Bobby(1973): A straight homage to Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. Pran and Premnath played Montague and Capulet , the two warring family heads from Italy transposed to Mumbai and Goa. And I must say Rishi Kapoor and Dimple Kapadia were every inch Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet reborn, had he, our old Shakespeare, imagined his star-crossed lovers in a modern Mumbaiyya context. Bobby’s lead pair also compares well with Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, played by Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey.Raj Kapoor had to change the original tragic ending to a happy one to please the distributors. Shakespeare would not have been pleased, though.Or maybe he just wouldn’t have cared.

3. Angoor(1982): An over-rated adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing, with Sanjeev Kumar and Deven Verma playing double roles in a play about mistaken identity that becomes an exercize in exasperating repetition on screen.A better Bollywood version of this Shakespearean play was Do Dooni Chaar in 1968 with Kishore Kumar and comedian Asit Sen playing the two roles.

4. Maqbool(2004): Shakespeare's "Macbeth" trans-located to Mumbai's underworld ."Maqbool" lays open a whole new universe of passion play unexplored in the original text.Bharadwaj reveals the politics of lust and passion with a confidence seldom witnessed in Hindi cinema.Hence the king from Shakespeare's story becomes a doddering paunchy underworld kingpin Abbaji (Pankaj Kapur) and Lady Macbeth becomes Nimmi (Tabu), his companion, whose passion for Abbaji's most trusted lieutenant Maqbool (Irfan Khan) rips her life, womb and conscience apart.Bharadwaj, whose previous feature-film outing was the kids' flick "Makdee", brings Tabu to a level of performance that renders the general acting standards of Hindi cinema redundant and overdone.

There is a demoniacal look on Tabu's face, reminiscent of her aunt Shabana Azmi’s look when she kills her stepson in B R Ishaara’s Log Kya Kahenge, as she provokes Irfan to get rid of Abbaji. But even in her most horrific moment, Tabu preserves the "poetry" of violence in her performance.Yes, she's remarkable. But to hold on to her performance is to do injustice to the sublime and seamless quality of Bharadwaj's Shakespearean voyage into the damned.Every actor builds a poetic life for his character and then plunges his own personality into the lucid, lyrical angst of lives on the edge. Irfan Khan again dons the tormented conscience-stricken protagonist's mantle. Khan's "Maqbool" goes from stern self-denial to tortured crime and retribution.Pankaj Kapur is a revelation. His expressions of steely revenge melt into displays of utter compassion for his enchanting companion. Kapur corroborates Bollywood's myopic disregard for its truly outstanding performers.

5. Haider (2014): Shakespeare lives! Seldom if ever, has a Shakespearean tragedy been given such a magnificent treatment in cinema of any language. Sure, the narrative is fractured and fatally flawed at times, but like the hero’s villainous uncle, who lies limbless writhing in pain in the Kashmiri snow pleading for death at the end, the narrative dares you to end the pain of a people who wear their brutal existence on their sleeves. “Haider” is a beast that just won’t be tamed by regular cinematic definitions. There is flamboyance and subtlety, both at once in the treatment. Elegance and earthiness rub shoulders in the execution of what is regarded as one of Shakespeare’s most complex tragedies. And to place Hamlet in militant Kashmir …what a masterstroke!

Haider is the kind of rarest of rare cinema that unfurls wave after wave of exquisite narrative fuel into the frames, providing a kind of compelling narration that is propelled as much by the passionate writing as the intuitive direction. Bhardwaj understands his Shakespeare inside out. He transmutes “Hamlet” into “Haider” with an unbridled fearlessness, tempered by a restraint of treatment that goes a long way in imparting an urgent sense of beauty to the work.Shahid as the Kashmiri Macbeth is good. But nothing compared with Michael Fassbider’s Macbeth in the 2015 adaptation of Shakespeare’s play.

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