Jonathan Gil Harris: I want to make people comfortable with the idea of mixture through Masala Shakespeare 

To the Indian mind, Shakespeare might seem alien, but according to the author of Masala Shakespeare, Jonathan Gil Harris, the bard shares several commonalities with mainstream Hindi cinema

Sarahbeth George

To the Indian mind, Shakespeare might seem alien, but according to the author of Masala Shakespeare, Jonathan Gil Harris, the bard shares several commonalities with mainstream Hindi cinema as it commonly known. With a flair for drama, doomed love, tragic heroes and tendency to affirm dominant social narratives, Shakespeare’s works could even be seen as a precursor to our Hindi film industry. In Masala Shakespeare, the author maps the world of Masala films based on Shakespeare’s plays. The Professor highlights the changes that have taken place over the last few decades in films and adaptations in a conversation with Sarahbeth George

Masala entertainment…is it a different genreall together from the world of adaptations?

I think it is different and not everyadaptation is a ‘masala’. It has been recognised that ‘masala’ is a traditionthat is distinctly Indian and is fundamentally about mixtures of communities and languages. I think the language part is very important. We talk about Bollywood as Hindi film industry. But, the language that we get from a ‘masala’ film is not “shuddh” Hindi. And that is the beauty of the ‘masala’ film. Wehave languages put in conversation with each other that presume a mixed audience. The language of ‘masala’ films has always been Hindustani rather than“shuddh” Hindi. It involves elements of Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi and Bhojpuri.

Is it the same for the English-Hindi combination that we hear often in movies today?

‘Hinglish’ can be ‘masala’, but it needn’t be. In the Hindi-English combo what you get is not a celebration of mixture butmore an aspiration to be ‘western’. And it is perhaps a little different from the classical ‘masala’ language that you find in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. But yes, mixture is the basis ‘masala’. You don’t always find that in an adaptation.

Your book moves from the past to the present. How was it that you found contemporaneity with the bard’s work in another place in another time period?

I think that is precisely the issue. We are conditioned to think that Shakespeare is remote from us historically and culturally. But in fact, the cultural scene in which Shakespeare was writing was remarkably similar to modern, post-Independence India. His writings were for an audience who were fundamentally mixed in terms of class, mixed also in terms of ethnicity, because England was not a ‘pure’ society, consisting of people from one gene pool. It was an extraordinary “Khichdi” that consisted of Anglo-Saxons and then those who descended from French-Norman conquerors. Many of them spoke French and there were people who were conversant in other languages and Shakespeare had to accommodate them all.

Another similarity is that England had been a predominantly agrarian society.  That changed in the 16th century with urbanization. It saw a huge number of people being displaced from their homes where their families had lived for generations. Most moved to London for work.

And this has been one of the running themes in both Shakespeare and Masala films - of people getting lost in a new city. In Angoor, two brothers who have been separated from each other, end up in the same city, feeling totally confused when they come face to face. But this is also Shakespeare’s story where he chronicles very powerful experiences that many people in his audience had.

So, the similarities between then England and post-Independence India make Shakespeare’s works easy to adapt?

Yes, and that is why I consider Shakespeare’s entertainment is a form of ‘masala’ because it is very consciously pitched a tan extremely mixed audience. If Shakespeare was alive today, he would be writing for mixed cinema and not Hollywood or Bollywood.

Have Masala films been affected by social and political changes?

There is no one idea of India. One of there asons why ‘masala’ films are dying is that the idea of India has changed quite drastically and extremely quickly. I think masala films showcase the plurality of the country. India is a nation that doesn’t have one language,doesn’t have one religion. And I’ll be quite explicit about this. In the last four-and-a-half years, this idea of India has come under profound attack. The assumptions that India is a nation of Hindus and that Hindi is the only language have taken root. This political shift is accompanied by an economic shift resulting in each audience being separated from communities different to them. People of certain classes assemble in multiplexes or watch it on Netflix and they don’t have to communicate with people who come from different backgrounds or speak different languages. So, it has become easier to believe that India is just one thing and, as a result, the ‘masala’ film is going out of fashion because it is too much of a reminder of mixture and impurity.

This is one of the reasons why even the book is a lot of fun and is a celebration of something absolutely wonderful. The book is also a work of mourning for something I fear we are losing. Bollywood has been used to forge a nationality in an extremely messy plurality of the sub-continent. And it is inarguable that Bollywood has helped Hindi spread all across the sub-continent. But, that Hindi is not the Hindi of the current government.

You talk about Masala Caste, which focuses on the play Othello, and how the idea of a ‘deceptive woman’ overshadows caste identity. Is this a portrayal of Indian society and its view of caste and gender?

I don’t think Vishal Bharadwaj overlooks caste at all and that’s one of the reasons why Omkara is such a brilliant analysis of caste as well as a brilliant reading of Shakespeare and Othello. He shows you how you cannot distill caste from misogyny. The anxieties of caste are grounded in fears of female sexuality. An enormous burden is placed on women to be “pure” in order to preserve caste barriers in ways that make them semi-invisible.

In fact, the chapter starts with the account of an incident of honour killing in Haryana which the police refuse to call honour killing because they insist that the woman had a bad character. A moral problem is being used as an alibi to overlook the fear of caste mixture.Similarly, in Omkara, the nexus of caste and gender, or rather the fear of caste mixture, and a fear of female sexuality is highlighted. All of this can be traced back to the Manusmriti, which is the text that codifies caste and puts an enormous amount of pressure on women. 

It is Vishal Bhardwaj’s film that made me read Shakespeare differently and it made me realise how much Othello is consumed by this nexus of purity and female sexuality. And although Shakespeare didn’t have the confection of caste, the word “chaste”, which is related to the word caste, is used repeatedly in Othello. It is used repeatedly in order to lend expression to the fear of an expression of female sexuality. In Omkara,women are the dangerous agents of contamination and men will lose their purity if women are sexually active. I think Vishal Bhardwaj has understood Othello and interpreted it in the context of caste in India.

Any concluding words for your readers?

What I want to do is to reacquaint my readers with the tradition of thought in India. I think one of India’s greatest strengths is its mixture. We are living in an age where people seem to be craving for “shuddhta (purity)”. I want to ask why is purity desirable? What I want this book to do is make people comfortable with the idea of mixture.