Lessons from the Bard

Jonathan Gil Harris discusses the linkages between ‘Shakespeare and Bollywood’

Published - January 16, 2017 02:45 pm IST

“W ho’s the biggest screenplay writer in Bollywood?” asked Jonathan Gil Harris at his workshop. Hands shoot up in the audience. “Vishal Bhardwaj,” said many, only to have him shake his head. He gave people another shot at getting the answer right, before proclaiming, “It’s Shakespeare, of course. Even if he hasn’t actually written them, he has definitely inspired more screenplays than any, in Hindi cinema.”

Shakespeare’s works such as TheComedy of Errors, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, Othello and the popular Romeo and Juliet have inspired Bollywood scripts for decades. Think Angoor , a remake of a Bengali film that was a reworking of TheComedy of Errors;Haider, inspired by Hamlet; Omkara, based on Othello;Maqbool , adapted from Macbeth and the numerous romantic tragedies about star-crossed lovers separated by family feuds inspired by Romeo and Juliet — think Ishaqzaade, Ram-Leela and Issaq . In fact, there’s an entire sub-genre of Hindi cinema that’s a Romeo and Juliet adaptation. “Romeo has even entered Hindi and Marathi as an actual word. It’s a different story that it has a slightly negative connotation,” he said. There’s even a Punjabi version of Romeo and Juliet titled Jatt & Juliet . “But this one has a happy ending, with the couple migrating to Canada,” laughed Harris.

So, what is it about the bard that makes him click in contemporary films despite the passage of time? “It’s the fact that Shakespeare is masala. His plays are perfect for Hindi cinema — there’s heat, colour, melodrama and over-the-topness; everything that constitutes a potboiler,” said Harris. “Shakespeare lends a veneer of legitimacy to an otherwise B-grade form of mass entertainment. Even back in his time, theatres were looked down upon. In fact, The Globe Theatre was located on the other side of the Thames.”

It is also a fact that Shakespeare is considered to be a great writer or novelist and not the playwright or entertainer that he was. As Harris continued to draw parallels between Shakespeare’s works and Hindi cinema, he said, “We often see reviews on Hindi cinema that ask the question, ‘When are we going to see movies that are realistic?’ But how realistic is Shakespeare? Take Hamlet, for instance. The protagonist is told by the ghost that his father was killed by his uncle and he must avenge his death. Hamlet then goes on to stage a play to prove that he wasn’t being tricked by the ghost. He also ends up going mad and hides in a cemetery. How realistic is any of this? Sounds exactly like a masala movie to me.”

Harris also walked the audience through how the Bard used effective sound and rhythm to make an impact on the audience. “Shakespeare’s plays were written to be heard, not read. That is where his usage of prose and poetry steps in. The latter, with more rhythm, is more powerful and Shakespeare effectively used it at critical junctures of his works. He also used the iambic pentameter to make an impact,” he said, citing ‘To Be/ or NOT/ to Be/ that Is/ QUEST/ion’ as the perfect example of how that one line sums up Hamlet’s character.

Harris concluded his session saying, “Hindi cinema is not B-grade. If we choose to believe that, then we must recognise that Shakespeare is B-grade too. Which he isn’t. His clever use of puns and rhythm is replicated in Indian cinema. Shakespeare and Bollywood go as well together as Romeo and Juliet do.”

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