Shakespeare entered the Tamil world through Pammal Sambandha Mudaliar, an illustrious playwright. It was Mudaliar’s translations of plays such as Hamlet ( Amaladityan in 1906) that introduced Shakespeare to Tamil readers and then to drama and film audiences. In his passion for the stage, Mudaliar had helped establish the Suguna Vilas Sabha (SVS), an amateur drama club, in Madras in 1891. This building still survives, next to the Cosmopolitan Club in Chennai. It was an elite outfit with lawyers and bureaucrats as members, and was distinct from the commercial drama companies which were more mass-based. A Tamil incarnation of Hamlet under the title Manohara was staged by the SVS. In this, Congress leader T. Sathyamurthy played the role of the king, the hero’s father.
Shakespeare’s works came to be depicted in Tamil cinema in three ways — through full adaptation of a story, through borrowing of famous scenes, and by featuring a very shortened form of one of his plays in a film. A play within a film was a ruse often adopted to pad up entertainment and create opportunities for long, flowery dialogue.
The Bard’s first peep into Tamil screen was through Ambikapathy (1937) directed by the legendary Ellis R. Dungan. Liberally borrowing from Shakespeare, Dungan organised the nocturnal rendezvous between lovelorn Ambikapathy and the princess along the pattern of the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet . The recent documentary on Dungan, An American in Madras , has a clip of this iconic scene featuring Thyagaraja Bhagavathar and Santhanalakshmi. Similarly, the sequence in which the friend of the princess brings a message from Ambikapathy was also lifted from Romeo and Juliet .
Early Tamil talkies were all mythology-based. However, some filmmakers did look for new stories. The Merchant of Venice caught the attention of Serukalathur Sama. In Shylock (1940), Sama was not only one of the two directors; he also played the lead. The film is unfortunately lost and we only have the barest credits on record. The legendary composer, Yanai Vaithiyanatha Ayyer, wrote the songs.
K. Ramnoth, an innovative filmmaker fond of classics, chose Twelfth Night as the base for Kanniyin Kaadhali (1949), which was quite a success. Ramnoth introduced Kannadasan as a songwriter in this film. He also borrowed from Hamlet when he made Marmayogi (1951) in which the king, who is murdered with the help of a seductress, reappears as a ghost.
However, the most famous among Shakespeare-inspired Tamil films is the Sivaji Ganesan-starrer Manohara (1954). The film was based on Hamlet , but the influence remains unacknowledged. The dialogues were by M. Karunanidhi. At this point in Tamil film history, the dialogue writer had acquired star status and long, alliterative monologues had become popular. Some of these monologues were even released as 78 RPM discs and played all over Tamil Nadu. Therefore, situations were contrived in these films to give characters scope to deliver these monologues. Known among his fans as “the lion voice” ( Simmakuralon ), Sivaji had gained a tremendous reputation for the manner in which he delivered these lines. In Manohara , the durbar scene is one such example. The prince is brought in chains and tied to a pillar. There is a fiery exchange of words between him and the king. This culminates in the protagonist Manaharan breaking loose and fighting.
Sivaji portrayed Shakespearean characters in two other endearing films. One was Rathathilakam (1963) in which he played Othello in a play staged by the students. However, the original lines of Shakespeare were not spoken by Sivaji. The other was Rajapart Rangadurai (1973) in which he played a drama actor and one of the plays he staged was Hamlet .
There were other films based on Shakespeare’s works but none of them conceded any credit to the Bard. Gunasundari (1955) was based on King Lear , Sollu Thambi Sollu (1959) was a take off from As You Like It, and Arivaali (1963) was adapted from The Taming of the Shrew .
By the late seventies Shakespeare disappeared from Tamil cinema, along with the long monologues and the melodrama.
S. Theodore Baskaran is a film historian.