The Bard in Bollywood

Masala is an Indian concept. But it captures the essence of Shakespeare’s theatre

April 23, 2016 02:04 am | Updated April 25, 2016 07:27 am IST

Pluralistic: “Masala is not just a style or genre. It embodies a certain idea of India.” A still from 'Ishaqzaade'. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Pluralistic: “Masala is not just a style or genre. It embodies a certain idea of India.” A still from 'Ishaqzaade'. Photo: By Special Arrangement

With The Comedy of Errors , Romeo and Juliet , A Midsummer Night’s Dream , Macbeth , Othello and Hamlet all having received screen makeovers, Shakespeare is arguably the most popular screenplay writer in Hindi cinema.

It is easy to see Shakespeare as simply one of the legacies of British colonialism in India. But his popularity in Hindi cinema is not just the culmination of Thomas Macaulay’s Minute on Indian Education (1835), in which the colonial official infamously declared that “a single shelf of a good European library [is] worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia”. It also has a lot to do with profound resonances between Shakespeare’s craft and Indian cultural forms that converge on one concept: masala.

Different meanings Masala means many things and conjures up many associations. For Westerners, it suggests exotic eastern spices and flavours. That sense is apparent also in the word’s most widespread metaphorical use in India — to add masala to a story is to give it, through embellishment or exaggeration, an extra spicy flavour. This association with food has a long history: ‘masala’ derives, through Urdu and Persian, from the Arabic masalih , meaning ingredients. But there are other meanings lurking in the term. The spiciness of masala often hints at the heat of desire. And ‘masala’ more precisely means a mixture — originally a mixture of different ground spices, but more metaphorically any kind of diverse mixture — for example, of an Indian growing up in Britain with a masala of cultural influences.

All three senses combine in the masala movie, a film that involves outlandish exaggeration, intense passion, and a mixture of styles. In the masala movie, there is no space for purity. Elements that are supposedly separate and even incompatible bed down under the same roof: tragedy consorts with comedy, poetic language with coarse slang, prim morality with unbounded desire, congested Indian gallis (lanes) with rolling Swiss mountains, Hindi with English, conversational dialogues with song and dance.

Masala is an Indian concept. But it describes to a tee what makes Shakespeare’s plays — their styles, their idioms, their audiences — so distinctive. Shakespeare’s plays are well-flavoured, often hyperbolic mixtures attuned to the heat of passion. And it’s this quality that has allowed Shakespeare to flourish in a vast country whose many peoples, religions, and languages embody what it means to be a masala mixture.

I first got a sense of this when I saw Sanjeev Kumar in > Angoor , Gulzar’s brilliant 1981 adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors . Angoor is Shakespearean, but it is also a fine specimen of filmi masala. Its main plot conceit — twins separated at birth — is a stock gimmick in masala movies.

This isn’t surprising given Hindi cinema’s roots in the Parsi theatre of Bombay, which started in part by doing adaptations of Shakespeare in a variety of local languages. As Parsi theatre morphed into Bombay talkies, it retained elements that arguably trace back to Shakespeare — mixed audiences and genres, songs and dances, tales of forbidden love and separated twins. In short, masala. If Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be writing for Bollywood.

The sound of language The most easily overlooked element common to Shakespeare and Hindi cinema is sound. In an age of image and spectacle, we “see” films. Yet in Shakespeare’s age, people went to “hear” a play — which is why we still have “audiences”. The sound of Shakespeare’s language matters. The same is still true of Hindi cinema, and this is particularly the case in adaptations of Shakespeare. Let me give three examples.

Vishal Bhardwaj’s > Omkara , an adaptation of Othello , showcases his ability not just as a director but also as a musician. The song “ O Saathi Re” features Omkara (Othello) and Dolly (Desdemona) prancing around happily in their rustic U.P. house. But the song plants a feeling of doubt with the ominous fall of its lyric from “ O Saathi” to “ Re” . That fall simulates something Shakespeare does in Othello . Shakespeare often uses lines of regular iambic pentameter — ten syllables consisting of five units of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable — but he is also fond of a subtle variation on the iambic meter. “To BE/ or NOT/ to BE/, that IS/ the QUES/tion” is the most famous instance of this variation: against expectation, Shakespeare adds an extra unstressed syllable at the end of the Hamlet line — the falling “tion” of “QUES-tion” — which creates a sense of doubt. (Try saying “to be or not to be, that is the quest” — it sounds far more confident, because it ends with a stressed syllable.) Shakespeare uses this trick repeatedly in Othello too to convey the doubt the title character feels about his wife.

Sharat Katariya’s 2012 film > 10ml Love is an adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream . Although a “Hindi” film, its language swerves between various registers. It features a set of lovers who speak Hinglish (“let me get this right: tum mere saath ho ”), a Muslim family that speaks Bhojpuri-accented Hindi-cum-Urdu (“ josh-e-jawaani ho javegi ”), and street performers who speak a more rustic Hindi. This approximates the masala of everyday spoken Hindi. But it also gets how Shakespeare’s characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are identified by their sounds: the Athenian lovers speak in rhyming iambic couplets, the fairies (especially Puck) speak in eerie, incantatory trochees, and the rustic lower-class characters such as Nick Bottom speak in bumbling prose.

Love between languages Finally, Habib Faisal’s > Ishaqzaade (2012), loosely based on Romeo and Juliet , features a memorable item number, “ Jhalla Wallah ”. Who can forget punning lines like “ Aashiqon Main Jis Ka Title Titanic ” and “ Jisko Mohabbat Ka Teacher Kehte Rahe/ Woh Fatichar Ik Lesson Mein Fail Ho Gaya ”? The overwhelming experience of “ Jhalla Wallah ” is of words straying across borders and romancing strangers from forbidden households. The song’s climactic declaration of affection passes through four languages — from Hindi to English (“ Mera Hero ”) to Urdu (“ Mera Aashiq ”) to Persian/Arabic (“ Mera Majnu ”) and finally to a term common to Hindi and Urdu (“ Mera Saiyaan ”). These puns and swerves, refusing to stay put within the boundaries of any one pure tongue, create a soundscape in which audience members can subliminally celebrate the resistance of desire, like language, to custom and convention. Just as words from different languages can mate in the same sentence, so can a Hindu Romeo and a Muslim Juliet fall in love. And this is where Jhalla Wallah ’s lyrics are most Shakespearean. If Romeo and Juliet is about forbidden love, it’s not just love between a man and a woman — it’s also love between languages that are supposedly separate. In the opening lines of the play, Shakespeare puns on “coal” (a word of German origin), “collier” (French), “choler” (Latin), and “collar” (Italian) — creating the perfect subliminal backdrop for his story of love between different communities. Romeo and Juliet asks us to embrace a politics of masala.

This shows how masala is not just a style or genre. It embodies a certain idea of India, one that celebrates the plural, the polyglot, the all-over-the-place. In Hindi film, Shakespeare can hold up a mirror to this idea. And that is why India already has its own filmi Jhalla Wallah Shakespeares, who speak of desire not in pure English or Hindi but in mixed masala tongues.

(Jonathan Gil Harris is the author of The First Firangis: Remarkable Stories of Healers, Heroes, Courtesans, Charlatans and Other Foreigners Who Became Indian . He is Dean of Academic Affairs and Professor of English at Ashoka University.)

Shakespeare speaks in many tongues

Shakespeare speaks many tongues
LanguageFilmDirectorBased on which play?
BengaliSaptapadi (1961)Ajoy KarBased on Tarashankar Bandhopadhyay's novel. However, there is a section where the leads perform Othello.
Bhrantibilas (1963)Manu SenThe Comedy Of Errors
Hrid Majharey (2014)Ranjan GhoshOthello, Macbeth and Hamlet.
ZulfiqarSrijit MukherjeeJulius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra
Arshinagar (2015)Aparna SenRomeo and Juliet
HemantaAnjan DuttHamlet
LanguageFilmDirectorBased on which play?
MalayalamKaliyattam (1997)JayarajOthello
Kannaki (2001)JayarajAntony and Cleopatra
Karmayogi (2012)V.K. PrakashHamlet
Veeram (upcoming)JayarajMacbeth




Based on which play?


Ulta Palta (1997)

N.S. Shankar

The Comedy of Errors




Based on which play?



Mahesh Manjrekar

Resonances of King Lear

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