5 Modern-Day Indian Shakespeare Adaptations That Reinvent The Bard's Work

Here are some homegrown Shakespeare adaptations that are currently on our radar.
Here are some homegrown Shakespeare adaptations that are currently on our radar.The Theatre Times

For the longest time, Indians, particularly in academia, have elevated Shakespeare to the pedestal of a literary god. While few can doubt that Shakespeare’s words are like liquid gold, such idolatry leads us to consume Shakespeare through the myopic lens of colonialism. It is a well-known fact that Shakespeare was first introduced to Indians as entertainment for the expatriates and then incorporated into the civilizing mission of the empire. This resulted in Indians being awed by Shakespeare, and taking him too seriously. However, standing in this day and age, it is safe to say that we have come a long way in recovering from the colonial hangover over the Bard of Avon. We are now reinventing and reinterpreting his works with a unique twist of Indianness. Here are a few such stage productions.

'Hamlet: The Clown Prince' by Rajat Kapoor

A still from Rajat Kapoor's 'Hamlet: The Clown Prince'
A still from Rajat Kapoor's 'Hamlet: The Clown Prince'The Telegraph online

Rajat Kapoor's Hamlet: The Clown Prince is a highly praised production that offers a unique take on Shakespeare's classic tragedy. Through the use of clowning, humor, and satire, the play presents a fresh and whimsical interpretation of the timeless story, blending elements of comedy and tragedy. Kapoor's adaptation transforms the characters into clowns, infusing the play with a sense of absurdity while still capturing the core themes and conflicts of the original work. The performance, featuring a troupe of six clowns, brings a personal touch to the portrayal of somber Shakespearean characters, infusing them with joviality without sacrificing emotional depth. The play creatively explores themes of power, madness, revenge, and existential angst in a playful and inventive manner.

The play Hamlet: The Clown Prince has garnered extensive praise for its fresh take on Shakespeare's work, along with Kapoor's energetic direction and acting. It has been commended for its cleverness, originality, and talent for revitalizing a well-known story. The production has been staged at numerous theaters and festivals in India and abroad, captivating viewers with its distinct mix of humor and deep emotion. It has become a defining work for Rajat Kapoor and remains recognized as a standout example of modern Indian theater.

'Nothing like Lear' by Rajat Kapoor

A still from Rajat Kapoor's 'Nothing like Lear'
A still from Rajat Kapoor's 'Nothing like Lear'Indulge Express

Rajat Kapoor's adaptation of King Lear by William Shakespeare, titled Nothing Like Lear, is a remarkable one-man show that skillfully captures the audience's attention with its original approach. In contrast to Shakespeare's tragic play, this version skillfully weaves together themes of oppression, disloyalty, and family dynamics. The main character, played by the versatile actor Vinay Pathak, takes on the role of a clown in a robe whose nonsensical speech provides both humor and meaningful insights into human nature. Despite deviating from conventional storytelling, Pathak's performance goes beyond comedy, presenting a multi-dimensional portrayal that includes various characters, notably a compelling interpretation of Lear himself, all through the endearing persona of the clown.

In Nothing Like Lear, Kapoor highlights the relevance of the clown character in today's world, focusing on its ability to express genuine emotions without being restricted by societal norms. The play demonstrates Pathak's impressive skill in keeping the audience engaged for over an hour, effortlessly shifting between comedic moments, like the clown's playful interactions with an imaginary car, and deep reflections on family dynamics. Over time, the production has developed from its original improvised form into a carefully planned theatrical experience, growing in both duration and thematic complexity. This enduring interest in clowns is also evident in Hamlet: The Clown Prince, where Kapoor's long-standing fascination with these characters, dating back to the late '90s, comes to fruition in a performance where seemingly nonsensical language proves to be unexpectedly expressive and relatable. This serves as a testament to the enduring appeal of innovation and interpretation in theater.

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A clown gives you a fresh perspective. When you do a Hamlet or Lear with clowns, you start from zero and are free to interpret the text. Clown is a purist form of being in a way; it comes without baggage. If a clown is sad, it is pure sadness you can explore, or joy, greed or hate. The clown is like an empty vessel. Vinay and I developed the character, its laugh, language, body language, acts of love and hate. Eventually, what came out was completely original.

Rajat Kapoor, in an interview with the Indian Express

'The Merchant of Venice' by Vikram Kapadia

A still from Vikram Kapadia's 'The Merchant of Venice'
A still from Vikram Kapadia's 'The Merchant of Venice'Vikram Kapadia on X

This famous Shakespeare play has long been the subject of contention among theatre enthusiasts when it comes to classifying its genre — while some call it a comedy, some term it a tragi-comedy. It all depends on how one views Shylock, I guess. When Vikram Kapadia chose to helm The Merchant of Venice for Aadyam theatre, he was confident that his version of the classic play would take on a darkly humorous tone. Set in modern-day Mumbai amidst stock brokers, the adaptation skillfully portrays themes of deceit, betrayal, romance, animosity, and retribution. According to Kapadia, the play holds even greater political and social significance in the present day. Additionally, the societal satire within the play also serves as a gripping thriller.

Venice and Belmont are now portrayed as realms inhabited by daring gamblers, wealthy entrepreneurs, social elites, and rebellious young individuals. It's a society where ethics and principles are supplanted by self-interest and expediency. The performance commences with a cross-dressed singer (a common motif in many of Shakespeare's works) serenading in a nightclub, immersing the audience in a lavish environment of cocktails and gambling establishments. It is in this establishment that Antonio (played by Luke Kenny), a prosperous merchant, pledges to lend his youthful companion Bassanio 3,000 ducats to court the beautiful heiress Portia.

The play focuses on two main storylines: Bassanio's attempts to win Portia through lotto gambling and Shylock's quest to claim a pound of flesh from Antonio. Shakespeare's Shylock is portrayed as a ruthless Jewish moneylender who faces discrimination and competition in Venice. In the modern interpretation of the play, director Kapadia presents Shylock in a more sympathetic light, depicting him as a proud and wounded individual. Kapadia himself takes on the role of Shylock, delivering a moving performance that evokes empathy from the audience.

'Piya Behrupiya' by Atul Kumar

A still from the play, 'Piya Behrupiya' by Atul Kumar
A still from the play, 'Piya Behrupiya' by Atul KumarAtul Kumar

Atul Kumar's renowned production Piya Behrupiya (Beloved as Trickster), a reimagining of Twelfth Night, was specially created for the 2012 Globe to Globe Festival. He transformed the play into a musical, highlighting the comedic mix-ups involving identity and romance. The production incorporated a variety of traditional music styles to illustrate and enrich the atmosphere and characters. The role of Olivia, sung by a actress with a deep voice in a semi-classical style, outshone the lively and rustic portrayal of Viola. Additionally, the performance took a bold post-colonial stance by daring to criticize Shakespeare. For instance, the actor playing Sebastian stepped out of character to address the audience directly, complaining about the limited lines given to Sebastian, which are often further reduced in productions.

The 135-minute production features a talented group of actors, with Sagar Deshmukh portraying Orsino, Geetanjali Kulkarni as Viola, Mansi Multani as Olivia, Gagan Riar as Toby, Mantra Mugdha as Andrew, Trupti Khamkar as Maria, Neha Saraf as Feste, Saurabh Nayyar as Malvolio, and Amitosh as Sebastian.

'Athhoi' by Arna Mukhopadhyay

'Athhoi' by Arna Mukhopadhyay
'Athhoi' by Arna MukhopadhyayExplara.com

Natadha's production of Athhoi has quickly become extremely popular with the Bengali audience, as evidenced by its consistently full and celebrity-filled performances at the Academy auditorium. Based on Shakespeare's Othello and adapted by Arna Mukhopadhyay, the play delivers a politically charged storyline with a modern twist, focusing on the idealistic doctor Athhoi Lodha and his turbulent experiences. Anirban Bhattacharya's portrayal of Iago adds an intriguing dimension to the narrative, complementing Arna's powerful depiction of Athhoi and Turna's moving portrayal of Diya.

Arna's adaptation skillfully weaves together themes of racism, love, jealousy, and betrayal, which resonate with contemporary socio-political issues, especially related to caste and identity. While the play may not reach the same level as Shakespearean tragedies, its youthful energy and promising performances represent a notable progression in Bengali theatre. Despite some criticisms about the play's adaptation and character development, Athhoi stands as a significant contribution to Bengali theatre. Its exploration of intricate human emotions and societal dynamics offers a compelling theatrical experience, signaling a promising future for the next generation of Bengali theatre practitioners such as Arna, Turna, and Anirban.

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