A Homegrown Avant-Garde Short Film Fuses Shakespeare’s Othello With Kathakali

A Homegrown Avant-Garde Short Film Fuses Shakespeare’s Othello With Kathakali
Ashish Avikunthak

Classics have become a genre in themselves and we throw the word around quite generously as well but what does it mean? In music, dance, literature and film, the term refers to the bodies of work that have become a canon; an exemplification of a particular style. They have acquired a timelessness on the basis of their quality, resonance, endurance and effect across cultures. Every piece of art that is considered a classic started as a free-form entity of artistic expression. It stood the test of time and had such a great influence on society that it solidified its form and became something precious. It became 'pure'; something that cannot be touched or interfered with.

Until, that is, a pioneer artist decided to shatter all boundaries. I’m talking about Arjun Raina, a thespian and kathakali performer who has been performing and teaching drama and theatre for over 30 years now. In 2002, Arjun starred in a bizarre short film called Dancing Othello which is an abstract portrait of a unique artist who fuses the Indian classical dance form, Kathakali with the classic Shakespearean tragedy. In the film, he plays a quirky character called Peter Pillai who is a street-theatre performer. Peter puts on his ‘Kathakali Vesham’ (costume and make-up) but mixes the navarasas (facial expressions used in the dance form) with the dramatic lines from Shakespeare’s Othello and A Midnight Summer’s Dream in an outlandish but gripping performance.

The artist shared the inspiration behind this ingenious fusion in an interview with Outook, “At the same time Shakespeare was writing, the Kerala princes were creating Kathakali. In both worlds hierarchy and form were very important— rhythm and body, rhythm and word, iambic pentameter and paalam. You can take it from those larger brushstrokes of similarity to more playful specifics. Imagine the little Malabar prince in A Midsummer Night’s Dream growing up to create Kathakali. There are these fragile and magical links.”

Dancing Othello was shot on the sublime 16mm in the streets of Calcutta in the summer of 2001 by Ashish Avikunthak, an award-winning experimental filmmaker and cultural anthropologist who has been making films in India since the mid-90s.

When the director was studying for his PhD in Cultural and Social Anthropology at Stanford University, the actor he recognised from a cult English-language film in India (probably the first postcolonial film) written by Arundhati Roy — In Which Annie Gives It Those ones (1989) came to the filmmaker’s University with his show in the spring of 2001. He was staging The Magic Hour, an experimental mix of Kathakali, Shakespeare, and Khelkali (a form of street and folk theatre act). The show juxtaposed Shakespeare's signature narrative with the stylization and esoteric theatricality of Kathakali. It was an improvisational performance which created an idiosyncratic theatrical idiom — a hybrid between the east and the west, the classical and the profane as well as the profound and the frivolous. Ashish was blown away by this performance. He instinctively asked Arjun if he was interested in collaborating on a film, who agreed to do it free of charge.

With no script, the actor and director created this short film intuitively. In Dancing Othello, the actor shatters the traditional and conventional practice of Kathakali, by introducing Shakespeare as the narrative focus of the dance form in a Khelkali. The character Peter Pillai ridiculously refers to it as a 'bastardization' of the art forms. Apart from Peter’s performances we also see the people of Calcutta as the camera pans through the streets capturing their faces against his narration creating an absurd aesthetic of its own. The director also succeeds, through the film, in having a haptic effect on the viewer. The somatosensory perception is produced by the filmic image through the careful manipulation of its texture. He exploits both the chemical and the structural nature of the filmic image to produce a visual effect that creates an effective textural impact, which causes the cinematic experience to move beyond the visual to the visceral

In a highly entertaining, fourth-wall-breaking, personal favourite moment, Peter starts questioning the director in his exaggerated south-indian accent. He’s confused by Ashish’s directing style. He tells him that there’s no story or social message in this short film which is important because “India is an important country” and no one is going to watch a film without a message. And so he insists, “Put a social message, sir, something, something to the extent of… we must fight for the development of the under.. whatever, under-bitches or something like that sir” (he means underdog).

Dancing Othello reminds me of the German expressionist films of the early 1900s; a movement that valued emotional experience over physical reality. The short film captures its essence perfectly. Its hyperbolic style plays on themes of irony, pain, post-colonialism and perceptions of the viewer which feel like an emotional conversation between them and Peter. For anyone exploring or wishing to really stretch the boundaries of layered storytelling, this short film is a must-watch. In a narrative-driven world where we project our attention onto at times engaging, yet familiar storylines in a carefully-crafted and deliberate journey, experiencing Dancing Othello feels like being thrown off a roof; in the best possible way.

You can watch it here.

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