The works of Shakespeare have been widely celebrated as some of the greatest pieces of literature, exploring the spectrum of human emotion through heart-wrenching tragedies and mind-numbing comedies. The Bard’s work delves into themes like loss, romance, identity, and reincarnation, providing insightful examinations of the human psyche with a sharp wit and accuracy that has resonated across generations and cultures. The universality of Shakespeare's work has created a window for reinterpretations and appropriations in cinema, allowing filmmakers to mould his plays to fit their cultural contexts and temporal depictions.
Indian filmmakers and screenwriters, in particular, have found Shakespeare's plays to be a rich source of inspiration, as they offer a way of reflecting on the complex socio-political realities of India. During the colonial period, Shakespeare's plays were often used as tools for the colonisers to reaffirm the power dynamic that they had cemented. However, post-colonial Indian cinema has subverted and reimagined these narratives, offering alternative perspectives to under-explored narratives. By adapting these plays to an Indian cultural context, filmmakers are able to explore themes and issues that are relevant to Indian society, such as caste, religion, and regionalism. The reiterations and subversions of these narratives have made Indian cinema a tour de force for critiquing and interrogating the realities of the nation and its deeply troubled past.
Vishal Bhardwaj is a trailblazer in the realm of Shakespearean Indian cinema, with a trilogy comprising Maqbool (2003), Omkara (2006) and Haider (2014), all of which have garnered critical acclaim. Each film is a direct adaptation of Macbeth, Othello and Hamlet, respectively, and is set in different regions and time periods. Maqbool's interpretation of Macbeth is regarded as a cult classic and is set in the seedy underbelly of Mumbai. It delves into the world of the city's criminal hierarchy, focusing on Jehangir Khan, the top dog, his mistress Nimmi, and his right-hand man, Maqbool. These characters' feelings of inadequacy, corruption, love, loyalty, and ever-growing ambition lead them to their eventual downfall.
Maqbool's examination of societal structures that limit opportunities and force people into a life of crime is a stark reminder of India's struggles to break free from oppressive power dynamics. The film delves into issues of class, and identity through its portrayal of the Mumbai underworld and the characters' struggles to rise up the social ladder. It provides a compelling adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth that resonates with Indian audiences, as it captures the fragility of ambition and the corrupting influence of power.
Along similar lines, Bhardwaj’s Haider has subverted ideas surrounding nationalism and religious fundamentalism with a delicate hand. Based on Hamlet, the movie is set in Kashmir during the height of insurgency and military occupation. The film follows Haider, a young man who returns home from university to find his father missing and his mother getting closer with his uncle. The movie explored the pluralistic forms of love, betrayal, revenge, and the heartbreaking reality of Kashmir’s citizens.
In many ways, Haider is a stark departure from Hamlet. For instance, Instead of Hamlet’s inner battles, Haider projects its conflict on the political and social upending of the region.The film carefully questions the military presence and its impact on the lives of innocent civilians. In Haider, the protagonist's mother advises him to break the cycle of violence and hate, even as he seeks justice for his father's murder. This perspective on revenge is a refreshing change from conventional Bollywood films where it is often glorified. Haider's internal conflict between his desire for revenge and his mother's last words of breaking the cycle of violence and hate adds depth to the character and the story.
In contrast to Hamlet, Haider never fully exacts his revenge, instead opting to take a different path towards freedom from the psychological tolls of the cycle of hate and violence. Bhardwaj's film subverts the traditional revenge narrative and instead presents a more nuanced perspective to post-colonial justice, making it a particularly thought-provoking adaptation.
On the lighter side of things, Shakespeare's ‘The Comedy of Errors’ finds a lighthearted and slightly chaotic adaptation in Gulzar's ‘Angoor’ (1982), which is a stoner comedy that came out before stoner comedies were even defined. The film follows two pairs of estranged twins who coincidentally find themselves in the same city, leading to mistaken identities and marital statuses. The humour in 'Angoor' is organic and situational, which makes it accessible to a wider audience and earned its reputation as a classic Bollywood comedy.
In addition to the overt adaptations of Shakespeare's plays, there exist more nuanced examples of films that take inspiration from the Bard's work. These movies are believed to draw on the key themes of Shakespeare's plays, but diverge in their interpretations to better suit the socio-political climate of India. Deepa Mehta's Water (2005) offers a searing critique of the casteism, religious dogma, and widowhood that plagued colonial India. The film follows the story of Chuiya, an eight-year-old widow who is sent to an ashram that houses widows, where she meets Kalyani. Through a chance encounter, these two are introduced to Narayan, a progressive and wealthy man who falls in love with Kalyani, who is also a widow.
The film, co-written by Anurag Kashyap, explores themes of forbidden love and societal distinctions, similar to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. However, Water tackles these themes in a subtler and more nuanced sense. Widows in colonial India were banished to a life of ostracisation and loneliness, and were not meant to engage in any interaction outside of their ashram. Kalyani's pursuit of love with Narayan goes beyond societal conventions and expectations, which results in a heartbreaking tragedy. Water's examination of the struggles of widows in colonial India, the intersection of religious texts and caste realities, and the societal constraints that limit individual freedom make it a poignant and powerful commentary.
Overall, Indian postcolonial cinema has been influenced by Shakespeare's works as a way of engaging with complex issues of identity, religion and power. Through their complex and nuanced portrayals of the relationships between characters, they offer a window into the complexities of Indian society and culture.
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