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Shakespeare in Bollywood

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By: Praveen Lance Fernandes, IndiaFM
Friday, July 14, 2006
"I dare do all that may become a man; who dares do more is none " - Macbeth

Director Kenneth Branagh's Shakespearean filmography includes Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello and Hamlet. His interest in Shakespeare's work shows and director Vishal Bharadwaj seems to be treading the same path. After making the Indian version of Macbeth titled Maqbool in 2004, he is all ready with his next film Omkara - the desi adaptation of Shakespeare's Othello.

William Shakespeare - The noteworthy playwright is famous for his great literary works ranging from comedies like A Midsummer Night's Dream and A Comedy of Errors to tragedies like Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. His works have been remade on celluloid in over a 100 countries and India too has had its share of screen adaptations.

Presenting to you a comprehensive feature on Shakespearean works adapted on the big screen in Bollywood.

"There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so " - Hamlet

Hamlet is the son of the late King Hamlet (of Denmark). After King Hamlet's death, his brother, Claudius, becomes king, and marries King Hamlet's widow, Gertrude. Later Hamlet (the son) sees the late King's ghost appear at midnight. The ghost tells Hamlet privately that Claudius had indeed murdered King Hamlet by pouring poison in his ear. Hamlet is further enraged and plots on how to avenge his father's death.

The tragedy has been made over 50 times since 1900 and is the second most filmed story in the world after Cinderella.

Hamlet has been done in India about 3 times. It all started way back in 1928 with the B&W silent film Khoon-e-Nahak. Though there isn't much detail about the cast of the film, it was directed by K.B. Athavale and writing credits were given to William Shakespeare.

A few years later came ace director Sohrab Modi's Khoon Ka Khoon (1935, B&W). It marked Modi's directorial as well as acting debut. This film was adapted by Modi from the successful stage play of the same name and has the same principle cast as well, where Modi played Hamlet, Banu was Ophelia and Shamshadbhai enacted the role of Gertrude. Credits here too were given to Shakespeare along with Mehdi Ahsan for adaptation as the film was in Urdu.

1954 saw the release of Hamlet made by another director Kishore Sahu enacting the title role again. The film which released post Independence had Venus Benerji and Mala Sinha (playing Ophelia). What was interesting about this film was that the original dialogues were translated in Parsi theatre style which gave a very different feel to what one would expect for a play originally based in Europe.

"Not stepping o'er the bounds of modesty " - Romeo and Juliet

The children of two feuding families, Romeo of the Montague family and Juliet of the Capulet family, both love each other and die for each other. Story sounds familiar? Well, we might be able to recall an 'n' number of Bollywood masala movies with a similar story line in the 70's and 80's.

Though the amount of similar films is inevitable, there has been only one film in Bollywood to be actually named that. Romeo and Juliet directed by Akhtar Hussain in 1947 starred Anwar Hussain, Nazir Kashmiri and Nargis. We assume that Anwar and Nazir were Romeo and Juliet respectively as Nargis was Anwar's real life sister. The film was produced by Nargis under the banner of Nargis Arts Concern. This film too was in Urdu and B&W as well.

"Small cheer and great welcome makes a merry feast"- Comedy of Errors

Talk about comedy of errors and Priyadarshan's films come to mind. However, The Comedy of Errors is one of the earliest known slapstick comedies. The central theme of the play revolves around mistaken identities of a couple of set of twins which leads to rib-tickling misunderstandings.

Bollywood's tryst with The Comedy of Errors began as early as 1933 with Jayant Desai's Bhool Bhulaiyan. The Hindi film had Keki Adajania in the lead and two leading comedians of that time Dixit and Ghori. Dixit and Ghori were then known as the Laurel and Hardy of Bollywood because either of them resembled the comical duo in terms of physicality. Though no credits were given to Shakespeare, the English title of the film was Comedy of Errors.

Many years later came the much-popular laugh riot Angoor directed by Gulzar in 1982. Sanjeev Kumar and Deven Verma in double roles together brought the whole house down when their identity is mistaken for their look-a-like. The film also had a hoard of other actor ranging from Moushmi Chaterjee, Deepti Naval, Utpal Dutt and had music by R.D. Burman. William Shakespeare got credit for this film.

"The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose" - The Merchant of Venice

Believe it or not, no Hollywood director has ever attempted to bring William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice to the big screen until 2004. The reason for this has to lie in the theme of the story as it probably is the most vicious work of Shakespeare's literary career, packed full of bigotry, revenge, and characters that live for only one thing - MONEY.

Despite the reason stated above, India saw this piece of Shakespeare's work in the form of Zaalim Saudagar in 1941 directed by J J Madan. The film starred yesteryear actor Kajjan and new-comers Hyder Bandi and Rani Prem Lata. There are not many details about this film as it had a quick release and barely ran for a couple of weeks in India.

"All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts" - As You Like It

Shakespearana was a unique theatre group of 12 people run by Geoffrey Kendall, with his wife Laura and daughter Jennifer. Shakespearana had a repertoire of English plays, mostly by Shakespeare, where Jennifer would often play lead roles. The tour of this professional company, which survived solely by acting Shakespeare's works in English, marked the lingering presence as well as the imminent decline of colonial rule in India. It was Shakespearana that made Pritviraj Kapoor's theatre company 'Prithvi Theatre' empty 'Empire Theatre' in Calcutta so that the former could have their shows. Later, Prithviraj's son actor Shashi Kapoor who was also part of his father's company met Jennifer and the two ended up getting married. Shashi then starred in the James Ivory film Shakespeare-Wallah in 1965 which spoke about a British troupe of actors who hold Shakespeare plays in various parts of India. Yes, that was pretty much Geoffrey Kendall's story! The film was applauded by critics and is now part of the Merchant-Ivory collection.

"But, for my own part, it was Greek to me" - Julius Caesar

And here are some of the Indian actors who danced to the tunes of Shakespeare.

So Naseeruddin Shah plays the role of Bhaisaab (Brabantio) in the Indian version of Othello titled Omkara. He also did a small role as the corrupt cop Inspector Purohit in Vishal Bharadwaj's Maqbool which was an adaptation of Macbeth. But do you know that his association with Shakespeare doesn't begin here. He was part of the cast of the French TV film The Tragedy of Hamlet in 2002 where he donned the role of Rosencrantz. The film was nominated for one Emmy.

NRI Sam Dastor has also acted in a couple of Shakespeare's works. His first Shakespearean stint began with the UK-US TV film Julius Caesar in 1972 where he played Casca. He then went onto act in The Comedy of Errors in 1983 as Angelo.

Do you know that even Diana Hayden enacted the role of Emilia that Konkona Sen Sharma is now doing in Omkara. The film which released in 2005 was made in South Africa and was titled Othello: A South African Tale.

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