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Mimesis and the Scrutable World
Adapting the Shakespearean Tragedy for Bollywood
M.K Raghavendra
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Shakespeare and popular Hindi cinema

Shakespeare had, it appears, a big part in early Indian cinema even in the silent era. Hindi popular cinema is commonly held to have had its roots in Parsi theatre, an influential theatrical tradition between 1850 and 1930 and owing to Parsi-owned theatre companies. The staging of plays could be in three languages – Gujarati, Urdu and Hindi – and after beginning in Bombay, travelling troupes took Parsi theatre the elsewhere in India.  Parsis were a prominent business community often with Western cultural leanings and it was natural that adaptations of Shakespeare should form a staple of early Parsi theatre'1 . Since silent and early sound cinema drew heavily from Parsi theatre there were several film versions of adapted plays by Shakespeare in the 1920s and 1930s. According to film/literary scholars'2 the earliest film adaptation was Mehdi Hasan Ahsan’s Dil Farosh (1927) which was based on The Merchant of Venice  and other silent films which followed were Khoon-e-Nahak (1928) and Mitha Zahar (1930) based on adaptations of Hamlet and Cymbeline by Ahsan and another stalwart of Parsi theatre, Narayan Prasad Betab. Screen talkie adaptations of Shakespeare which followed in the early period included the following: Hathili Dulhan (1932, The Taming of the Shrew), Khudadad (1935, Pericles), Said-e-Havas (1936, King John), Zan Mureed (1936, Anthony and Cleopatra) and Pak Daman (1940, Measure for Measure). While most of these films took the bare plot outline from Shakespeare and indigenized it, Sohrab Modi’s Khoon ka Khoon (1935, Hamlet) advertised its debt to Shakespeare’s tragedy by calling itself ‘Hamlet alias Khoon-Ka-Khoon’ and the lead actor wore black, dressing in a way more reminiscent of British productions.

This fondness for Shakespeare’s plays as sources does not however mean that there was very much in common between Shakespeare’s dramatic vision and the Indian way of thinking. Mehdi Hasan Ahsan admitted that Shakespeare’s way of thinking did not harmonize with the Indian way and the plays were therefore altered considerably. Shakespeare had been aggressively promoted in education at the height of colonial rule. In 1844 the Governor General Lord Hardinge had passed a resolution assuring preference in government jobs to those acquainted with European literature, and Shakespeare was a key author whose works were disseminated under English language education. Arun  Kolatkar But when Shakespeare was performed in local languages, the performances needed to reach wider audiences. Consequently, they did not stay true to the originals, were steeped in traditional forms of narration which could be locally appreciated and what emerged was a hybrid performance style'3 closer to the later Hindi cinema.  Needless to add, the stories that eventually emerged also deviated in their motifs from the original plays.    
This essay is about the difficulties in adapting Shakespeare’s great tragedies for Hindi popular cinema. That elite culture (as represented by theatre and literature) has successfully adapted them time and again goes without saying but popular cinema, being a medium catering to the ‘lowest common denominator’ is a different case and must be seen differently. My contention in this paper will be that the film adaptations all came at moments when there was an especially wider engagement with the English language at the national level – than only among the elite – because of socio-economic factors, and the adaptations provide evidence.   

Shakespeare’s tragedies are especially ‘prestigious’ because they contain most of the great roles that actors aspire to play but early Indian cinema stayed away from them – except for Hamlet which offered the attractions of a young lead role and also not a negative one as in Macbeth or Othello, which require the protagonist to kill innocents. It is not as if Shakespearean plots have no devices similar to those found in traditional Indian theatre. Contrivances like the writing of letters, the introduction of the play within the play and the restoration of the dead to life are found in Sanskrit plays as well. Often cited are the similarities between Romeo and Juliet and Bhavabhuti’s Sanskrit Malati-Madhava, which ends happily'4.  But there are key aspects of Shakespeare’s plays which would be difficult to adapt. As an instance The Merchant of Venice could be adapted but one would be hard-pressed to imagine the brutal motif of the ‘pound of flesh’ making in into an Indian film adaptation. Before we go on to the films this essay is focused on – Kishore Sahu’s Hamlet (1954), Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool (2004, Macbeth) and Omkara (2009, Othello) – it will be useful to look at the aspects of Hindi cinema which makes adaptation of the major tragedies difficult.  Kishore Sahu’s film was made in a much earlier era but I will try to argue that the same aspects inhibiting such adaptations remain relevant to Hindi cinema.      

Hindi film aesthetics and their pertinence
Hindi popular cinema has no underlying theory which it respects and to which it conforms and its formal conventions have therefore to be reconstructed piecemeal from traditional dramatics, poetics and aesthetics through a systematic comparison'5 . For our purpose it is enough to look at three key aspects/ issues pertinent here.

Realism and ‘truth’: Cinema, because it is an extension of photography, has promoted mimesis. Still, Indian cinema did not begin as an extension of photography but as a recording of performance. Photographs themselves had a different significance in India and rather being imprints of reality, early portraiture tried to make traces of the person endure by straying from ‘realism’. Photographs were used only to retain the likeness but were then painted over to turn each sitter into an archetype – like ‘matriarch’, ‘landowner’, etc.'6  As if corresponding to this, Western students of Indian poetics have expressed puzzlement that while literature is not intended to be mimetic, neither does it offer a theory of art being for art’s sake. Both litterateurs and literary theorists acknowledge that classical literature is not indifferent to the intellectual demands of society or to society itself but is fully exploited expression, whose principle is not subordinate to an external standard (as mimesis would be) but is actually greater, in some sense'7.

Students of the rasa theory have also noted that the theory does not deny that art is mimesis but only adds that it is imitation of a special kind, that rasa does not imitate things and actions in their particularity but rather in their universality and potentiality – which makes the imitation ‘truer than the real thing’ '8. Given these aspects of Indian aesthetics/poetics/dramaturgy, the transformation of the individual to type in early photographs perhaps correspond to actual things elevated to a ‘truer’ level, which is ‘eternal’. This sense of the truth of art being at a higher plane than empirical reality has an important consequence which is that the world is not inscrutable as realism/mimesis might insist but has a transcendental meaning accessible to art. The scrutability of the spatio-temporal world constructed by a Hindi popular film hence disallows ambiguities. This, consequently, prevents it from being interpreted the way Shakespeare’s plays have been or, to phrase it differently, emerges as already interpreted because its meaning is entirely visible on the surface. The sense of Othello as the sea (raw nature) and Kalidasa’s Shakuntala as a tended garden (nature with an imposed order), in a comparison made by Bankimchandra Chatterjee '9, also illustrates the difference, which I will argue is carried forward by the Hindi films.  

India poetics/dramaturgy/aesthetics sees the arts as giving us a glimpse of a reality apprehended through the mystical encounter, a reality independent of historical experience. It approaches the world as something the truth of which might be grasped in its entirety; this is because it posits a common aesthetic experience across subjects, resting in the process of aesthetic perception. Kant, it may be noted, thought that the judgment of taste was entirely subjective and yet necessary, that aesthetic judgment, while being compelling for the experiencer, did not require the determination of the properties or structure of the object. It is this indeterminate nature of ‘art’ that led to avant-garde experimentation, of which there has been very little in Indian cinema. This position finds rough correspondence in Madhava Prasad’s formulation that while Hollywood produces meaning in the mind of the spectator, Indian popular films relay a pre-existent meaning'10. I have demonstrated elsewhere how a European film The Blue Angel (1931), a work of psychological realism showing an authoritarian professor’s descent into public humiliation because of his love for a vulgar woman, was adapted by V Shantharam as Pinjra (1972) to relay a transcendental moral truth – a teacher demonstrating his essential purity in the face of great odds and winning as his devotee the woman who tried to besmirch him morally'11.

This enquiry into realism will be incomplete without some account of the use of the song – about which very little work has been done. Indian popular cinema has been compared to Egyptian cinema which also uses songs and dances but there is a key difference which is that Egyptian films are entirely vehicles for singing/dancing stars while Indian cinema relies on playback singing for the stars on the screen. An important feature is the small number of voices which have provided support for presences on the screen, and for decades only Lata Mangeshkar represented the voice of ‘ideal femininity’ while Asha Bhosle represented the voice of ‘oozing sensuality’'12.  It can be argued that playback singing is basically a strategy to reduce individual to type'13 (as was done with early photographs) which goes along with the relay of immutable truths. The lyrics are themselves are abstract reflections pertinent to the generalized situations required by the messages conveying the truths. As a counter-example, songs in the American musical are written specifically for narrative situations and characters in the plot, and playback singing is disallowed because of the need for a match between the voice and the body of the star singing the song onscreen. 

In recent Hindi cinema the use of songs on the soundtrack when the settings are even grimily realistic – as in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool – has another effect which is to suppress the natural sounds from the actual milieu. The songs then become a way of imposing a ‘meaning’ on reality which might inherently resist it. This proposition does not mean that the use of the songs cannot be ironic or nuanced; only that regardless of their literary content they suppress unmediated reality – a component that mimesis in cinema cannot be without. This will be elaborated upon later in the context of the individual films.         

Complexity and the character type: The second aspect of the Hindi popular film of pertinence – and a corollary of the first – is the absence of ‘complexity’ in it. Much of the value commonly attached to Shakespeare rests in his delineation of character and I will therefore examine only this aspect of the Hindi popular film. One of the chief criteria for the ridiculing of popular Indian film by the critics who favored realism was the proliferation of stereotypes in it, the understanding of character in terms of his essence corresponding to ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘miserly’, ‘cowardly’ or ‘wicked’ as the case may be. Character types proliferate in every kind of cinema but, as in classical Hollywood cinema, popular films have also created individuals or, rather, ‘individualities’ as types. The factor bestowing a type with ‘individuality’ is his/her striking separateness from other people - his/her ability to make us believe that he/she is as ‘we’ are behind our disguises, someone capable of ‘defeating our self-defeats’'14. What this means is that there is identification with the star-as-protagonist because he/she represents us as we might have been, if we had had the strength to be what we actually are. We therefore project ourselves into the ‘individuality as type’, something we do not do with ‘character-types’ from Hollywood. In Spider-Man (2001), for instance, Peter Parker is the ‘individuality’, while his uncle and aunt are character-types. The ‘individuality’ is valued because he/she stands out above his/ her given social role to which the character-type submits. We see that where Peter Parker and Mary Jane develop, his uncle and aunt – and editor Jonah Jameson – remain what they are.

In Hindi popular cinema there are no individualities and even the protagonists are immutable character types. Where Peter Parker’s triumph over adversity is carried forward by an inner transformation, Rancho in Three Idiots (2009) triumphs because of his essential genius and he is not required to transform. The reason that we have a character-type like Rancho at the centre of a Hindi popular film is that he facilitates the relay of the pre-existent message; he is its bearer. In Three Idiots, the message is that one must follow the dictates of one’s heart in one’s life/career. Rancho knows this all along and he therefore demonstrates it to his friends (and us) through his triumphs. If Rancho had only come to the realization in the course of the film we would not have received the message as unequivocally. The message would not have been placed at a higher (and ‘truer’) level than the action in the film – as cinema would want it. The message in a popular film – whether it is affirming ethics or personal advancement – is abstract because it must be applicable over a wide range of circumstances and not restricted to those of the story. Since the characters are so ‘essentialized’'15 – and distinctly emblems – they are devoid of ‘complexity’; e.g. Hindi cinema found it impossible to make a doctor anything but noble in the 1950s and 1960s since the doctor was the emblem of ‘good modernity’ (as in Dil Ek Mandir,1963) .   

As may have become evident Shakespeare’s great tragedies involve protagonists who are not character-types. Where one might recast The Merchant of Venice or The Taming of the Shrew with the characters as types, one would hard-pressed to do this with Othello or King Lear because of the importance of the ‘tragic flaw’ or the error of judgment that leads to the protagonists’ downfall despite their essential nobility.  Othello and Lear suffer immensely more than they innately deserve to, and this is also not a message transmittable by Hindi cinema – in which the punishment cannot exceed the justification for it, since that would make the moral order inscrutable.  ‘Nobility’ may not be a term that sits well on characters in a democracy but one could broadly say that the action needs to catch a fall of some kind – at least Willy Loman’s kind from Death of a Salesman (1949). Michael Corleone’s moral descent in The Godfather I &II (1972-4) may also be deemed ‘tragic’. It may not be always easy to separate tragedy from a certain kind of melodrama since tragedies, like melodrama, affirm that the high and the low are subject to the same inhuman laws, the ‘moral occult’ in Peter Brooks’ terms, a metaphysical system which rewards and punishes '16.  

This is not to say that Hindi cinema has not produced heroes who have been considered tragically ‘flawed’ – e.g. Vijay Chauhan as played by Amitabh Bachhan in Deewar (1975) and similar characters from Trishul (1978), Shakti (1982) and Agneepath (1990). The resemblance of this ‘good-bad’ hero to Karna of the Mahabharata has also been noted by Sudhir Kakar'17. But Vijay, the vengeful hero in Deewar is an immutable type'18, placed in this position because of a happening in his childhood and therefore incapable of ‘falling’ – although he may meet death. When the childhood happening infuses him with an intensity making him fit only for the single task of vengeance (upon an individual or society), he is not endowed with interiority as Hamlet or Macbeth are, as evidenced in their soliloquies which implies an ability to make moral choices. He is, instead, like a mechanical device intended for a single task and infused with a single emotion – anger/anxiety. He is consequently unable to enter into a conventional romance (and show ‘love’).  Karna, it may be noted, is also imprinted upon by the circumstances of his birth, adoption and denied status, and is therefore permanently in a state of disturbance. One supposes that the ‘flaw’ detected in Vijay and his ilk arises out of their pursuits being illegal, but they are nonetheless heroic for being hugely admirable in their (non-conflicting) personal qualities (strength, valor, steadfastness and honor). To summarize, neither Vijay nor Karna is justly ‘tragic’ in the Shakespearean sense (or ‘flawed’ in his character) which implies being provided with agency and/or interiority and given the ability to make moral choices; the two are the products of exceptional circumstances. It may also be recollected that Vijay’s criminal life in Deewar is not chosen by him but placed in his path.

Agency and interiority:      
If narratives from Hollywood are constructed in the active voice because individually motivated action is the key, Hindi film narratives are constructed in the passive voice.  This becomes clearer if we see how action sequences were constructed in the earlier cinema. After a hate object has been identified and his dastardly doings elaborated upon, rather than allow audiences to enjoy the annihilation of the hate object – as a James Bond film might – a fortuitous/ accidental death is arranged for the villain in film after film19 . This may have correspondence with a determined universe – in contrast to one in which free will is allowed – but the ‘providence’ at work is not a metaphysical one in which its workings are inscrutable. Popular films, rather than invoke impenetrable fate, simply present acts as fulfilled happenings. Rather than participating in the excitement of a mountainous ascent, films prefer to show the summit as simply ascended. If we recollect the epics, we find that in both Ramayana and the Mahabharata wicked thoughts are placed in people’s heads by schemers – the maid Manthara in Queen Kaikeyi’s head in the Ramayana and the Kauravas’ uncle Shakuni in Duryodhana’s in the Mahabharata. The question this leads to is whether Manthara and Shakuni are not in the position of Iago from Shakespeare’s Othello and an answer is that the epics provide genealogies accounting for their conduct through happenings in their pasts20 – including previous incarnations – and they are not therefore ‘motivated by evil’. 

Determinism is the doctrine that all events, including human actions, are ultimately determined by causes regarded as external to the will.  Psychology is not brought into play and it would be more correct to say that exceptional conduct is akin to a cause having a deferred mechanical effect. This kind of causality can be traced to the doctrine of ‘karma’, a notion not metaphysical like ‘fate’ but mechanistic. Karma allows for the spatio-temporal world of each film to be deterministic but still scrutable.  From this view of the world follow two other consequences; the first is that the characters in any film cannot be endowed with agency – and interiority – and the second has to do with character as a capacity for intentional action21 being absent. One cannot, within this scenario, imagine Shakespeare’s soliloquies being delivered as they have traditionally been – since they imply reflection and interiority. Since characters are not endowed with interiority, the personas of the stars that play them have also developed differently; one cannot judge the acting prowess of a Bollywood star by the same yardstick that one would a Shakespearean actor.   

A question that might be raised as a counter is whether the doctrine of karma does not imply the exercising of choice by an individual, i.e. whether one can accumulate good or bad karma if one does not exercise choice. I propose that since karma is accumulated across different incarnations and how one acted in one’s last incarnation cannot be determined, the doctrine is more a way of explaining one’s present position/condition/status than intended as a guide to judging action. This becomes more apparent if one examines the personal stories associated with the villains (like Manthara and Shakuni) in the epics in which the emphasis is to take away from individual responsibility. As another instance Karna dies at Arjuna’s hands in the Mahabharata because of a curse and not on account of his ‘moral failings’, as we understand the term. Also when Arjuna kills him unfairly, it is not on his own but because he is prompted by Krishna, who is God.   

The films
None of the three films being discussed at this point were commercially successful but, although the first is different from the other two, there is another factor which links them and this is that they were made at key points in independent India’s encounter with the English language; this may place them in the position of appropriations of Shakespeare asserting the legitimacy of local claims upon the Bard’s legacy. Kishore Sahu’s Hamlet tries to be faithful to the play but, while the two films by Vishal Bhardwaj are adaptations, their titles have been chosen to remind audiences of their sources: Maqbool from Macbeth and Omkara from Othello.  

Kishore Sahu’s Hamlet (1954):
Kishore Sahu’s film is a faithful rendering of Shakespeare’s play and the director strives for an atmosphere reminiscent of the one in Olivier’s version of 1948 by imitating much of that film’s mise en scène. The film gives the characters the same names as in the original and only a few concessions are made to local tastes – chiefly a couple of songs sung by Ophelia, which do not impinge upon her fate, and another comic song in the gravedigger scene. By the 1940s and 1950s, it has been noted, there was a large class of Indians schooled in English literature and many of Arun  Kolatkar these were attracted to the film industry, Kishore Sahu being one of them22. India had also just hosted its International Film Festival in 1952 and this was apparently a period of cultural confidence for India. This is manifested in various ways in the film – like the use of Urdu couplets alongside translations of Shakespeare – and the film has been read as a harnessing of India’s cultural capital23. Kishore Sahu’s Hamlet is a post-colonial work and may be broadly described as directed towards the ‘continuation and regeneration of the culture of the colonized’24.

An aspect of the film’s ‘indigenization’ of Hamlet may be described here. While Hamlet teats Ophelia badly, there are, as already mentioned, sequences in which Ophelia is singing and in these sequences the director has Hamlet watching intently from a distance, being witness to her emotional state but not intervening. This suggests that Hamlet cares for her but can do nothing since he has the business of revenge to attend to and cannot be distracted by love. This places Hamlet in the condition of the disturbed/ vengeful hero from films like Deewar, Trishul and Agneepath who has already been described.  Where Shakespeare’s Hamlet is cruel with Ophelia, Kishore Sahu’s is too helplessly involved in vengeance to respond to her love. Hamlet’s psychological construction has been endlessly debated about25 but such a debate would be misplaced if directed at the vengeful hero of the Hindi films, for reasons already annunciated.    

Coming to the Shakespearean aspect of Kishore Sahu’s film, the film has been described as being fairly true to the original but the dialogues are always declamatory – even the ghost’s utterances to the protagonist. Kishore Sahu acted in a number of other films and his delivery of dialogue is much more natural/ softer in these other films. Hamlet is like an ascent to a ceremonial occasion in which speech must be replaced by chanting or declamation. If anything, the film is positioned not as a story complete in itself but as a ceremonial enactment of a sacred text. The ghost in the original is an occult element directing the action of the story from outside its political world, as it were. It is the play’s occult/ metaphysical element which makes its world inscrutable. One needs only to imagine Hamlet learning about his father’s murder by accident instead of revealed by his ghost to see how the play – with this mechanistic turn – might suggest a scrutable spatio-temporal world.  Kishore Sahu retains the apparition but has dramatic music leading up to the crucial scene with it. This can be interpreted as emphasizing its expectedness – the ghost appearing in silence might have given it the sense of an occult intruder into a political world and not simply a narrative device in a film. One could therefore conclude that Kishore Sahu’s Hamlet is positioned not as an independent mimetic exploration of certain themes but as a re- enactment of a classic; mimicry in short, but of a text chosen more for its recognized aura than for its cultural pertinence.

The notion of the occult itself does not sit comfortably in mainstream Hindi cinema after 1947 because, as argued elsewhere26, Hindi cinema addresses a nation defined  as ‘modern’ , allowing only for the ‘uncanny’ but not the ‘fantastic’ in Todorov’s sense27.  In both the uncanny and the fantastic, there is hesitation at the interpretation of a seemingly unnatural occurrence. The narrative is ‘fantastic’ when a supernatural explanation follows and ‘uncanny’ when a rational explanation does; by this definition the ghost in Hamlet is ‘fantastic’. It can be argued that both ‘fantastic’ and ‘uncanny’ are possible only because of the mimetic possibilities of narrative since the underlying purpose is to imitate the world in all its complexity, incorporating both the known and the unknown. Some exceptional narrative phenomena – like reincarnation in Hindi cinema and the power of healing by Christian faith (as in Ben Hur) – lie outside the pale of this categorization since they are accommodated as ‘real’ by belief. Another related category – although not of much relevance here – is that of the ‘marvelous’ in which an alternate reality is created as in The Lord of the Rings (2001-3) and Indian mythological films. Since this category creates an alternate reality, exploring this reality is not of much pertinence to it and the ‘miracles’ it accommodates are perhaps not even classifiable as ‘occult’ in the true sense; alternate realities, by definition, accommodate phenomena not of this world and the term ‘supernatural’ therefore loses significance.   

Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool (2004):
Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptations of Shakespeare’s prestigious tragedies were undertaken during India’s most lucrative encounter with the English language. English, which was once the language of India’s elite, acquired a new significance in the new millennium with the rise of new economy businesses. Knowledge of English now meant much higher incomes and greater spending power and this meant that Hindi cinema began targeting English speakers/users as never before28. While some knowledge of English is needed in the new economy, it is significantly less than what being educated in English once meant in India.  At the same time the fact of being an English-Speaker or even an English-user29 guarantees one a better living and this eventually created a new social Arun  Kolatkar category, with a substantial movement of the working-class public – whose families had no prior exposure to English – into it. Although this will need more substantiation than is possible here, the rise of the Indian novel in English as a commercially viable category in literature may also have had its impetus in the same process.  Bhardwaj’s Maqbool appeared at roughly the same time as the first novel of Chetan Bhagat, apparently the most widely read novelist in India to have written in English.  Bhardwaj’s adaptations of Shakespeare’s tragedies may hence be interpreted as a symptom of the newly Anglophone Indian registering herself/himself as a user/speaker of the English language – since Shakespeare still remains the most durable/ visible emblem of high English culture.

The first aspect of Maqbool to strike the spectator familiar with Shakespeare’s tragedy is the way it rids Macbeth of its occult element because the three witches are now replaced by two corrupt policemen – Brahmins who are also astrologers; astrology, it may be noted, is deemed a science and not associated with the occult.  In Maqbool, the protagonist Miyan Maqbool (Irfan Khan) is henchman to gangland lord Jahangir Khan or Abbaji (Pankaj Kapoor). Abbaji’s mistress is Nimmi, who is in a secret relationship with Maqbool. Kaka, another henchman to Abbaji, is Maqbool’s friend. The two policemen are in Abbaji’s pay and do their bit to have their ‘prophesies’ about Maqbool and Kaka come true.  Once the play is rid of its occult element by having the policemen who participate in the action replace the witches, the causation become mechanistic and the world of the film is made scrutable. The ploy of Nimmi being Abbaji’s mistress is accompanied by an indication that she is repulsed by his physical presence, his body and his touch. Maqbool also imagines the intimacy between Nimmi and Abbaji and it revolts him as well. The film now resembles the Hindi film Jism (2003), a remake of Body Heat (1991), in which a scheming woman entices a young man to kill her much older husband, whose physical advances repel her.  It may be noted that Nimmi being repelled by Abbaji, and Maqbool imagining the same thing, are shown in identical fashion – except for color being replaced by black and white. This means that Abbaji’s killing is no longer initiated by ambition but is a response to legitimate feelings at a gross old man forcing himself upon an unwilling young woman. Macbeth’s ambition is fuelled by prophesies by an inhuman agency and one might also ask whether amateur astrological predictions by Brahmin policemen can be accepted as the driving plausible cause for murderous ambition. I propose that since they cannot be we tend to see the driving motive as sexual.

Macbeth is undoubtedly political but not in the way that Maqbool is. The King in medieval times cannot be equated with the gangland lord of today although both have followers and cause bloodshed. An important factor to be considered is that the King is King by divine right and this makes regicide a cardinal sin, although killing a tyrant is not so, which is why it is treason – as killing a political leader in a democracy is not30. Duncan is a good and virtuous king and Macbeth, a person with a conscience, is transformed into an evil tyrant after his killing of Duncan, and we can interpret this as Macbeth’s sin contaminating him irrevocably. A gangland lord, in contrast to a king, usually gains power through killings, and liquidating one’s boss to gain control is hardly illicit for even a trusted underling. The loyalty of an underling to his leader is inspired and kept alive by fear and not by ethical/religious considerations, and this is supported by film convention – chiefly films like The Godfather which have been influential in India. Maqbool also includes a sequence where Abbaji is treated with contempt by a senior policeman. The fact that Abbaji has the officer transferred does not detract from his not being supreme – as a medieval ruler would be – but dependent on other people more powerful. Not only is Abbaji therefore fair game but, being brutal himself, has no moral claim upon life. The loyalty of his followers to him after his death and the events leading to Maqbool’s eventual death therefore only appear like Vishal Bhardwaj arranging the events in the narrative so that the film comes recognizably close to Shakespeare’s play.

The film is shot in Bombay in grimily authentic locales and it is this aspect which makes the film most impressive. Vishal Bhardwaj belongs to a group – which includes Anurag Kashyap – which uses locales very realistically but what the real locales mean in Maqbool and in the context of Shakespeare deserves some speculation. My own sense of it is that this must be seen in the context of what Shakespeare once meant in India – as high culture consumed normally by the refined and educated31. I suggest that both in this film and Omkara, Bhardwaj is dragging Shakespeare down into the streets, as it were, not least because of the lowly dialect employed instead of standard Hindi. A certain pride in India’s griminess has been exhibited in new Hindi cinema (perhaps touched off by Slumdog Millionaire, 2008) which goes along, paradoxically, with pride in being part-stakeholder in the English language. Bollywood apparently demonstrates its newly found confidence by bringing together what were once kept strictly apart. India was going through its ‘growth story’ when Maqbool was made – in part due to the English language – and one can see its role in this new cultural confidence. To paraphrase the feeling, it could be, “We may not be from Shakespeare’s exalted tradition but we have the same claim upon him, at least because our kind of English has been acknowledged globally as legitimate.” One may be sure that this feeling could not have been expressed so well through the adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s comedies, which hardly carry the prestige of the tragedies in India.   

A question which should naturally follow this argument is how Bhardwaj’s adaptation differs from the plethora of (often) multilingual adaptations from the world over in which Shakespeare is sought to be reinterpreted for the global age. Many of these have been stage adaptations meant for small cultural elites but there have also been films like Coriolanus (2011) and Macbeth (2015) which have been widely seen. Shakespeare is arguably the most widely known among individual authors and interpreting his plays has therefore been a way of establishing cultural continuity with the past, when there have been huge political/economic changes. Coriolanus, for instance, does this by setting the play in a space which might be Bosnia.  A key factor in establishing this continuity is however Shakespeare’s language, which is retained as much as possible. Maqbool is different in that it uses a language which owes nothing to Shakespeare and only retains the bare story from Macbeth. Since Shakespeare was not credited as a writer for West Side Story (1961) (adapted from Romeo and Juliet), we should ask why Shakespeare is thus privileged in Maqbool (which announces on its poster that it is based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth). The only answer that suggests itself to me is the cultural prestige associated with Shakespeare’s tragedies.

There have been a number of close readings of Maqbool which focus usually on the deft changes made by the film while adapting Macbeth. The issue I would like to raise here is whether this does not point to Indian critics/ scholars accepting Shakespeare as an emblem of cultural prestige and whether Bhardwaj has not depended on such a response – and continues to do so when he adapts Hamlet as Haider and sets it in disturbed Kashmir32. An insight emerging from one of these close readings is however that of Moinak Biswas 33who sees the film as a continuation of a gangster genre which came to fruition with Satya (1998). But Biswas argues that there is a sacred law broken by Maqbool which is that of the underworld and this makes the parallel between Maqbool’s act and regicide acceptable. My own view here is that for such a parallel to hold, the ‘sacred law of the underworld’ must become a stable convention of the genre. If one looks at examples from the genre – including Bhardwaj’s own Kaminey (2009), one finds that neither law enforcement nor the underworld is governed by any discernible order; what is upheld is social Darwinism and distinctly celebrated is unhindered entrepreneurship in which everything is allowed34.      

Vishal Bhardwaj’s Omkara (2006)
To elaborate upon an earlier point both Maqbool and Omkara are visceral in the realism of their locales but there is an element detracting from it, which is the music. Bhardwaj is a composer himself and composed the music for both films and this has apparently not happened by accident, but there is a large amount of music on the soundtrack, often vocal music, which imposes a mood upon each event. After the protagonist’s killing of his innocent wife in Omkara, for instance, his tormented countenance on the screen has an accompanying song on the soundtrack which has Arun  Kolatkar been translated in the following way: “Wake up little princess! Your eyes like sweet petals, eyes that hold me in their spell. May I never be away from their sight!” This strategy, I suggest, works against the realism that the visuals implicitly claim to respect and an emotional demand is being made, a message being relayed as in the older cinema, to convey to us the intended meaning of the story.  Poonam Trivedi takes a different view when she cites, for instance, the title song (“Dham, dham dharam dhariya re, Omkara..”) bringing to mind legendary heroes when the accompanying visuals emphasize the mundane aspects of Omkara’s everyday existence35. While Trivedi sees the emphasis as being ironic, my own reading of the usage of the song is that it tries to locate Omkara as a continuation of legend to make him heroic enough to be compared to Othello, since his actual stature disallows it. Also, if the use is ironic would not Bhardwaj’s film be proceeding in the direction of parody?
If Maqbool, as argued, lowers Shakespeare by making it a gangster story Omkara does something else. Shakespeare’s Othello is set in a milieu in which the state is firmly in control and there is a strictly maintained order. Omkara is set in India’s political world which is presented as completely chaotic with the state not in control. Instead of the Duke of Venice we have a politician Tiwari Bhaisaab (Naseeruddin Shah) and Omkara Shukla (Ajay Devgan) is a political enforcer on his behalf. Where Othello, being a Moor in Venetian society, is an outsider Omkara is presented as half-Brahmin in a Brahmin-dominated society. Most of the other characters in the film are made Brahmins but, since we are aware of the caste composition of Uttar Pradesh where the film is ostensibly set, we are not convinced that he is an ‘outsider’. The political chaos of the milieu is best illustrated by a sequence in which Omkara along with Tiwari Bhaisaab and Kesu (Cassio) are travelling in a train until Tiwari Bhaisaab has the chain pulled and he demands of the railway official that the train be returned to the previous station to help his henchmen get off. Even if such a thing is possible (which I doubt) there can be no uncertainty that the film is deliberately positing a situation in which the state is weak or non-existent and this has repercussions on the rest of the story.

In Omkara Dolly is the daughter of a Brahmin advocate who also works for Tiwari, who mediates when she elopes with Omkara instead of marrying Rajju. When Tiwari Bhaisaab ascends to become a Member of Parliament, he has Omkara replace him and the latter, instead of selecting the senior-most Ishwar ‘Langda’ Tyagi, picks Kesu. Langda (Saif Ali Khan) is miffed but this is driven home to him when Rajju, plants the thought in his head that they have both been made asses. It is now that Langda begins to behave as Iago does in Othello. Where Iago’s motives have puzzled generations Langda is motivated by envy. Far too much has been written about Iago’s excessive conduct in Othello36 but what is pertinent from my viewpoint is that Iago’s seemingly unmotivated acts take on ‘metaphysical’ significance (as ‘evil’ rather than emotional ‘envy’) because the spatio-temporal world of the play specifies ‘order’ as a defining characteristic. There is an implication in the play that socio-political order cannot stifle the waywardness of the human soul which will find its own outlets, and usually to do evil. If this is allowed, the question which comes to us is whether the ‘evil’ of Iago can have any significance in the chaotic milieu of Omkara’s kind, and whether it will not fall into the mechanistic ‘revenge’ or ‘envy’ category as Langda Tyagi does. ‘Evil’ is an exception which necessarily stands out in a social situation and Langda Tyagi’s acts cannot stand out. The will to order acts after evil has taken its course by meting out punishment but, in Omkara, the state has such a small capacity for imposing order that Langda’s wife has to be made the agent of retribution. 

I tried to attribute social reasons for Macbeth being adapted but Omkara, which does not add much more, may be interpreted as largely driven by Vishal Bhardwaj’s desire to be deemed an art film auteur since ‘auteurs’ are often associated with multi-film works (like trilogies)37; Bhardwaj subsequently also adapted Hamlet as Haider (2014). Still, a question that merits speculating about is what it means when a director chooses Othello as his model for a political goon and enforcer. Macbeth is not noble and choosing him as model for a gangster does not appear perverse but Othello is noble and respected for his integrity and this cannot be said about the category to which Omkara Shukla belongs. The issue here is whether the fate of a political goon can aspire to being a ‘tragedy’, whether one does not need to acquire stature before he/she ‘falls’. Politicians are publicly held to be a low moral category and this is reflected even in Bhardwaj’s own Kaminey; one could therefore ask if we can accept it when a director uses a certain social class for broad satire in one film and then places the same kind of figure at the center of a Shakespearean tragedy.   

Hindi cinema has constantly adapted classics of Western literature but has also indigenized them in such a way as to make them legitimate cultural appropriations. One could cite Phir Subah Hogi (1958), a version of Fyodor Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment, and V Shantaram’s Pinjra alongside the numerous adaptations of Shakespeare of the silent and early sound era.  The difficulty with the three films discussed in this essay is that they are not so much cultural indigenizations of Shakespearean texts as appropriations of Shakespeare as an emblem of the English language. Among the closest to the tragic that has emerged from Indian cinema are films by Satyajit Ray (Jalsaghar, 1958) but that is a mimetic kind of cinema – which Ray deliberately embarked upon, and is representative of high culture in India. As argued in the course of this essay the three popular films feed more upon Shakespeare’s cultural prestige than on the implications of the original texts and this casts some doubt on the artistic validity of their efforts. Still, being from Bollywood which has been the most pan-national of India’s cinemas, they represent reflections of national sentiment in optimistic times – when Indians felt culturally equal to their former colonizers.

Phalanx SpacerPhalanx Spacer Notes/references:
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For instance see Asha Kasbekar, Pop Culture, India! Media, Arts and Lifestyle, (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2006), 50.

Poonam Trivedi, ‘Filmi’ Shakepeare, from Manju Jain (ed.): Narratives of Indian Cinema, (Delhi: Primus Books, 2009), 230-1.

Ibid, 231.

Arthur A Mcdonnell, A History of Sanskrit Literature, (Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1958),352-3.

See MK Raghavendra, Seduced by the Familiar: Narration and Meaning in Indian Popular Cinema, (New Delhi: Oxford, 2008), 24-68.

See Christopher Pinney, Camera Indica: The Social Life of Indian Photographs, (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1997), 149.

Edwin Gerow, Indian Poetics, (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1977), 220.
Eliot Deutsch, ‘Reflections on Some Aspects of the Theory of Rasa’, from Rachel M Van Baumer, James R Brandon (eds.) Sanskrit Drama in Performance, (Delhi: Motilal Banarasidas, 1993), 217.

Bankimchandra Chatterjee, ‘Sakuntala, Miranda and Desdemona’ trans. Visvanath Chaterjee in Shakespeare: The Indian Icon, ed. Vikram Chopra (New Delhi: The Readers Paradise, 2011), 607, cited by Poonam Trivedi in an unpublished paper.

M Madhava Prasad, Ideology of the Hindi Film: A Historical Construction, (New Delhi: Oxford, 1999), 50-1.

MK Raghavendra, ‘Plagiarizing’ for Bollywood, Anukriti: Translating India, Oct, 2006.  Accessed June 6th, 2015.

Neepa Majumdar, The Embodied Voice: Song Sequences and Stardom in Popular Hindi Cinema. From Pamela Robertson Wojcik, Arthur Knight (Eds.) Soundtrack Available: Essays on Film and Popular Music, (Durham, NC. Duke University Press, 2001), 163.

MK Raghavendra, Seduced by the Familiar: Narration and Meaning in Indian Popular Cinema, p 54.

Stanley Cavell, ‘Types; Cycles as Genres’, selection from Stanley Cavell, ‘The World Viewed’ from Leo Braudy, Marshall Cohen (eds.) Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, Fifth Edition, (New York Oxford University Press, 1999), 337-42.

This is one way in which essentialism in its extreme form has been defined: ‘Reifying to an immutable nature or type.’ Terry Eagleton, The Illusions of Postmodernism, (London: Blackwell Publishers, 1996), 103.

Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, melodrama, and the mode of excess, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), 11-15.

Sudhir Kakar, Intimate Relations: Exploring Indian Sexuality, (New Delhi: Penguin, 1989), 70-5.

See MK Raghavendra, Seduced by the Familiar: Narration and Meaning in Indian Popular Cinema, 191-3.

Ibid, 45-6.

The epics as recounted in the public space are webs of stories in which initial causes are nebulous - because they are pushed farther and farther back, often through contradictory stories. For instance, there are a number of such stories involving Manthara.
Accessed 7th June 2015.
Accessed 8th June 2015.

See Paisley Livingstone, ‘Characterization and Fictional Truth’, from David Bordwell, Noel Carroll (eds.) Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996), 149-50.

Poonam Trivedi, ‘Filmi’ Shakepeare, from Manju Jain (ed.): Narratives of Indian Cinema, 231-2.

Ibid, 232.

Helene Gilbert, Joanne Tompkins, Post-colonial Drama: Theory, practice, politics, (London: Routledge, 1996), 11. Another response might have to invert Shakespeare to interrogate the hegemony inherent in imperial representation. But such oppositional responses came later and more in performance than cinema.

An important notion here is that of the ‘objective correlative’ proposed by TS Eliot in his essay Hamlet and his Problems.  Accessed 7th June 2015.

See MK Raghavendra, ‘The Global and the Pre-modern: Raaz (2002)’ from The Politics of Hindi Cinema in the New Millennium: Bollywood and the Anglophone Indian Nation, (New Delhi: Oxford, 2014),3-5.

Tsvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975), 24-40.

Explored in various ways in MK Raghavendra, The Politics of Hindi Cinema in the New Millennium: Bollywood and the Anglophone Indian Nation, (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2014).

English speakers are those who can read English, understand spoken English as well as form sentences and converse in English. English users only know how to read English words. According to the 2001 census around 10% of the population was English-speaking and English-users were much larger. This may be expected to have grown larger since then. There are widely varying estimates but Wikipedia even estimates English-users and English-speakers to total around 33% of the population. See India: World’s Second Largest English-Speaking Country, India Tribune,   Accessed 6th March 2015.

Also, King and Country are synonymous in a monarchy.

I make a distinction here between simply borrowing a story as in various comedies and privileging Shakespeare as the author, which is what Bhardwaj does.

Moinak Biswas, ‘Mourning and Blood-Ties: Macbeth in Mumbai’, Journal of Moving Image, Number 5, December, 2006. Kolkata: Jadavpur University Film Studies Department, 2006.   Accessed 8th June 2015.

See MK Raghavendra, Social Distopia or Entrepreneurial Fantasy: The Significance of Kaminey, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol - XLIV No. 38, September 19, 2009, 15-17.

Poonam Trivedi , ‘Singing to Shakespeare in Omkara’, from Martin Procházka, Andreas Hoefele, Hanna Scolnicov, and Michael Dobson (Eds.) Renaissance Shakespeare/Shakespeare Renaissances, (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2014), 348.

For instance see Richard Raatzsch, The Concept of Iago, from Richard Raatzsch, The Apologetics of evil: The case of Iago, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2009), 12-21.

David Bordwell, The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice, from Leo Braudy, Marshall Cohen (eds.) Film Theory and Practice: Introductory Readings, Fifth Edition, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 720.

MK Raghavendra is the Founder-Editor of Phalanx


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