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Bollywood’s Affair with Shakespeare

In India, Shakespeare was first attempted on the screen in Khoon-e-Nahak (Murder Most Foul)

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The written word — myths, fables, stories from literature and plays — have always been rich source material for cinema, with William Shakespeare providing matchless inspiration.

Internationally, it has been reported that the Bard has been given credit for 642 films with the Hamlet alone being adapted over 50 times. In India, Shakespeare was first attempted on the screen in Khoon-e-Nahak (Murder Most Foul), a silent film by actor-turned-director K.B. Athavale. This Hamlet adaptation was upgraded seven years later by the legendary actor-director Sohrab Modi, who played the brooding, troubled prince with the stunningly beautiful Naseem Banu (Saira Banu’s mother) portraying the tragic Ophelia. This version, called Khoon Ka Khoon, was trans-created for the screen by Mehdi Ahsan in Urdu. Perhaps the most noted adaptation, however, came from the Kishore Sahu version of Hamlet in 1954, in which he played lead with a young, pristine Mala Sinha playing Ophelia.

Saif Ali Khan: Frankly if you bother to look close yuo will see all his(Shakespear) plays are borad- based, masala-drenched.
In 1933 Jayant Desai’s Bhool Bhulaiya paid tribute to the timeless Comedy of Errors. Follow-ups came in the charming Bimal Roy adaptation, Do Dooni Chaar, written by Gulzar, and later Gulzar’s own superb Angoor, in which he gave credit to Shakespeare in the title, something that film maker David Dhawan failed to do when he did his very own number on the same theme, entitled Bade Miyan, Chhote Miyan.

Along the way, The Merchant of Venice was made into Saukari Pash by Baburao Painter, also Zalim Saudagar by J.J. Madan in 1941. Isaaq, Ishaqzade, Golyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela not forgetting Mansoor Khan’s cult Aamir-Juhi starrer Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak were only four films inspired by the star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet.

Vishal Bharadwaj is one director who continues to consciously adapt Shakespeare to screen and does a fine job. His Maqbool (Macbeth) Omkara (Othello) and now Haider (Hamlet) are brilliant testimonies to his drive in this area. Bhardwaj believes that “Shakespeare is the greatest storyteller ever. His stories have layers of spectacular human drama. I think they can be adapted in any language, anywhere. Personally I can live my entire life on Shakespeare, quite easily.”

Naseer Shah, believes that “the roots may look lost, but almost every big story in Hindi films industry is colored by some Shakespeare story.”

Adds Saif Ali Khan “In at least 50 Bollywood films the heroine’s brother kills the hero and in at least 500 films the hero and heroine are star-crossed. It is ironic that no one has ever made a legit RJ (Romeo-Juliet). Frankly, if you bother to look close, you will see all his plays are broad-based, masala-drenched and completely targeted for front-benchers and popular appeal.”

Film-maker Onir (Anirban Dhar), busy adapting his very own version of Hamlet, said: “Shakespeare’s plays explore the human psyche in a timeless, borderless manner. You can take his stories and re-interpret it to suit your requirements.” Onir is casting Hrithik Roshan in his own adaptation of Hamlet, which is inviting curiosity and buzz in equal measure.

The eminent author Chandraprakash Dwivedi, who made Amrita Pritam’s novel Pinjar into a poignant movie, concludes that Shakespearean “literature is rich with well-conceived ideas and plots that are elaborately thought out. Hence the content is naturally strong and film-ready.” He adds that filmmakers are always searching for risk-free, tried and tested stories that are both market-friendly and evergreen. What better than the gems from classics and Shakespeare?

Even in this 450th year of his birth, William Shakespeare’s material remains as vibrant, fresh, vigorous and red-hot topical as ever. Why? Basically because his journey was about the exploration of the human soul with traits like love, passion, desire, greed, ambition, ego, envy, jealousy, suspicion and romance coloring the narrative, in a fashion that neither age can chill nor a rival steal. Any wonder that Bollywood, Hollywood and Showbiz continue to salute his blazing genius?

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Bollywood | Arts & Entertainment | Bigger India | June 2014

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Vishal Bharadwaj: “Personally I can live my entire life on Shakespeare, quite easily.” Shakespeare Manege Banda, staged at the National School of Drama in New Delhi.

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