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August 15, 2014
Guest Contributor Varsha Panjwani writes:
Shakespeare and Bollywood Conference
Organised by Koel Chatterjee (Royal Holloway), Preti Taneja (Cambrige), and Thea Buckley (Shakespeare Institute) at Senate House, London: 27 June 2014
Shakespeare arrived in India under colonial rule when T.B. Macaulay enforced English education, including the study of Shakespeare, as a means to undermine the development of Indian languages and literature. Ironically, however, when colonial rule ended and the British started leaving, Shakespeare remained and mastered local languages such as Gujarati, Bengali, Punjabi, Hindi, and Malayalam. Today, Shakespeare speaks in all these tongues on Indian screens as his plays are adapted, appropriated, and reinvented by Indian cinema.
The widespread popularity of Shakespeare in Indian cinema became apparent when keynote speaker Poonam Trivedi (Delhi University) kicked off the inaugural ‘Shakespeare and Bollywood’ conference by comparing V.K. Prakash’s Karmayogi, a 2012 take on Hamlet in Malayalam, with Sohrab Modi’s 1935 Hindi/Urdu adaptation Khoon Ka Khoon and Kishore Sahu’s 1954 Hamlet. Thea Buckley (Shakespeare Institute) further explored the influence of Shakespeare by mapping how the Mollywood blockbuster, Karmayogi blends Bollywood and Kerala’s cultural traditions with Shakespeare’s text. While these papers opened a significant line of enquiry regarding the differences and similarities between regional Shakespeare adaptations in India, they also problematised terms such as ‘Indian Cinema’ and ‘Bollywood’. The label ‘Indian Cinema’ was found limiting as it seems to present a homogeneous picture of an industry characterised by its heterogeneous variety. Equally, it was felt that the term ‘Bollywood’ was being used to describe almost any film with Indian themes and songs regardless of its language and the place where it was produced.
The urgency to investigate these terms was brought to the forefront when Sita Thomas (University of Warwick) critiqued the Royal Shakespeare Company’s branding of Iqbal Khan’s Much Ado About Nothing as a Bollywood production. Thomas contrasted this problematic labelling with the much more innovative way in which Samir Bhamra’s Phizzical Theatre Company embraced all aspects of Bollywood to create a Cymbeline which offered rich commentary on both Bollywood and Shakespeare. Bhamra was present at the conference and admitted that questions such as ‘How do you define a Bollywood production?’ and ‘What are its core ingredients?’ constantly occupied him when he was ‘Bollywoodising’ Shakespeare. Suman Bhuchar, who marketed Iqbal Khan’s production of Much Ado About Nothing, was also a contributor to the conference and provided more insight. Together, these papers made it clear that both Shakespeare and Bollywood are powerful global brands. While the Bollywood industry has recently begun to use Shakespeare to promote worldwide critical engagement, the Shakespeare industry has returned the compliment by using Bollywood to offer a differently flavoured Shakespeare to attract a more diverse clientele.
Yet, Shakespeare and Bollywood are not merely brands exploiting each other to sell their products; they share a more productive relationship. For instance, my own paper detailed the amalgam of Hindu religious folk theatre and Shakespeare in Bollywood’s 2013 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, and questioned whether the film deployed Shakespeare to promote the subaltern theatre forms that were in danger of perishing under the influence of Western theatre. Priyanjali Sen (New York University) elaborated on these relationships when she raised the pertinent point that the Bengali Bhadralok culture – something that is considered so regionally specific – glorified Shakespeare right from its inception, thereby drawing attention to the way in which Shakespeare is deeply embedded in the cultural fabric of Indian cinema.
The long and chequered history of Shakespeare in Indian cinema is a powerful tool in the hands of directors who explore what it means to be Indian in a global culture through a Shakespearean lens. Emphasising one end of this spectrum was Shauna O’Brien (Trinity College, Dublin) who argued that the 1965 Bollywood film, Shakespeare Wallah commemorates how India defined its emerging identity in opposition to Shakespeare. Detailing the other end of this spectrum, Preti Taneja (University of Cambridge) interrogated negotiations between India’s national and diaspora identities in the 2009 film, Life Goes On, a retelling of King Lear. Taneja contended that the questions of identity are not as clear-cut as in Shakespeare Wallah and Datta’s film has to chart an uneasy territory in trying to appease various Indian sensibilities. That Datta uses Shakespeare’s play to debate Indian identity politics is testament to the fact that while Shakespeare arrived as a foreigner in India, he has now become a naturalised citizen, and that Bollywood has had a huge role to play in this settlement.
The process of naturalisation through cinema probably began with Angoor (1982) which Koel Chatterjee (Royal Holloway) pointed out was the first Bollywood film in which Shakespeare met an existing Indian film genre so that the product was more of a blend than a mere imitation or plagiarism. Claire Cochrane’s (University of Worcester) reflective thoughts on her first encounter with the more recent 2001 Bollywood blockbuster, Dil Chahta Hai, traced how this process has been refined over the years. Her paper pointed out that Shakespeare has become so ingrained in Bollywood that it is now difficult to tell whether an element is more Bollywood or more Shakespeare. This is only to be expected as Andrew Dickson (Guardian theatre critic) stressed how his search for the origins of Shakespeare on screen in India led him to conclude that Shakespeare was a definite presence even at the very start of cinema in India. His investigation revealed that while there was a wealth of past performances involving legendary songwriters, directors and actors from Gulzar, Vishal Bhardwaj, and Mala Sinha to independent directors such as Sharat Kataria, there were many more diverse projects still in the pipeline, such as Tigmanshu Dhulia’s and Bhardwaj’s two Hamlets. In the words of Trivedi, it is fair to say that Shakespeare has indeed become ‘hamara’ (our) Shakespeare in Indian cinema. What the inaugural conference made amply clear, however, was that this interrelationship has not received the attention it deserves. The way in which Bollywood particularly and Indian cinema generally is reconfiguring Shakespeare and Indian identity is something that both India and a multicultural society like Britain need to engage with further.