Bollywood embraces the Bard

The Bard's works first came to India through the British East India Company.

The works of Shakespeare and Western literary culture are inextricably linked. This is understood as fact by any Yale student: How often do we all endure lectures on the Western canon? But it is less obvious that Shakespeare could resonate just as deeply in the East. “Shakespeare Wallah,” a 1965 film directed by James Ivory and produced by Ismail Merchant, explores these complex cultural interactions. Featuring a spicy blend of East and West reflected even in the cast — the two leads are played by Indian actor Shashi Kapoor and British actress Felicity Kendal — “Shakespeare Wallah” ties together the Anglophile theater festival to exhibitions of Indian art at the Yale Center for British Art, which is screening the movie on Saturday at 2 p.m.

“Shakespeare Wallah” tells the tale of an English nomadic theater company that attempts to spread the Bard’s tales through performances in small Indian towns and villages. As the company travels, they become a lens through which the audience sees the changing cultural values of an India facing new monetary challenges, said professor Geetanjali Chanda, who teaches the seminar “Pop Culture and Postcolonial India.”

“[The company’s] existence is threatened, and it represents the existence of a threat to the whole cultural landscape of India,” she said.

But though the film follows the art of theater as it is dying out, it also reflects the way that the colonial import of the Bard’s canon quickly became assimilated into the Eastern landscape.

FROM WEST TO EAST

The works of Shakespeare began to travel to India with the birth of the East India Company, Shakespeare expert and English professor Lawrence Gordon Manley said. “Shakespeare was exported from the very beginnings of the Empire, when ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Richard II’ were performed aboard the East India’s good ship Dragon in the Indian Ocean from 1607 to 1610,” he explained. The Bard’s work was thus a piece of the colonial lexicon right from the start.

This is not entirely surprising: The way Snigdha Sur ’12, President of the South Asian Film Society, tells it, Shakespeare’s style is similar to the Parsi theater in which much of contemporary Indian performance is rooted.

“There’s a lot of spectacle, a lot of stage props, surrealism and magic,” Sur said. “If there’s any Western theater that should appeal to Indian audiences, it’s Shakespeare.”

She added that Indian theater also draws heavily on the style of the Mahabharata, presenting stories in a manner that focuses more on an epic style and circular plots than the linearity Western audiences often receive from novels, the stage and Hollywood.

“Even in musicals in the 1940s, they would explain why they were singing a song,” Sur said. That need for a direct, simple cause-and-effect style is something both Indian productions and Shakespeare often side-step. “Shakespeare has always influenced Bollywood more than people think because of the Indian theater tradition,” Sur added.

In addition, Shakespeare became a tool for colonized nations seeking a voice. Manley described how, from India to Africa, “Shakespeare’s works — especially ‘The Tempest’ — were used to talk back to the empire.” One adaptation of “Othello” in mid-19th century Delhi made waves after a Bengali man was cast as the lead opposite an Englishwoman, an unprecedented role for an Indian.

For centuries, though, the spread of such Shakespearean influence faced a hurdle especially significant in the heavily stratified world of colonial India: social class, Sur said. That meant a tradition evolved of Shakespearean performances being limited in reach to Brits in India and to the select few Indians with money.

Chanda said aristocrats in particular were a relevant part of this scene, being traditionally wealthy and using funds from their privy purses to support the theater.

“We assume not many Indians were actually exposed to Shakespeare during colonial times, and it’s unclear how large or wide the influence of his works could have been,” argued Sur.

Post-independence, the situation changed, and it is this shift that “Shakespeare Wallah” depicts. “The royal families were feeling the pinch of losing their purses, [and] Bollywood gained popularity over small theater companies, [and] theater itself became less important than movies,” Chanda said. She added that the way Shakespeare was performed and understood became caught up in this wave of commercialization, so that, though theater was waning, the Bard’s works were ever more present.

THE BOLLYWOOD BARD

Where Shakespeare was once the pleasure of the rich, it is now common literary currency.

“Now, in college and in high schools in major metropolitan cities, people were and are studying Shakespeare directly — especially after the 1990s and the liberalization of India,” Sur said.

With changing demand patterns and new tastes that saw Shakespeare as an extension of classically popular Indian tropes, the commercial machine could do nothing but whir into action. And what’s the face of modern Indian commercialism? Bollywood.

The Indian film industry has evolved over the past couple of decades into an Indian version of Hollywood, with less glitter, less song-and-dance and more grit, more realism. This has paved the way for a fuller integration of Shakespeare into Bollywood films, with movies like Vishal Bhardwaj’s “Omkara” (Othello), “Maqbool” (Macbeth) and Rituparno Ghosh’s “The Last Lear” (King Lear). The filmmakers pay homage to Shakespeare explicitly — Ghosh’s protagonist in “The Last Lear” is intended to be a portrayal of the Bard himself. Bhardwaj, on the other hand, has adapted both tragedies into a modern Indian setting, turning Macbeth into a gangster in Mumbai and Othello into a political enforcer.

“Male jealousy as portrayed in Othello is not uncommon in India and [themes present in] ‘Hamlet,’ like the revenge of the son are also common Indian themes,” Chanda said. “[The] plotlines are … very generalizable and appealing to an Indian audience.”

But this kind of commercialization has its downfall: oversimplification. Somewhere along the way, much of what the Bard intended to say got lost in translation — literally.

“When they do remake Shakespeare, what’s interesting [about] Bollywood is that characters [are] often simplified — in the original ‘Othello,’ we’re given at least six different reasons why Iago is evil, but there’s only one reason why he’s evil in ‘Omkara,’” Sur said.

“Shakespeare Wallah” is the original precursor to these Indian adaptations of Shakespeare. While the film may be about the war between Shakespeare and Bollywood, it paves the way for avant-garde films like “Omkara” by linking the two together. It highlights the struggle for survival between two opposing cultures in India and foreshadows their ultimate reconciliation.

Comments