April 29 2016
One Bollywood director, Vishal Bhardwaj, has become synonymous with contemporary adaptions of Shakespeare’s work and there’s a chance to see why both scholars and the popcorn set are so impressed…
FEW PEOPLE ever imagined William Shakespeare’s work could take on such vitality and urgency in a Bollywood context – but that is precisely what happened when director Vishal Bhardwaj (pictured below) began his trilogy of films.
Now with Shakespeare celebrations well under way and commemorating his 400th death anniversary, the British Film Institute (BFI) on the South Bank in London is giving you the chance to see Bhardwaj’s contemporary adaptations of Shakespeare films today and tomorrow.
In addition, Bhardwaj will himself appear afterwards for a Q&A with the respective screenwriters. So, it is an opportunity to quiz one of the most innovative talents to emerge from Bollywood in recent times.
Dr Varsha Panjwani (pictured below, is from a group instrumental in getting the BFI to screen the films and invite Bhardwaj and his writers to London.
“I would say that before Vishal Bhardwaj’s trilogy, Shakespeare’s work was not really a saleable commodity in Bollywood.
“If you went to potential funders, they would say Shakespeare is too serious, and it won’t sell, but Bhardwaj has made Shakespeare popular and accessible,” Dr Panjwani told www.asianculturevulture.com.
Dr Panjwani is part of the four-person Indian Shakespeares on Screen group and teaches at Boston University, London Campus and is also an honorary associate researcher at the University of York.
It was Bhardwaj’s “Maqbool” released in 2004, that broke the mould and reintroduced Shakespeare to winder Indian audiences, she explained.
“There was a silent movie called ‘Dil Farosh‘ in 1927, directed by M.Udvadia and that was based on Shakespeare’s ‘Merchant of Venice’ and after that there has been a steady stream of Shakespeare in Indian cinema.”
But Bhardwaj was the first one in modern times to show that Shakespeare could be adapted to serve a much more easily identifiable and distinct Bollywood agenda.
“He casts Bollywood stars – and there are songs and dances, it’s really done very beautifully and enhances the text rather than take away from it,” she argued.
Indeed, Bhardwaj began his career as a composer and musician and “Maqbool” was more or less his first full time feature for a mass audience. It stars Irrfan Khan, who was a rising star back then and Tabu, who had already created a name for herself on the Bollywood screen.
Some might still argue that “Maqbool” is not really a Bollywood film, but made in the spirit of Indian independent or parallel cinema.
However in “Omakara” in 2006, Bhardwaj cast one of the biggest stars in Bollywood, Saif Ali Khan, in the role of the scheming ‘Iago (‘Ishwar’) to great acclaim. The film also featured Kareena Kapoor, another big Bollywood name in the role of Desdemona (‘Dolly’).
What impressed many was the way Bhardwaj had adapted the 16th century play to the contemporary state of Utter Pradesh and a struggle between local politicians.
Its language while being in Hindi was also different and radical (even in India it played with English subtitles).
Dr Panjwani was just of those who was blown away by the film.
“As a Shakespeare scholar, it’s very tough for me to get over the fact that Shakespeare’s language is so brilliant and playful and I thought no translation could ever do it any justice but I was proved wrong and good translators came make that shift.
“What’s great in ‘Omkara’ is the language – in Shakespeare in the beginning, when Iago talks to Desdemona’s father, it is coarse and vulgar – in ‘Omakra’ it’s pretty vulgar and rude too.
“It’s a dialect of Hindi and that dialect is reflected by class. Desdemona (Dolly) and Kesu (Casio) speak in a language that is reflective of those educated in English.
“But the petty politicians speak in a different dialect that lends itself to a lot of vulgarity,” she explained. “While Bollywood in the main uses mainstream language (Hindi), Bhardwaj has been very keen to use regional dialects and it has encouraged inventiveness and a playfulness and risk taking with the language.”
In the last work of Bhardwaj’s trilogy, “Haider”, the setting becomes yet more controversial.
It is Kashmir at the heights of its conflict in the 1990s and Bhardwaj intertwines the political and the personal to great effect, a view with which Dr Panjwani concurs.
“It is the first movie in the mainstream to use Kashmir not as a backdrop,” Dr Panjwani stated. “Rather than focus on the larger political questions, it concentrates on individuals and it touched a lot of raw nerves.”
Dr Panjwani, who is interested in diversity and cross-cultural currents, said it was important to see Bhardwaj’s work in a larger context.
“It’s great to have Indian Shakespeare at the BFI, at the absolute heart of films and not just a fringe venue. This is not just relevant for Indians (or British Asians) but it is the equivalent of world cinema and it deserves its place in that context,” she said.
Main picture: Irrfan Khan and Tabu in ‘Maqbool’; Ajay Devgan and Kareena Kapoor in ‘Omkara’; and Shahid Kapoor in ‘Haider’
‘Four hundred years on, Shakespeare continues to dominate stages and screens worldwide’ – Ian McKellen
To enjoy the BFI’s 2 4 1 offer simply quote Shakespeare241 on line, in person or via phone 020 7928 3232
- Maqbool + Q&A with Vishal Bhardwaj and screenwriter Abbas Tyrewala, TODAY, April 29 2016 18:50
- Omkara + Q&A with Vishal Bhardwaj and screenwriter Robin Bhatt, Saturday, April 30 2016 14:00
- Haider + Q&A with Vishal Bhardwaj and screenwriter Basharat Peer, Saturday, April 30 2016 18:40
BFI booking info: http://whatson.bfi.org.uk/Online/
Currently showing sold out but check for on the day and returns
More Indian Shakespeares on screen (Dr Varsha Panjwani, Thea Buckley, Koel Chatterjee, Dr Preti Taneja) http://www.indianshakespearesonscreen.com