Bard in Bollywood

The mass appeal of Shakespeare is the reason why Bollywood filmmakers love to adapt his plays

When filmmaker Sharat Katariya watched Habib Tanvir's stage adaptation of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, it left a strong impression on him. "I was blown away by the element of magic, love and sexuality. I then read the original play, the abridged versions, and started adapting it into a script that the Indian audiences would relate to," says Kataria. He first wrote the script almost seven years ago. Over the years, he worked on several drafts. Even then, three months before the shoot, Katariya thought he had picked up the wrong material and won't be able to do justice to it. "However, once I started shooting and then saw the final result, I was happy with the way the movie had shaped up. I felt I made the film I had set out to make," he says.

Shakespeare's influence on Bollywood dates back to the early 20th century. All the escapist fare from bizarre coincidences to grossly mistaken identities to human emotions of love and heartbreak have found place in Bollywood. The character of the moneylender Sukhilala in the 1957 film Mother India had traces of Shylock from The Merchant of Venice, or the main plot of Rafoo Chakkar, based on gender confusion, had traces of Twelfth Night. The premise of Romeo and Juliet has been explored in various Hindi films such as Ek Duje Ke Liye, Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, Ishaqzaade and Sanjay Leela Bhansali's next Ram Leela.

In India, the Bard's work was first adapted on screen in the 1928 film Khoon-e-Nahak, a silent film made by actor-turned-director KB Athavale. The film was based on Hamlet, one of Shakespeare's most famous tragedies. Seven years later, the legendary director Sohrab Modi decided to cast himself as Prince Hamlet in a movie called Khoon Ka Khoon with Naseem Banu playing Ophelia. Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice was made into Hindi films: Savkari Pash by Baburao Painter and Zaalim Saudagar by JJ Madan. Bimal Roy then adapted The Comedy of Errors as Do Dooni Chaar, and later, his assistant Gulzar readapted it as Angoor. Recently, Vishal Bhardwaj has adapted Macbeth as Maqbool and Othello as Omkara. He was drawn to "the clearly etched out characters" in Shakespeare. Most of his works can also be put in contemporary settings. "His plays appeal to the masses and not just the classes. This makes it easier to adapt it to the Indian context," says Katariya.

Bollywood historian Rauf Ahmed believes Shakespeare is the easiest to borrow in terms of emotion. "He isn't vague and gives a lot of attention to detail," he says. Ahmed recalls, "Shammi Kapoor once told me that his father Prithviraj Kapoor was strongly influenced by Shakespeare. When he launched Prithvi Theatre, many of the characters in his plays were based on Shakespeare's plays." Ahmed also feels that the grey characters were something Shakespeare mastered in. "But the problem with Indian filmmakers is that most of them borrow ideas, few borrow the spirit of Shakespeare," he says.

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