Renuka Viswanathan | 31 DECEMBER, 2014
Shakespeare or Just Vishal Bharadwaj?
Still from Haider
When I am asked for the secret of Shakespeare’s attraction, my natural reaction is to speak of his poetry-his sonorous phrases, vivid images and profound symbolism. Out there, however, there are hardy souls, who challenge themselves by reinventing the Bard without using his glorious language; who transpose the familiar tales and scenes to strange countries and milieus and capture his universal themes and symbols in diverse ways. Filmmakers, particularly, have set our imaginations on fire by bringing Shakespeare’s ideas to life through eloquent visual images, that transcend barriers of language and region and prove, again and again, the universality of the great dramatist.
The most successful recreators of Shakespeare, like Kurosawa and Kaurismaki, seem to have laid down the ground rules for this genre of filmmaking. When you deal with Shakespeare in a new setting without using his verse, you are free to retell the old stories with fresh verve. You retain some of the main dramatic situations and add on your own episodes to flesh out the basic themes. From time to time, you shift emphasis within the well known tale, to linger on minor subplots or characters without straying beyond the confines of Shakespeare’s main concerns. And, like all those who reinterpret an existing masterpiece, you reap a double benefit. Viewers, who are not familiar with the original, can take the film at face value, while aficionados of Shakespeare can enjoy the additional frisson that comes from anticipating a future twist of the plot and recognizing the parallels and alterations hidden beneath the movie’s surface.
We too now have a successful interpreter of Shakespeare-an imaginative and competent filmmaker, who has so far transposed three of the four great tragedies to the Indian subcontinent and brought them to vivid life within the Bollywood tradition of melodrama and music. Vishal Bharadwaj gained entrée into the list of great Shakespearean moviemakers with “Maqbool” released in 2003. This is a makeover of Macbeth, with Scottish feuds becoming gang wars in Mumbai mafiadom.
The movie proved to be the making of two of Indian cinema’s most gifted actors-Irfan Khan in the title role (the counterpart of Macbeth) and the sultry siren, Tabu, as the gangster’s moll, Nimmi, (in the role of Lady Macbeth), who tempts him to turn against his mentor (the gang lord Jahangir alias Abbaji) and usurp his throne. The story is fresh and violent, but it is recognizably and unmistakably Macbeth. In keeping with the norms of the genre, many of the dramatic twists of Shakespeare are retained in the movie-the loyalty of Maqbool to his leader and his heroism and courage, the temptation and its ghastly outcome, the reward and retribution for sin, Nimmi’s growing madness, obsession with blood on her body and insomnia, and the ultimate betrayal, when Maqbool is shot in the back, with ravens rising and squawking against a bleak sky. Bharadwaj is more imaginative than Kurosawa (who reinvented the same play in samurai-land in “Throne of Blood”), when he reduces Shakespeare’s three witches to two corrupt policemen in the pay of Abbaji, who spend their time casting horoscopes in true Indian fashion and forecasting the fates of the gangleaders-the “witches” being played by veterans Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah. And for Birnham wood, which “moves” in Macbeth to signal the hero’s imminent doom, Bharadwaj substitutes the typically Mumbai natural force, the sea, by which Maqbool’s enemies arrive and defeat him.
Some of Shakespeare’s symbols remain-the usurper’s sensation of wearing clothes too large for himself or ravens as harbingers of evil. But Bharadwaj does not use the poet’s repeated evocations of the natural order being overthrown, whenever Macbeth betrays his trust and turns against his king, which is central to the Shakespearean code. He could not, in all fairness, present a criminal gangster hierarchy as a legitimate social order to be respected at all times. Neither does he use misty landscapes to reflect the inherent equivocation behind Macbeth’s misleading prophecies as Kurosawa does in such a masterly manner, when, in the opening scenes of “Throne of Blood”, he plunges us straight into a swirling fog and leaves us groping for several minutes till the eerie faces of the witches slowly emerge.
Bharadwaj’s innovations are equally dramatic. An example is how the horror of Abbaji’s murder is evoked by interposing it with the scene of an unsuspecting lamb led to the slaughter. The most memorable scene is also a pure Bharadwaj invention. This is the pilgrimage march of the Maqbool-Nimmi-Abbaji threesome and their followers, picturised to the strains of the Rubaru song, with all its double entendres. Troubling and erotic, the episode focuses the tale squarely around a motive for Abbaji’s killing, which has no place at all in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In the play, Lady Macbeth’s sole role is as Macbeth’s helpmeet and there is no other motive for Duncan’s murder but Macbeth’s ambition. “Maqbool” explains the crime in a totally different manner, tracing it to the desire of Maqbool and Nimmi for each other. There are also other minor modifications to the plot of the play-for Banquo’s ghost, we have the glimpses of a dancing Abbaji imagined by a tormented Maqbool. And, as the story ends, Maqbool is shown to be voluntarily refusing to kill the baby who will now carry forward Abbaji’s line.
Three years on and Bharadwaj is back with a second essai on the Shakespearean canon with the release of Omkara, the Bollywood version of Othello. Another multi-starrer, in which Venice and Cyprus are transposed to the heartland of north India, where political fixers operate outside the law to set up leaders and fight their battles. Omkara gave several leading Hindi film stars, normally bound to formula films, fresh opportunities to showcase hidden talents. Shakespeare uses race to highlight the strangeness and exoticism of Othello among Venetian bourgeoisie; Bharadwaj’s Indianisation of the play replaces caste for race. Ajay Devgan, in the hero’s role, with his dark and “different” looks, stands apart as an uneducated half-Brahmin, in sharp contrast to the fair college girl Dolly Mishra (Kareena Kapoor as Desdemona) and her friend Keshav “Firangi” (Vivek Oberoi as Cassio). There are many stellar performances-as the villain Iago (Ishwar “Langda”) there is Saif Ali Khan (who had already convincingly displayed villainy in “I, Cyrus”) and Bipasha Basu is beautiful Billoo (Bianca). The palm, however, goes to Konkona Sen-Sharma as a blowsy, devoted and innocent instrument of doom-Emilia, the handmaid of Desdemona and wife of Iago.
Here too, much of the gist of the original play remains. The elopement of the hero and heroine is now treated as an abduction that is quite acceptable to Dolly. The gradual poisoning of Omkara’s mind by “Langda” is accomplished as skillfully as Iago’s suggestions to Othello in the play and the tragic culmination is as pitiful and bloody. The central Shakespearean theme-the contrast between the mortal sin of envy committed by the motiveless malicious Iago-“Langda” and the venial sin of jealousy to which Othello-Omkara succumbs-resonates at the core of the story. Some of the speeches of the play are transposed to the movie too as for example, Dolly’s father’s suggestion about her to Omkara “She has deceived her father and may thee”
The twists and turns of the plot are, however, Indianised-the deus ex machina of the tragedy, the handkerchief, becomes a jeweled waistband and its theft becomes the ultimate proof of Dolly’s supposed infidelity. Perhaps the ghadi-boli dialect in which a great deal of the movie is shot is meant to reflect the poetic diction and imagery of Othello’s speeches in the play. And the villain’s distorted mind is evoked explicitly by endowing him with the physical defect of lameness, which is reflected in his nickname (an innovation unknown to Shakespeare).
Eight years later, when we were wondering if Bharadwaj had come to the end of his Shakespearean phase, he has tackled what is considered by many to be the best of the tragedies-Hamlet (the movie “Haider”). Now he has emerged with the activist’s mantle. The prince of Denmark, back home to mourn his father’s death has become a young Kashmiri Muslim, returning from Aligarh University to search for his doctor father, who has been taken away by the army. Bharadwaj dwells at length on what is rotten in the State of Kashmir-terrorist attacks, human rights violations and retaliatory atrocities by the army and the police and the effects of these actions on every Kashmiri household. He shows us mercilessly how those who preach and promote peace have only two choices-spy for and collaborate with authorities by betraying those around them or turn terrorist themselves. The Jhelum song echoes like a dirge with the sorrows of those who live in this unfortunate State. Movie buffs must rejoice that Bharadwaj was allowed to bring the film to viewers without interference from censors or attacks on theatres by rampaging mobs questioning his patriotic credentials.
The Shakespearean parallels have, as usual, been well utilized. The uncle who betrays Haider’s father and marries his mother, his musings on life and death (to remind us of the “to be or not to be” soliloquy), his assumed madness, the menacing comedy of the two spies (in the roles of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern), the innocent heroine Arshia and her father (as Ophelia and Polonius), the latter’s advice to his departing son (Polonius’s famous peroration to Laertes-Liyaqat in the movie, who is leaving Kashmir to work in Bangalore), the gravediggers’ scene with their drunken, comic song and the skull discovered by them followed by Haider’s scuffle with Liyaqat in Arshia’s grave, Haider’s refusal to kill his stepfather while he is praying, the accidental stabbing of Arshia’s father, the culminating carnage by accident and design -all of these owe their origin to Shakespeare’s plot.
And there are omissions, novel interpretations and outright innovations. We miss, for example, Hamlet’s shadow and friend, Horatio, to whom at least two of the most quoted speeches in the play are addressed: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” and the poignant summing up of life and death from the dying Hamlet “Absent thee from felicity awhile and in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain to tell my story”. We marvel at the new avatar of Hamlet’s father’s ghost-Irfan Khan reappears as the tortured Kashmiri who is flung into the Jhelum along with Haider’s father, later rescued and resurrected; most fitted then to inform Haider of where his father’s remains lie and induct him into the terrorist band.
There are fresh perspectives galore in Bharadwaj’s movie. The first appearance of Haider before the sentries at the check post is suitably dramatic, as he makes the brief announcement that he is returning from Aligarh to visit Islamabad. Only later, when he is detained, identified by Arshia and led away from imminent detention, do we learn that Islamabad is common Muslim name for Anant Nag in Kashmir. And with this announcement, we are brutally confronted with the nature of the conflict in this area.
The Shakespearean themes are highlighted effectively too. Critics have long spoken about Hamlet’s hesitation. Haider displays the same lack of resolution in his unwillingness to kill his uncle, even when he realizes how the latter has betrayed his father. Hamlet’s Oedipus complex is another well known theme. Bharadwaj makes this evident throughout the movie whenever Hamlet interacts with his mother-even in scenes pertaining to his boyhood, scenes which startle us before we get the feel of his character as Mama’s boy. And Shakespeare’s ambivalence about the character of Hamlet’s mother Gertrude is evident in Bharadwaj’s treatment of Ghazala (Haider’s mother in a pivotal role played by the matchless Tabu). We are never sure if she is the villainess or a creature of circumstances. Her motives for betraying her husband remain unclear though many possibilities are suggested. Till the very end, we are left wondering if she had done it unwittingly. Bharadwaj makes it appear that many of her actions are meant to protect her son and closes the movie with what seems slightly unconvincing behavior, when she is transformed into an avenging terrorist. This is a far cry from Shakespeare’s ending for the play but it supports Bharadwaj’s own thesis about the effects of official cruelty on forbearing and suffering Kashmiris.
Bollywood and Shakespeare coalesce marvelously in what I consider a Bharadwaj tour de force. This is the picturisation of the song Bismil. The episode is straight out of Shakespeare-it’s the famous play-within-the-play in which Hamlet guides a troupe of actors to enact a reconstruction of the manner in which his father was killed and present it before the culprits (his uncle and mother) so that they may be trapped into revealing their guilt. In the Shakespearean canon, this is considered particularly significant, as words put into Hamlet’s mouth are believed to express the poet’s own views about acting and direction, based on his extensive experience of writing and performing in the theatre. Bharadwaj has placed Haider in the centre of the puppet troupe dancing like an avenging monster before the discomfited couple to the heady beat of an ominous chant-the effect is pure Bollywood but it also captures the Shakespearean mood to a T.
A word about the outstanding actors in Bharadwaj’s latest multistarrer. Shahid Kapoor, “the juvenile lead”, amazes us with an unforgettable performance. Comparisons may be odious, but in my view, even he is outdone by Kay Kay Menon, who plays the villain Khurram-Claudio with consummate artistry. And is perfectly matched by Tabu’s unparalleled recreation of Gertrude as Ghazala.
It is an exhilarating experience to watch the three Bharadwaj masterpieces, while referring to the Shakespearean texts. For, over and above the poet’s preoccupations, we find in these movies the director’s own interests and inclinations, his methods and mannerisms. There are the simple tricks for example-all characters named with initial letters matching the Shakespearean originals for example. (Plus the irony behind calling Shakespeare’s greatest villain Iago Ishwar!).
But as we see the movies together, we also discern common strains that resonate through all of them, tying them together into a veritable trilogy. A predominant Bharadwaj concern seems to be the theme of female sexuality, which, surprisingly, is not the most significant Shakespearean idea in these tragedies. Hamlet’s ambivalence about Gertrude turns him against Ophelia, who is as trusting and innocent a creature as Desdemona despite the lurid imaginings of Othello under the sway of Iago. But there is no such theme anywhere in the play Macbeth. Nevertheless, Bharadwaj has imported it into the heart of Maqbool and exploited it to the full in both Omkara and Haider. The marvelous performance of Tabu in two of the three movies gives him full scope to convey this preoccupation to his audience.
The second common strain that seems to link the three movies is the manner in which Bharadwaj sets the plots outside the law. Mafias, gangs of fixers, terrorists-official and unofficial- people the movies, but not the plays themselves. Which brings us to a last question-is all this about Bharadwaj reinterpreting Shakespeare in a different garb or is he using the plays to tell his own stories? To look at the plays as tools for Bharadwaj, we might need a different viewpoint and another kind of analysis.