British Universities Film & Video Council

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Bollywood Goes Shakespeare

India produces more films per year than any other nation, yet only a smattering of these relate to Shakespeare. Dr Deana Rankin, Senior Lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London, looks at recent attempts to explore why that might be.

About the author: Dr Deana Rankin is Senior Lecturer in English and Drama at Royal Holloway, University of London. Before that she was the Muriel Bradbrook Fellow and Director of Studies at Girton College, Cambridge. She is the author of Between Spenser and Swift: English Writing in Seventeenth-Century Ireland (CUP, 2009). She is Senior Project leader/mentor with Dr Preti Taneji and Koel Chatterjee on the Shakespeare and Bollywood 2014-16 project.

Bollywood-Shakespeares-pmLast year saw the official celebration of the first 100 years of Indian cinema; this year, I am supervising dissertations on Shakespeare and Hindi cinema for the first time at all three levels: BA, MA and PhD; in late June, delegates walking up Tottenham Court Road to attend the first ever UK conference on Shakespeare and Bollywood, passed a ticket booth with special offers on a long list of ’Bollywood Influence’ West End shows. Bollywood Shakespeares is, then, a very timely essay collection and the editors, Craig Dionne and Parmita Kapadia, are extremely well-placed to comment on this new Shakespearean wave.

In their first collection Native Shakespeares: Indigenous Appropriations on a Global Stage (2008) Dionne, Kapadia and their contributors did a great deal to challenge the notion of ‘global McShakespeare’, of adaptation as an act of homogenisation. Instead, their explorations of local, indigenous re-workings did much to prepare us for the energy, diversity and resonance of the ‘Native Shakespeares’ presented (for example) in the 2012 Globe to Globe season ‘37 plays in 37 languages’. The introduction to Bollywood Shakespeares is a further call to arms; a provocation to ‘catch up’ and notice that this phenomenon is challenging existing theories of Shakespearean adaptation and appropriation. Intriguing and theoretically adept, the introduction draws on the work of Jacques Rancière to urge audiences to resist a cynical binary reading in which Bollywood effaces local nuance in order to resell Shakespeare to an exploitative global market. Rather than read Bollywood Shakespeare as simply more evidence of the Bard’s ‘universal genius’, we are instead encouraged to imagine a ‘crosshatched Shakespeare’, which brings together ‘two worlds necessarily separated but oddly aligned in their aims and focus’(3). Bollywood, it is argued, repeatedly resists the pull of the global and instead ‘uses’ Shakespeare to focus our attention on the local; to explore the political and cultural specificities of modern India.

The three-part organisation of the rest of the volume enforces this framework: the first section explores Bollywood’s debt to the theatre. Vikram Singh Thakur’s offers a compelling historical account of Hindi film’s origins in the Parsi theatre, detailing the mutual exchange of performers, adaptations, and translations. Kapadia then offers a nuanced reading of Merchant Ivory’s Shakespeare Wallah (1965). Exploring this tale of the demise of the touring ex-pat Shakespeare company and the rise of indigenous popular cinema she demonstrates how the struggle for the ownership of Shakespeare inflects and informs early Hindi film aesthetics.

The second section, ‘Shakespeare’s local face’ examines how Bollywood appropriates Shakespeare to give voice to local Indian identity. The three essays in this section focus on just two films: Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool (2003) and Omkara (2006). This weighting of the collection towards Bhardwaj is understandable: his Shakespeare adaptations have earned him considerable international acclaim and numerous industry awards; the imminent release of Haider, a version of Hamlet set in Kashmir, is much anticipated, not least for the political controversy it is likely to cause. Certainly undergraduates and lecturers will find much to interest them in this section. But it is also, at times, repetitive; a section where stronger editorial shaping might have produced space for the consideration of other films, other directors.

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