Cinematising Shakespeare

The bard in regional Indian films


April 23, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Cinematising Shakespeare

Experts say that in order to truly explore the rich archive of Shakespeare in Indian cinemas, one needs to include regional language cinemas

On the occasion of Shakespeare’s 405th death anniversary, even the best adaptations of his work on silver screen, especially in the regional Indian films remain under the shadows of Bollywood.

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While Bollywood will always be indebted to the English playwright, poet, actor and one of the world’s greatest dramatists, William Shakespeare for several successful films like Haider (2014), Maqbool (2003), Omkara (2006), and many others, the gems of adaptations of his plays in regional Indian cinema remain relatively unknown.

“Some of these are extremely well known as well as critically acclaimed but due to language barrier, these films remain only on the margins, far away from the majority of audiences,” says Shyama Goswami, a film studies teacher at the University of Delhi.

She goes on to say that in order to truly explore the rich archive of Shakespeare in Indian cinemas, one needs to include the regional language cinemas too. Here are a few notable regional films adapted from Shakespearean plays.

Kaliyattam (Othello)

Kaliyattam released in 1997

The 1997 release, Kaliyattam, directed by Jayaraj and starring Suresh Gopi and Manju Warrier, is one of the noticeable Shakespearean adaptations in Malayalam. The film is an adaptation of  Othello, set against the backdrop of a typical Theyyam (a regional dance form) performance.

Suresh Gopi plays Kannan Perumalayan, a Theyyam artiste, who gets married to Thamara (a teenaged Manju Warrier). He is possessive of her and plays the equivalent of Shakespeare’s jealous titular character, Othello. Lal, like Iago in Othello, plays the conniving character who puts ideas into Perumalayan’s head about poor Thamara and another artist Kanthan (Biju Menon). Manju Warrier’s role in this film, very early in her career, was much appreciated and Suresh Gopi won both the State and the National Awards for Best Actor for his performance in Kaliyattam.

Bhranti Bilash (The Comedy of Errors)

The 1963 Bengali film is based on a play by known author Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, which was a Bengali adaptation of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors. The film was directed by Manu Sen with the screenplay and dialogue penned by noted playwright Bidhayak Bhattacharya.

Though the original play was set in an unspecified, but distant past, the film relocates the story to modern-day India. The film tells the story of a Bengali merchant from Kolkata and his servant who visit a small town for a business appointment, but, while there, are mistaken for a pair of locals, identical in looks and behaviour, and status, leading to much confusion.

In 1968, the film was remade as a Bollywood musical named Do Dooni Char and remade again in 1982 as Angoor directed by Gulzar. Since Uttam Kumar and Bhanu Bandopadhyay played the two masters and their respective servants in the Bengali film, it turned into a rollicking comedy punched with the added comic timing of Sabitri Chatterjee who played the wife of one of the twins.

Gunasundari Katha (King Lear)

Gunasundari Katha is a 172-minute-long film

Released in 1949 and directed by Kadiri Venkata Reddy starring Sriranjani in the title role as Gunasundari, this Telugu movie is based on Shakespeare’s King Lear. It is also popular as the first direct adaptation of any Shakesperean play in India.

The film became an astounding success as director Reddy skillfully blended mythology with fantasy. The cinematography of this film, done by British-Indian cinematographer Marcus Bartley, was also appreciated and critically acclaimed. A small but surprising fact about the film is also that Reddy used a bear as one of the characters in the film.

“While mostly unknown in the modern Telugu cinema, this 172-minute-long film was a rage in the mid-1990s,” professor Goswami of Delhi University adds.

Local Kung Fu 2 (The Comedy of Errors)

Local Kung Fu 2 is an Assamese action comedy film, directed by Kenny Deori Basumatary and produced by Durlov Baruah. It is also the sequel to 2013 film Local Kung Fu. The 2017 film is based on William Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors. The filmmakers successfully raised money for post-production through crowdfunding.

The film generated rave reviews from critics all over the country and is an impressive 7.9/10 rated on IMDb. Professor Goswami loves the film and says that it is important for every literature and cinema lover to get a taste of Kung Fu flavoured with the essence of Assam.

Hrid Majharey (Othello)

Hrid Majharey is based on Othello

Directed by Ranjan Ghosh, the 2014 film starring Abir Chatterjee and Raima Sen in the lead roles is an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s work in Bengali cinema.

Originally based on Othello, the film also had some essential elements of Macbeth and Julius Caesar integrated into the storyline. Being a tribute to the great dramatist of the English language, Hrid Majharey has enlisted in the top ten adaptations of Shakespeare in Indian cinema by various movie critics and has been considered as one of the top five World Adaptations of Othello according to the British Conference on the Bard held in London in April 2016 to mark 400 years of his death.

Annayum Rasoolum (Romeo and Juliet)

Annayum Rasoolum, the 2013 Telugu release by director Rajeev Ravi, is his debut film.

In one of the best Telugu adaptations of Shakespeare, actor Fahadh Faasil becomes Rasool and Andrea Jeremiah, Anna. The disquieting love story is set in Kochi. There are a lot of silent exchanges amid nostalgic music, forbidden love, escapades and the inevitable tragedy. While the film does not end in the same way that Romeo and Juliet did, it sure remained a favourite among many Telugu cinema-goers.

Zulfiqar (Julius Caeser & Antonio and Cleaopatra)

Zulfiqar ran into controversy for its portrayal of Muslims

Bengali film director Srijit Mukherji found his inspiration in not one, but two tragedies of Shakespeare, Julius Caeser and Antonio and Cleopatra. Though separated, these two plays have one single historical connection that is explored in the 2016 film in a modern context.

The film has a stellar cast that includes Prosenjit Chatterjee, Jisshu Sengupta, Parambrata Chatterjee, Dev, Ankush, Rahul, Nusrat Jahan and Paoli in pivotal roles. The film turned out to be a blockbuster but also got involved in a controversy as it showed the leading characters, mostly Muslims, associated with illegal activities. Chairman of the State Minorities Commission Imtiaz Ali Shah reported the incident to the chief minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee, following which Mukherji had agreed to address the issues and ordered some cuts in the film.



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