Lights, Camera, Conversation… “All the world’s a screen…”

Posted on September 12, 2014


In light of the upcoming ‘Haider’, a look at a 60-year-old Hindi version of ‘Hamlet’. Plus, ‘Sivaji’ Ganesan and Uttam Kumar as Othello.

When we think of non-Western (and non-Vishal Bhardwaj) adaptations of Shakespeare, the mind settles, instantly, on Kursosawa. Throne of Blood. Ran. But a quick Google search reveals some fascinating Indian productions. A partial listing here – from Hamlet (Khoon-E-Nahak, 1928, Silent; Khoon Ka Khoon, 1935, Hindi); from Twelfth Night (Kanniyin Kaadhali, 1949, Tamil); from The Merchant Of Venice (Savkari Pash, 1925, Marathi; Shylock, 1940, Tamil; Zalim Saudagar, 1941, Hindi); from (of all plays!) Cymbeline (Katakam, 1947, Tamil); from King Lear (Gunasundari Katha, 1949, Telugu). Then, we have the more recent (and to me, more familiar) films: the two Tamil versions of The Taming of the Shrew, both with ‘Sivaji’ Ganesan (Arivaali, 1963, and Pattikaadaa Pattanama, 1972); the two Hindi adaptations of The Comedy of Errors (Do Dooni Chaar, 1968, and Angoor, 1982, both preceded by the Bengali Bhrantibilas, in 1963); Kaliyattam, the 1997 Malayalam take on Othello; and, of course, the numerous iterations of Romeo and Juliet, from the 1948 Hindi version with Nargis and Sapru (called Romeo and Juliet) to last year’s Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela.

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Shakespeare is also found in tracts of his plays performed within films, and it’s oddly coincidental that two superstars of the 1960s, ‘Sivaji’ Ganesan and Uttam Kumar, both played Othello, and both played the scene in which Othello murders Desdemona, and both played the scene in English, “that whiter skin of hers than snow and smooth as monumental alabaster” and so forth. This may have resulted from the Tamil film (Ratha Thilagam, 1963) being adapted from the Bengali one (Saptapadi, 1961). I haven’t seen the latter, so I can’t say for sure, but the two films do share similarities – the backdrop of war, the star-crossed lovers, and, of course, the staging of Othello, which, in both films, appears to have been dubbed by the same voices (Jennifer Kapoor, Utpal Dutt). The Tamil film makes way for a bit of comedy before the play. Nagesh is supposed to play Othello, but he gets the jitters and is replaced by ‘Sivaji’ Ganesan. Now that would have been something, seeing Nagesh tackle Othello.

On to Hamlet, which was made by Kishore Sahu in 1954 – 60 years ago. (He called it “a free adaptation.”) You may remember Sahu as the actor in a number of films featuring Dev Anand, most notably Guide, where he played the archaeologist Marco. But he was also a filmmaker, whose most well-known works are probably Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai and Hare Kanch Ki Chooriyan. This Hamlet isn’t, like the Vishal Bhardwaj films, a localised adaptation – Hamlet is called Hamlet, Denmark is Denmark. Seen today, this, inevitably, leads to some snickering. The ghost of Hamlet’s father – who wears some sort of gauzy veil, like a bride – is referred to as “shahenshah-e-Denmark,” and Ophelia’s (Mala Sinha, in one of her early lead roles) father is called “vazir-e-azam Polonius.” Hamlet hails his friend thus: “Khushamdeed Horatio!” Queen Gertrude coos, “Hamlet, mere laal.” More dialogues arrive on these lines: “Humne apni bhabhijaan ko apna malika bana liya.” “Laertes, tum humse kuch arz karna chahte thhe.” Best of all, Ophelia wails, “Hamlet, maine tumko dil diya, tumne mujhko rusvaa kiya.”

These lines don’t need translation. The meaning isn’t as important as the juxtaposition of these very “Hindi film”-sounding lines with those very Shakespearean names. (This was a problem in the Dilip Kumar-starring Yahudi too, which was set in ancient Rome, and which had lines like “Theek kehti ho, Octavia” and “Rome kabhi tumhara daaman nahin chhodega.”) We snicker because we find it odd that these Shakespearean characters speak in this style, and because “O zaalim chacha” sounds so… well, filmy, whereas “O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!” (the equivalent in the play) sounds appropriately dramatic. So too with “sanyas le le, jogan ban jao” and ‘Get thee to a nunnery.” And when Ophelia cries, “Ya Allah, yeh kaisi qayamat hai,” it’s most weird, because the line invokes a religion that’s not to be found in this palace, in these clothes, in these names. Now you see why Vishal Bhardwaj transforms Macbeth into Maqbool, Othello into Omkara, Hamlet into Haider.

But once we get used to this apparent dissonance, once we settle into the film (to extent that a modern-day viewer can settle into a film where the acting is so flagrantly silent-film-ready), the lines do begin to make sense. In the scene after the one where Hamlet kills Polonius, Gertrude says, “Hamlet ki deewangi samundar ki toofani ki tarah roz ba roz badhti jaa rahi hai.” But if the line appears overwrought and excessively… well, theatrical, that’s because the source is itself theatrical, and, by today’s standards, wrought very differently. Shakespeare’s equivalent line pitches wildly on the same metaphor. Gertrude: “Mad as the sea and wind, when both contend which is the mightier.”

Some of the equivalencies are quite exquisite, with the dialogues rendered in verse, the way they were in Chetan Anand’s Heer Ranjha. (The “to be or not to be” speech, though, is done fairly straight: “Zindagi ya maut, kisko apnaaoon…”) Here’s the rendering of Hamlet’s “frailty, thy name is woman” soliloquy: Tu woh jaam hai jo sharab-e-makr aur daga se bhara hai / Tu woh chaman hai jo hawa-e-fareb se bhara hai / Bewafaai… tera naam aurat hai / Afsos… mere baap ki maut ko muddat mein guzarne ko aai / Ke tuney shaadi rachaai / Khushi manaai / Aur woh bhi kisse, jo mere baap ka bhai / Ae aurat, ae harjaee / Tujhe yeh surat kyon pasand aai… The dialogues are by Prof. BD Verma and Amanat Hilal, and if Shakespeare had lived and plied his trade in Lucknow, you can imagine him lapsing into these locutions.

Some parts of this Hamlet are stunningly faithful to the original text. You’d think that the inevitable songs (the music is by Ramesh Naidu) would kill the mood or look out of place, but they’ don’t. The female solos go to Ophelia, and they’re structured around the typical situations we encounter in Hindi cinema (a flashback to a couple’s happier times, a he-doesn’t-love-me dirge), but this is actually as per Shakespeare’s vision, because, in the play, the only woman who sings is Ophelia, after she loses her mind. And the only song with male voices goes to the gravediggers, who sing in the play too. (Hamlet wonders, “Has this fellow no feeling of his business, that he sings at grave-making?”) Other aspects of the film take liberties with the text (hence, I guess, the note about this being “a free adaptation”) – most puzzlingly, in the placement of the play-within-the-play. While Shakespeare intended this to occur midway, here it takes place after Ophelia dies, and segues into Hamlet’s climactic swordfight with Laertes. Still, watching this film only reaffirms that Shakespeare is made for Indian cinema. Hamlet alone has the rich-boy-poor-girl angle (prince Hamlet and commoner Ophelia), the I’ll-avenge-my-father angle (in the case of Hamlet), the I’ll-avenge-my-family angle (in the case of Laertes), the girl-going-mad-after-being-spurned angle (in the case of Ophelia). There are songs, swordfights, low comedy with the gravediggers, a loyal best friend (Horatio) – the Bard, it appears, was one heck of a Bollywood screenwriter.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.