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Posted at: Apr 24, 2016, 12:51 AM; last updated: Apr 24, 2016, 12:51 AM (IST)

Love’s labour multiplied

Shakespeare continues to hold Indian filmmakers in thrall with his timeless tales of love and betrayal

Saibal Chatterjee

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE  wrote a comedy titled Love’s Labour’s Lost early in his career. However, his layered creative labours on the theme of amour and its many complex shades have never lost their relevance.

In the 400th year since the death of arguably the most celebrated writer of all time, his plays, comedies and tragedies alike, continue to inspire filmmakers and theatre directors the world over.

“The greatness of Shakespeare,” says Vishal Bhardwaj, maker of an acclaimed trilogy inspired by the revered playwright’s three classic tragedies — Macbeth (Maqbool, 2003), Othello (Omkara, 2006) and Hamlet (Haider, 2014), “is that he is contemporary to this day.”

In popular Indian cinema, which has always been in love with the idea of love, it is only natural that the Bard’s Romeo and Juliet, an ageless tale of star-crossed lovers, holds sway more than any of his other iconic plays.

And we aren’t just talking about the recent spate of Romeo and Juliet adaptations made in this country. Way back in 1937, the Ohio-born American director who made Madras his home between 1936 and 1950 brought the tale to the big screen in Ambikapathi, a Tamil-language period drama set in the Chola Empire of the 11thcentury.

Since then, the ill-fated Shakespearean lovers have assumed varied forms in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Bengali cinema. Cast your mind back to 1981, when Kamal Haasan, as the South Indian in Goa’s Dona Paula wooed a Hindi-speaking North Indian girl played by Rati Agnihotri in K Balachander’s Ek Duje Ke Liye.

The tragic climax of Ek Duje Ke Liye was dissected threadbare by critics, but the film was a massive commercial success.

It was a Hindi remake of a Telugu hit (Maro Charitra) that the same director had made three years earlier. Maro Charitra, which also starred Kamal Haasan in the male lead, was about a Tamil boy and a Telugu girl, played by Saritha.

In 1988, leading Mumbai film producer Nasir Hussain wrote Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, a romantic drama adapted from Romeo and Juliet. The superhit launched the careers of director Mansoor Khan and stars Aamir Khan and Juhi Chawla.

In more recent times, director Aanand L. Rai gave a completely new spin to the story in Raanjhanaa (2013), in which a Tamil Brahmin boy in Benaras (Dhanush) falls hopelessly in love with a local Muslim girl (Sonam), sparking off a string of tragic consequences.

Around the same time as Raanjhana, three other Hindi films drew inspiration from Romeo and Juliet with varying results.

The biggest of them of course was Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s much-hyped Goliyon Ki Rasleela — Ram-Leela, starring Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone.

Texturally far more interesting was Habib Faisal’s Ishaqzaade, a version of Romeo and Juliet set in small-town Uttar Pradesh. It revolved around a Muslim girl (Parineeti Chopra) and a Hindu boy (Arjun Kapoor) belonging to two rival political parties.

In the same year, Manish Tiwary delivered the rather tepid Issaq, in which Prateik Babbar slipped into the garb of a present-day Romeo to Amyra Dastur’s Juliet in a Benaras setting.

For Faisal, Shakespeare’s “taut narratives and intriguing characters” are the principal draw, while Bhansali finds making a film based on a Shakespeare tale “a liberating experience”.

Indeed, Indian filmmakers have resorted to all manner of experimentation with Shakespeare’s plays. In 2015, director Aparna Sen made the Bengali-language Arshinagar, a sweeping musical adapted from Romeo and Juliet and set against the backdrop of the Kolkata land mafia.

In 2014, to mark the Bard’s 450th birth anniversary, first-time Bengali filmmaker Ranjan Ghosh drew inspiration from Othello and borrowed elements from Macbeth and Julius Caesar in making Hrid Majharey.

Nearly two decades back, Jayaraj made the critically acclaimed Malayalam film, Kaliyattam, which re-imagined Othello in the milieu of Theyyam, a temple dance form.

Among the more unique re-interpretations of Shakespeare was 10ml Love, directed by Sharat Katariya in 2010. The film adapted A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the context of a Punjabi wedding during which four characters are drawn into the vortex of maddening amorous liaisons.

In Bengal, award-winning director Srijit Mukherji is currently working on Zulfiqar, a Shakespeare-inspired underworld drama set in Kolkata’s Kidderpore port area. The film blends Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, proving yet again that Shakespeare knows no geographical boundaries or time-zone constraints.

Another interesting modern retelling of a Shakespeare tragedy will probably be the upcoming UK-India co-production The Hungry, based on Titus Andronicus.

Written and directed by Indian-American filmmaker Bornila Chatterjee, The Hungry unfolds in the extravagant setting of a big fat Indian wedding as it probes deep-rooted patriarchy and corruption in Indian politics and big business.

The Hungry, co-written and produced by India’s Tanaji Dasgupta and the UK’s Kurbaan Kassam, is the first project of Film London’s mentoring and development scheme, Microwave International: Shakespeare India, to get off the ground.

Among the other film projects selected as part of the Microwave International: Shakespeare India programme is Mathura, a reworking of As You Like It by Indian actor-writer-director Rajat Kapoor. This film is a collaboration between him and UK producer Uzma Hasan.

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