400 years of Shakespeare: Vishal Bhardwaj, envoy hail bard’s magic of words

  • Prasun Sonwalkar, Hindustan Times, London
  • Updated: May 01, 2016 15:42 IST
Indian high commissioner Navtej Sarna in Stratford (HT Photo)

Noted director Vishal Bhardwaj and high commissioner Navtej Sarna added Indian tributes to events in Britain to mark 400 years of William Shakespeare’s death, recalling how the bard was appropriated as an “Indian Shakespeare” over the ages.

If a recent survey is to be believed, more Indians are familiar with Shakespeare – 83% – compared to Britons at 58%. The occasion helped people to recall the many adaptations of the bard’s work in Indian films and theatre in various languages.

At Stratford-upon-Avon, a town synonymous with Shakespeare, Sarna unfurled the tricolour, addressed a 600-strong gathering on behalf of the diplomatic corps, and recalled the many layers at which India engaged and appropriated Shakespeare over the years.

Bhardwaj, who says he is more of a music composer and would like to be remembered as such, is best known for his film trilogy based on Shakespeare’ s plays: Maqbool (2003, Macbeth), Omkara (2006, Othello) and Haider (2014, Hamlet).

“My engagement with Shakespeare happened accidentally. In school, Shakespeare horrified me. Ninety per cent of directors want to make a gangster film, I was keen to go beyond the surface, say more than just killing,” Bhardwaj told an audience in Asia House this week.

“I came across Lamb’ s ‘Macbeth’, and when I started reading, it fascinated me. Our country’s cops would be the best witches. I also remembered Shakespeare winking at the audience at the end of the film ‘Angoor’ (1982, based on ‘Comedy of Errors’).”

Bhardwaj said his effort was to be honest with the soul of Shakespeare’s plays, rather than the text. His Shakespeare trilogy was screened in London and he responded to questions later, along with co-writers Robin Bhatt and Abbas Tyrewala.

Noting that India figured often in Shakespeare’s plays, Sarna said: “The simple fact is that Shakespeare does not belong to any one country, or in fact to any one language. He belongs to humanity as a whole; and particularly for the English speaking world, who can own the mind that gave the language 2,000 words and several catch phrases.”

Besides Bhardwaj’s trilogy, Sarna recalled that Shakespeare’s plays were being staged in colonial Calcutta and Bombay since the mideighteenth century, with the earliest drama tis at ions by Indian sat Hindu College in Calcutta in 1822.

“With the advent of film it was only a matter of time that filmmakers in India began to mine Shakespeare for material. In one of the earliest talking movies or talkies as they were known, filmmaker and actor Sohrab Modi played Hamlet in his movie called ‘Khoon Ka Khoon’ (1935). This was followed in 1941 by JJ Madan’s take on ‘The Merchant Of Venice –Zalim Saudagar’,” he said.

Sarna rounded off his address with the bard’s lines: “But I have spoken long enough. I wouldn’t want my words to become, as in ‘As You Like It’, too much of a good thing. I shall therefore, to borrow words from ‘Othello’, vanish into thin air and no doubt all of you will instantly recall the words from ‘The Merchant Of Venice’ - good riddance.”


The film “Haider”, set in Jammu and Kashmir and directed by Vishal Bhardwaj, was one of the key movies discussed at the Asia House event “Shakespeare Meets Bollywood”. The director dwelt on the film and the complex context in which it was made.

To a British questioner who mentioned “India-occupied Kashmir”, Bhardwaj responded calmly: “First of all, we don’t call it ‘India-occupied Kashmir’. It is ours. We are not occupying it. You have to see, accept the pain, make it your own, at least acknowledge the pain.”

He added, “The film opened up a discussion on what is happening there. The film’s message is that everything is not lost, that we should all overcome the feeling of revenge. The whole film was against violence. The army is doing its job, people should acknowledge the army’s role.”

Bhardwaj said “Haidar” had made the “most money of all my films, so Indians liked it”.

On the pronunciation of the Yiddish word “chutzpah” used in the film – resonating with a Hindi word for a female body part, rather than its original “hutzpah” – he said he first heard it in a talk given by Osho, and used it because it also rhymed with AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act).

It took a long time to “woo” actress Tabu to play a role in the film: “She said she would play mother to anyone but Shahid Kapoor,” Bhardwaj said.

He revealed that actor Aamir Khan was keen to play the role of Langda Tyagi in “Omkara” but he wanted Bhardwaj to wait for two years. He said he was not ready to wait that long and cast Saif Ali Khan in the widely acclaimed role.

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