Free Press Journal

Birthday Special: Why William Shakespeare remains relevant


April 23 commemorates William Shakespeare’s birth and death anniversary. This year’s anniversary, Preeja Aravind looks at what makes Shakespeare such a beloved to Indians as an audience, as well as screen writers. Is it the drama or the language?

“Four centuries have gone by since Shakespeare passed on…” starts a conversation in Shakespeare AI Bot Chat App. The reply to which is “100 in binary.” And this is the typical way the master of ‘masala’ would have opened the settings to his play — be it tragedy, comedy or historical — and considering he has been adopted universally, always paying a tribute to the Bard’s calibre. Which is precisely why William Shakespeare, even 401 years after his death, has relevance to the Indian viewer. He was a poor man’s entertainer during the prime of his career. He is everyman’s entertainer in today’s world.

And we Indians love our entertainment. Our Bollywood ‘masala’ films, television soap dramas, street nautankis, grand ballets even the newstainments that run all day long on our TV screens — we love being entertained. No wonder William Shakespeare still finds a special place in our drama-craving hearts. Every single work — plays and sonnets alike — touches upon one or the other basic human emotion to churn out a full-fledged drama.

The idea of masala maar ke is what Shakespeare had in mind when he first wrote his plays. He wrote for the pleasure of his viewers most of whom were lower middle class who could barely afford the penny required for their admittance into the theatre yard. So entertainment — with dollops of farfetched fantasies and unrequited loves, intrigue, betrayals — was all that was on the playwright and his audience’s minds.

That particular need to entertain using basic human feeling has been the hallmark of Indian entertainment: Tearjerker films and television soaps, comical situational comedy series, even our viral late-night talk shows. Add to that our rich theatrical and classical dance requirements, we have for all intents and purposes adopted the bard as our own.

Piya behrupiya

Atul Kumar, who adapted the romantic comedy Twelfth Night into the successful Piya Beharupiya, says, “I was afraid of him. I felt I was not capable of handling Shakespeare in this lifetime. His understanding of human condition runs so deep and true that he transcends time and cultures. I wonder what the time in the world will be when he will become redundant and people will say, ‘Well he was a geat artist of yesteryears’…”

Teachers of English Literature call his stories timeless and universal — true, considering William Shakespeare holds the Guinness World Record of ‘Most Filmed Author’. This is apart from the numerous ballets, dance dramas and Indian-language adaptations of his classics, the latest of which is a Malayalam period drama, Veeram, which got its theatrical release on February 25.

As Mona Sinha, a professor of English at Maharaja Agrasen College, Delhi University, says, “Shakespeare was a popular writer in his time. And considering his works have withstood the test of time. Today he has become a literary canon as he cannot be restricted to the Elizabethan period of playwrighting because the themes of his works are universal. His stories are human and epic, which transcend the boundaries of time.”

Teaching Shakespeare today would mean including the visual and technological tools available to make her students understand the importance of Shakespeare. “Films, adaptations and television series are readily available, thus easier to grasp. These have already been acclimatised to conform to our cultural difference,” she adds. “They are another person’s visualisation of the world of Shakespeare, but it provides the necessary situation to make the students understand that at the foundation of it all Shakespeare’s stories were — are — about being human.”

malayalam movie Karmayogi

Beginning from his earliest work to his problem plays, Shakespeare’s stories are all about the drama of human lives and relationships. If you look at our television soap operas, there are nuances of some of Shakespeare’s plots: Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thhi or Kkusum or Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki in the last decade, and Kumkum Bhagya or Sasural Simar Ka or Balika Vadhu in this decade — they all have some or the other plot situations ‘borrowed’ from the bard.

Brothers marrying sisters, widows marrying late husband’s brothers, boys and girls from warring families falling in love — they are all foundation of the bard’s famous plays and plot twists in Indian television soaps. Kathakali artiste Prabal Gupta, who has interspersed Antony and Cleopatra and Macbeth into his dance performances, has a similar view. “Shakespeare is both challenging and elevating. I realised that there is a wide scope of mixing the Bard’s works into Indian classical dance. Kathakali is not just a dance, it also narrates a story. It needs drama, and who else can we go for a perfect drama other than Shakespeare?”

Says Mona Sinha about that, “Shakespeare is beloved to all. His stories are so universal that despite the difficulty of his language, they are immediately acceptable to everyone across the globe. India, with 22 languages and as many cultures, will definitely see thinkers, visualisers trying to contextualise Shakespeare into an Indian situation. This is precisely why Shakespeare has now become a literary canon in the academia.”

“The fundamental feeling of any human is the same. The way they express it might have slightly changed over the centuries, but it remains unchanged in its existence. That is what Shakespeare tapped into 400 years ago. That is what any artist tries to recreate today,” says Balaram Mattannoor, who has scripted Malayalam film adaptations of Othello and Hamlet as Kaliyattam and Karmayogi, respectively.

ram leela

While everyone talks about the Vishal Bhardwaj adaptations of Othello, Macbeth and Hamlet into Omkara, Maqbool and Haider, there are other Hindi ‘masala’ movies that have used Shakespeare’s plots and found popularity. Be it Ishaqzaade and Goliyon Ki Ras Leela Ram Leela (Romeo and Juliet), Angoor (A Comedy of Errors) or 10ml Love (A Midsommer Night’s Dream) — all these films have taken inspiration from Shakespeare for his intricate grasp on exaggerating emotion.