Shakespeare died exactly 400 years ago today, which I just learned from a google doodle. I’m not really a person who celebrates death anniversaries, except for Shakespeare and Lincoln, my two favorite dead people. And for his 400th death anniversary, I thought I really should do something special.
First, a story! A few years back, I was doing a presentation at a conference as part of a panel on Shakespeare Adaptations. I was talking about an Indian film remake of a Shakespeare play and one of the highly educated scholars in the audience said something about “Do you think they knew the original story? In some sort of oral tradition?” Like, the simple Indian folk, gathered around their fires, telling the stories they heard from the Great White Man who traveled the Big Water to bring them the gift of Narrative. I was kind of speechless.
Because, yes! Indian film does “know” these stories! As do most people in India! Shakespeare is part of their curriculum in school! Along with Laila-Majnu, Ramayana, and plenty of other narrative traditions that this highly educated American woman probably doesn’t even know exist.
(I didn’t know about Laila-Majnu either until I saw this)
Just like Laila-Majnu, Ramayana, Shakuntala, and plenty of other stories, the stories of Shakespeare last because they are elemental. They deal with issues that translate between all times and all societies. Marriage, children, money, war, leadership, and, of course, body humor.
In the same way, Indian film/Hindi film is able to translate through out all of India, Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and, recently, Western Europe and America. The plots also deal with the essentials of humanity: love, family, food, revenge, violence, community, beliefs.
And so, naturally, Shakespeare and Indian film go together like ham and eggs. In recent years, we had the brilliant trilogy of Maqbool (Macbeth), Omkara (Othello), and Haider (Hamlet). And it’s not just the tragedies, we also had Angoor (A Comedy of Errors) and Dil Bole Hadippa (Twelfth Night).
Those are just the obvious remakes, there are plenty of other films that took inspiration or elements from Shakespeare’s plays. There are the many many Romeo and Juliet inspired stories, everything from Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak to Ishaqzaade. But there are also more obscure references, like how the plot of Satyam Shivan Sundaram mirrors the little known play All’s Well that Ends Well or how Mr. and Mrs. 55 mirrors The Taming of the Shrew.
(this song has nothing to do with Shakespeare, but it is super fun, isn’t it?)
There is one other way in which Shakespeare and the Indian film industry will be forever tied, through the blood connections between the Kendal and Kapoor families. The Kendal family spent decades traveling through India, presenting Shakespeare plays at schools, theaters, where ever they were offered a space. They introduced generations of young Indians to Shakespeare. But the daughter of their family only had eyes for the Indian stage, sneaking into the “Prithvi Theater” one night as a teenager and meeting the dashing young son of the owner, Shashi Kapoor. The two children fell in love almost immediately, Shashi followed her family, briefly working in their troupe, and finally convinced her to run away with him.
Jennifer Kendal spent the rest of her life as part of the Kapoor film family. Her father-in-law was Prithviraj Kapoor, one of India’s first film stars (who used his salary from films to found and support the Prithvi theater), her eldest brother-in-law was Raj Kapoor, founder of RK studios. And her younger brother-in-law was Shammi Kapoor, India’s first teenage heartthrob. Her children worked in the industry, her daughter now runs Prithvi theaters, her nephews and great-nieces and nephews run the industry now.
Meanwhile, Jennifer’s sister Felicity returned to England, became a stage actress and, in 1989, starred in Much Ado About Nothing on the London stage. Three years later, Jennifer’s nephew Rishi stared in Bol Radha Bol, a gender reversed version of the same plot, with the focus changed to Hero and Claudio.