Happy Shakespeare’s Death Anniversary! How is He Forever Tied to Indian film?

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.

9 thoughts on “Happy Shakespeare’s Death Anniversary! How is He Forever Tied to Indian film?

  1. Felicity Kendal became tremendously popular in the 70s due to the sitcom ‘The Good Life’ about a couple who turn their hand to self-sufficiency in suburban west London. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oyZ–z8RpOI&list=PLCD75896597835FC3

    There is an early Merchant-Ivory film ‘Shakespeare Wallah’ based on the Kendal travelling theatre – starring Geoffrey Kendal, Felcity Kendal and Shashi Kapoor. I saw it years and years ago on TV and must watch it again sometime. – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3r5um9wUwB4

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    • I have avoided watching Shakespeare Wallah, mostly because I find it really creepy that Shashi Kapoor plays himself, and Felicity Kendal plays Jennifer, in a movie about his love story with her sister. Although I should watch it some time, because my understanding is they took some liberties with the real story, making Shashi into a big star who had another relationship at the same time, and turning it into a sexy romance type thing. Instead of two innocent teenagers falling in love and getting married before he even had his first film role (or turned 21).

      Shashi and Jennifer starred opposite each other in a later Merchant Ivory film, Bombay Talkies, in which he is married to someone else and having an affair with her. Which is also interesting, that in the fiction version of the story a cross-racial romance could only be seen as a forbidden love type thing, while in the real world they had already been married for 12 years and had 3 children.

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  2. So did you end up saying anything to the remark during your presentation?

    Shashi seems to have stayed away from any affairs rumours – surprising for a film actor lol

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    • I think I said something very eloquent like “uhhhhhh, yes? They do know about Shakespeare?”

      According to rumors I have heard, Shashi is the only Kapoor man who never had an affair, because Jenifer told him that if he ever cheated on her, she would leave immediately. Similarly, he is also the only Kapoor man who didn’t gain weight. Well, at least not until after Jenifer died. Because she told him if he ever cheated on his diet, she would leave him.

      the moral here is, I think, that Kapoor man should only marry white ladies. Or else should never marry white ladies? Depending on whether they want to stay thin and faithful, or fat and happy.

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  3. I watched Dil Bole Hadippa. Not sure if it bore a great resemblance to Twelfth Night apart from girl-dressing-as-boy but then I haven’t seen Twelfth Night for over 30 years.

    IMDB didn’t give it a good rating but I didn’t mind it and enjoyed Rani as the Veer character.

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    • That talk I gave was actually about Dil Bole Hadippa, and how it was a remake of a remake. It doesn’t have much in common with Twelfth Night, but it has a lot in common with She’s the Man, which in turn had a lot in common with Twelfth Night.

      There were two big things it dropped from the original/the first remake: first, Rani’s character didn’t have a twin brother, because it wouldn’t be appropriate for her to be so independent if she did. And second, they got rid of the whole hiding in enemy territory part of it, because that would be too real for an Indian movie.

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