The Taming of the Shrew, obviously. It’s a super fun play with great characters and plot and some really nice speeches. But also a big bad misogyny section right in the middle that it is very hard to deal with without losing that “comic” touch. But I think we can do it! With careful casting and some gently massaging of the plot.
Back when I was in college, I saw a Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of The Taming of the Shrew which managed to make it into this epic romance and completely changed how I saw the story. Actually made it kind of feminist! Female director, of course.
They did it by cutting certain small scenes and lines and being very creative with stage directions. Which is the “rule” with Shakespeare, right? Since even the “original” versions of his plays have small variations between each other, and there are no stage directions, the expectation is that a director gets to have somewhat free reign in what they include or exclude and can be as imaginative as they want for stage directions (well, except for “Exit Pursued by a Bear”, that is set in stone). So long as the essence is still there, and all your little added on silent touches can be supported by some part of the text.
So, here’s the version of The Taming of the Shrew that I got from that show, and which I have held on to even though I’ve read the original play several times and seen several different versions of it:
Kate (I can’t spell Katriona, and I love Cole Porter, so I am calling her Kate) and her sister Bianca are beautiful heiresses. We are first introduced to the sisters with Kate teasing her Bianca and trying to get her to say which of her many suitors she prefers. This is the central nugget of a scene that the really good version I saw built on. Kate is an honest and sincere person and she is frustrated by the way Bianca bounces from man to man. While Bianca is seemingly the more loving and womanly sister, that is because she is better at presenting herself to the world. In private, Kate is the one who believes in loyalty and honesty and Bianca is, well, kind of a flirt.
The rest of the play supports this interpretation because the fact is that Bianca has a lot of suitors! And so long as Kate remains unmarried, Bianca can enjoy all their attentions and doesn’t have to choose between them because her father will not allow her to be married until Kate is. It is up to the suitors to force the issue by getting Kate married off. Enter Petruchio!
Petruchio is a handsome young man of good family and great confidence, but no money. He arrives in town and announces bluntly that he is looking for a wealthy wife. His friend is one of Bianca’s suitors and suggests Kate.
Now, as the play normally goes, Kate is railroaded into marriage, Petruchio tortures and abuses her over the course of their honeymoon, there are several hilarious scenes of humiliation for her, and in the end they return to attend her sister’s wedding with Kate changed into the perfect obedient and unquestioning wife (“I am ashamed that women are so simple….”).
But the ending scene isn’t quite as simple as it appears. The test of Kate’s obedience is simply that Petruchio sends a servant to ask her to come to him as he needs her. The two other men in the room try the same test on their wives, Bianca and a wealthy widow who was desperate to marry one of Bianca’s rejected suitors. Kate is the only one who appears, the other two being too busy to bother. In the end, they cost their husbands the price of the bet while Kate and Petruchio celebrate his victory. And Kate gives a speech to the other two on how to be better wives. And I kind of agree with her! In this one particular case. Petruchio wasn’t actually asking her to do anything ridiculous, just common courtesy and trust. And Kate was the only woman who passed that test, while the “easy” and non-shrewish wives failed it.
And the one really good production I saw built on the opening and closing scene to make the whole play a statement about trust and marriage between partners and what is really a “Strong” woman. In this version, the initial verbal wrangle between Kate and Petruchio is accompanied by a physical tussle making it obvious that all of this fighting is part of a powerful attraction between the two. The abuse section is softened a little, and the body language of certain scenes makes it clear both that Kate is hurt at Petruchio’s refusal to consummate the marriage and that Petruchio is a little afraid of opening himself up to her in that way. This all serves to make the ending feel less like a strong woman who has been destroyed, and more like two strong but damaged people who have fought there way to a peace between each other.
Okay, with that particular interpretation of the original play (two strong people who like trying to one-up each other and are hiding a powerful attraction), who should we cast?
Both lead roles are equally difficult! We need a woman who can play legitimately “Shrew-ish”, not just spunky, but actually mean, all without losing audience sympathy. And we need an actor who can bluntly declare his plan to marry for money and still charm us. Who, WHO????
Okay, stay with me here, but what about: Aamir Khan and Rani Mukherjee?
Aamir’s been playing a lot of kind of saintly innocent types lately, but I just re-watched Mann, and oh boy is he good at playing a raffish charmer! What happened to that Aamir? With the grin and the wicked eyebrows?
Rani can sometimes go a bit far in her “career woman” type roles. Which bothers me when the audience is still supposed to be behind her and I am thinking “hey, she’s being kind of a jerk here!” But in this case, she is supposed to be kind of a jerk! Legitimately unlikeable.
For Bianca and her suitors, hmm. Kareena? She’s a bit long in the tooth for this kind of role, but then Bianca is supposed to be getting kind of old to still be unmarried. And then we could have Imraan to court her.
Now, plot wise, I am a great believer in bring Shakespeare into the present day instead of doing some kind of strange Elizabethean-England-Version-of-Medieval-Italy thing.
So let’s start in present day. And start with a flashback to childhood, because I love flashbacks. Lil’ Rani and lil’ Kareena are talking with dying mother (Dimple Kapadia in a cameo? Oh! Karisma!). She is all in bed and weak and the girls are gathered around her. Kareena is talking about the little boy in school that she has just “married”. And Karisma lays some wisdom on them about how it’s not a real “marriage” unless there is complete trust and respect between you, not just “liking” and presents and having lunch together. Lil’ Kareena doesn’t seem to really process this, but Lil’ Rani looks all serious and is clearly remembering and believing this completely.
Fast-forward a few years, a wedding is being prepared downstairs (wedding song?). Upstairs, Rani is looking at a picture of her mother, and then takes off her wedding jewelry and put sit below the picture along with a note. Kareena comes in and catches her and tries to stop her, saying that her fiance is a wonderful man, wealthy, handsome, kind, why not marry him? Why break their father’s heart? Rani argues back that she promised her mother she would only marry the man she could trust absolutely with her life, and that man is “Raj”, her friend from college. She is running to him now, she will be back in a month as a married woman. Kareena gives in and the two sisters hug, then Rani climbs out the window. One month later, we see Rani climbing back in through that same window, in jeans and modern clothes, a male servant sees her and doesn’t recognize her and tries to raise the alarm, and she slaps him and gives him a whole speech about how he is just a servant and thinks he has the right to grab her just because he is a man and she is a woman. Kareena comes into the room during the speech and tries to stop her and make her be “nice”, and their father (Jackie Shroff!) follows, but doesn’t say anything to Rani, until the servants have left. She asks if she can go back to work with him again, and he says he doesn’t care what she does and walks out.
5 years later, we have the official beginning of the play, Kareena has come in from her day of enjoyment with many men to visit Rani in her corporate office with her cold corporate persona. Rani tries to pressure her to admit who she really likes, Kareena ducks the question, Rani says something about how so long as Kareena doesn’t really love anyone, Rani will feel free to stay unmarried because what difference does it make to anyone?
And then young Imraan arrives in the city, sees Kareena walking out to her car, and promptly falls in love. Love/stalking song, he follows her home and gets a job as her tutor. She seems receptive, but Imraan also learns that Jackie will not allow Kareena to be married until someone arrives to marry Rani. “And who would that brave man be?”
Aamir intro song! He’s a scamp who tricks people and steals things, and he also has all the ladies! And it ends with him triumphantly landing in Rani’s city (got to be Jhansi, right?).
(Like this, but with Rani)
He runs into his old friend Imran right away and Imran immediately starts complaining about his love affairs. Aamir listens to all of this with kind of a cynical grin, and only after Imran has finished and thought to ask about how he is doing, does Aamir admit that his old Uncle lost all the family money, he is here to sell one last little bit of property in hopes of paying for his sister’s tuition, but after that “all I have left to sell is myself”. His best hope is getting a big dowry. Does Imran happen to know of a worthy prospect? Hopefully not a boring little girl that is half his age?
Obviously, Imran’s first thought is Rani. But Aamir asks for at least a look at her first before he puts himself on the selling block by approaching her father. Imran agrees and takes him into the corporate offices under the guise of a salesman. Aamir ends up wandering into a conference room and watching Rani confidently give a presentation. But at the end of it, she notices Aamir in the back of the room, and calls him out for not belonging there. Before Aamir has any kind of a chance at a reasonable response, Rani strides over and starts ripping him apart, for being a man who thinks he can wander in to any room and be welcome just for being a man, for listening in on a private meeting, for thinking they wouldn’t notice. And then she gets personal, calling him out for being old, leering at these young woman in the office, clearly poor based on the holes in his clothes, and short! (to my knowledge Aamir’s height has never been mentioned in a movie, and I would love for it to finally come out this way)
Aamir has listened fairly patiently to most of this, but once it crosses the line to personal, he has had enough and starts to be actually angry. And so when she finishes and starts to leave, he fires back that what makes her think he even wanted to know anything about her “old, barren, tired corporation. When there are so many younger ones, who can still produce, who can be bright and promising and still beautiful”. Clearly he is getting personal too. And he gives a whole speech and ends by saying “I would rather be short than a Shrew.” Except he doesn’t say Shrew, he says some really really bad Hindi insult that I don’t know Hindi well enough to know. Maybe kaminey? Rani could slap him, but that’s too old-fashioned and I’ve seen it before. I think she should straight out punch him, and punch him hard, enough to leave a bruise.
Cut to Aamir, with a black eye, talking to Jackie who is delighted to finally have a proposal for his daughter. Rani comes home just in time to see him leave, but they don’t talk. Jackie tells her she is getting married, Rani says no, and Jackie pulls out the big guns and says that he has allowed her back into his house and his company after her great betrayal, but if she ever wants him to speak to her again, she will listen to his wishes and marry Aamir. And, wedding song!
Kareena and Imran flirt flirt flirt through the wedding song. And then at the end of it, Kareena swings into Rani’s room to see her sitting there all dressed up and looking at the picture of their mother. Kareena tries to pull her downstairs, but Rani stops her and reminds her that she is about to leave the household and before she does, she wants to give Kareena some advice. She asks if Kareena remembers what their mother told them, and then finally tells Kareena what happened 5 years ago when she ran off from her last wedding.
She knew that her fiance was a good man, but there was another man who she met through work, who she thought she knew. Montage love song of Rani and Randeep Hooda. They pass notes at meetings, they laugh over lunch, and finally they go on a business trip together and end up sleeping together. And then there is a whole series of secret trips to hotels and meetings right under the nose of her fiance, until finally she crawls out the window at the wedding. And then we see what happened next. Randeep wasn’t waiting below. She waited and finally went to the end of the road to catch a rickshaw. She took it to his house, and his wife was there. And his children. She goes back to the rickshaw and cries a little and then calls and calls every number in her phone and he doesn’t pick up anywhere. Finally, she gets an answer on one of the numbers, but realizes he didn’t realize his phone is on. He is in a meeting with someone in a business suit, talking about how he has all the prospectus and private inventions for Jackie’s corporation. It was easy, he just seduced that frigid daughter of his. It wasn’t even fun, she doesn’t know how to flirt or talk to men, and was terrible in bed. Back in present day, Kareena asks why Rani took so long to come back home. Rani explains that she couldn’t let down Jackie again, so she spent a month getting evidence on Randeep and then threatening to tell his wife about all the women (besides Rani) that he was sleeping with unless he gave back their secrets. And ever since then, she has learned that no man is worthy of her trust and wanted to marry no man. She still doesn’t, she will marry Aamir, but as soon as Kareena is safely married off, she will divorce Aamir.
Wedding! And, road trip! Aamir and Rani leave the wedding hall and immediately Aamir pulls up his old two-wheeler and says that this is their ride. And so on for the rest of the trip, Aamir has them travel on a two-wheeler, camp out at night, beg for food, all the humiliating stuff. But, as in the better version of this, you can see that there is a combination of the two of them kind of enjoying this game, Aamir trying to come up with more challenges and Rani refusing to back down from them. And on the other hand, slowly getting closer to each other against their will, their immediate attraction sublimated under anger. But we still get some lovely free love songs while they ride the bike together. And, somewhere along the way, just for something new, they run into some people in real trouble while they are playing their game of being beggars. Maybe a father who has his money stolen and can’t pay for his daughter’s wedding? They use their new skills to solve this problem and can’t help loosening up and smiling at each other and being happy while they do it.
(Something kind of like this)
The turning point comes when they have to return to “reality”, for Kareena and Imran’s wedding. As they get closer to the city, they meet someone they know, and you can see that Rani is bracing herself to turn back into the cold restrained woman she was before. But Aamir stops her before she can, and interrupts her and announces that this person isn’t who she thinks it is, it is clearly a woman. Rani hesitates, then gleefully returns to their game world, and agrees with him. He corrects her that it is a man. She agrees with that too. Then that the moon looks lovely tonight (even though it is day and the sun is out). She agrees with that too. The man leaves them, confused, and Aamir gets back on his bike, and Rani happily gets on behind him, holding him tight.
And, happy wedding song! This time Aamir and Rani are the ones singing, and while they are pretending to fight, they are also clearly in love. And Jackie joins in because, seeing their happiness together, he has finally forgiven his daughter!
Rani goes upstairs just before the ceremony to see Kareena, only to find her about to crawl out the window! She drags her back and asks why. Kareena explains that Imran had a fight, he hasn’t been nice to her for days, she thinks he just wants to marry her for her money. And Rani says maybe that is okay, look how her marriage turned out! She knew all along that Aamir just wanted the dowry, it was obvious. And yet, she has been happier these past few months than ever before in her life. Sometimes it’s not about presents and kindness, sometimes something else is better for you. Kareena asks if this means she isn’t getting divorced. Rani says she will see after the wedding.
Only, when the two girls go down, Aamir is gone!!!!! Rani looks for him throughout the ceremony and never sees him. Finally, after Kareena has left the house, Jackie comes up and puts his arm around her and takes her into his study. And says he has to tell her something.
TWIST! Aamir came to Jackie before the wedding for the dowry he was promised only if he brought Jackie’s daughter back with a smile on her face. Jackie agrees he met the condition and pulls out the money they agreed on. Aamir takes the money, but then sorts through and pulls out just two big stacks. He explains that this is enough to pay school fees and take care of his mother for the next two years. For the first time in his life, he is going to get a job and pay Jackie back. And once he does, he is going to come back and take his wife home.
Cut to Aamir in a waiting room holding a resume and looking nervous. He is called in to see the interviewer and starts addressing the back of a chair as “Mr. Chopra”. Only, when the chair spins around, it’s Rani! Before he can react, she starts answering him in character as Mr. Chopra, which tells him the game they are playing. She goes along getting all his qualifications and finally tells him she would be glad to hire him, only she understands he already has a job, as driver, cook, and entertainer for the new CEO of Jackie Shroff’s company, Rani.
One year later, Imran and Aamir are staying up drinking again. Talking about how great married life is. But then they get into a joking competition about who has the best wife. Imran says that Kareena is beautiful, Aamir says Rani is smart, Imran says Kareena is loving, Aamir says Rani is as angry as ever. Imran says Kareena makes every day a joy, Aamir says Rani makes everyday an adventure. And so on. Finally, Imran says they are going to solve this once and for all. They are both going to text their wives to pick them up at the bar, and whichever wife shows last, that one will have to pay the bar bill.
They both go out front, a fancy car arrives with an elegant woman who gets out, we think it will be Kareena, only it turns out to be a cameo of someone else (maybe Lara Dutta? Someone like that). As the car pulls away, the two-wheeler is revealed with Rani sitting behind the wheel. Aamir goes up to embrace him and she starts yelling at him for getting her out late at night, and that he will have to balance Imran between them. And she keeps complaining as they drive off. Cut to the two-wheeler parking in front of an apartment and Aamir starting to help Imran off the bike, Rani gets off too, Aamir asks where she is going, and she just goes straight into the house and into the room where Kareena is sleeping to yank the blankets off of her and wake her up. Kareena is all alarmed, but Rani goes right into her speech, how a wife has to trust her husband but her husband has to be able to trust a wife, how can she just ignore his calls and not come when he needs her? No woman should be like that! In the background, Aamir is coming in with Imran propped up next to him. And as Rani finishes her speech, the camera cuts to him smiling, and he says to Imran “See? This is why you should always marry a kaminey (or whatever Hindi word would work).”