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Sunday, December 3, 2023

Masala Shakespeare: A Candid Discussion at ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival 2019

The ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) has returned to the British Library for its sixth edition in 2019.

As per each year, the festival will celebrate books, creativity, in-depth discussions and culture.

This year’s programme is outstanding as always. Plus, it will have almost forty events, in which more than ninety speakers will be attending.

Filme Shilmy attended the ‘Masala Shakespeare’ talk which took place at the Mughal Courtyard pavilion of the Library.

The Omnipresence of Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s Indian avatar has taken deep root in Bollywood and popular culture.

A lively panel explored the profound resonance between Shakespeare’s craft and Indian cinema and cultural forms.

It discusses Jonathan Gil Harris’ book Masala Shakespeare: How a Firangi Write Became Indian (2018) which establishes the inspiration from Bard on Indian films.

In fact, Gulzar along with directors Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Vishal Bharadwaj have all been inspired by William Shakespeare’s literary masterpieces.

Joining the panel were:

  • Jonathan Gil Harris, professor of English at Ashoka University.
  • Rachel Dwyer, professor of Indian Culture and Cinema at SOAS.
  • Academic Varsha Panjwani, lecturer in Shakespeare at NYU London.
  • Filmmaker/director of the London Indian Film Festival, Cary Sawhney.

The talk began with Gil reflection on why he chose the word ‘Masala’ for his book. Which the term can actually mean a combination and package of styles.

It is fascinating to see how this term is candidly explored and linked to the general Hindi cinema.

The analysis was explored in movies non-Masala film posters like Mother India, in which Gil shows how this definition is changing.

There was a discussion on how Gil thinks that digital media and the influence of Western forms of cinema could pose a threat to the traditional style of Indian cinema.

He further reflected on how Lagaan helped him to find an unlikely link between that film and Shakespeare.

Especially when it comes to the language because the plays are not in stereotypical or modern-day English.

Likewise for Hindi films as these languages often switch between different dialects and accents.

Interestingly, Varsha shared her view on item songs. She used Omkara’s ‘Beedi’ song as an example.

This song was linked to Ophelia’s sensual songs in Hamlet which was a way to “escape the misogyny of the Danish Court.”

She also chased up on how Ram-Leela is not just a simple adaptation on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

That film combines several other aspects of Indian and western cinema which is why it is effective.

An Influence Beyond Bollywood

It was quite eye-opening to understand that the Shakespearean impact is not just limited to Hindi cinema.

Cary Sawhney, Director of London Indian Film Festival, speaks about the non-commercial Indian films.

He referenced the early days of Tamil cinema, there have been several adaptations especially Kaliyattam – which is inspired by Othello.

As such, the connection between the Masala genre and Shakespeare is not just limited to the Hindi cinema we know.

Following the on-stage discourse, there was a short Q&A session.

One of the key questions about how the recipe for a modern-day masala film to which Varsha responded that the new ingredients can be found in British-Asian theatre.

She highlighted a play called Darokhand which fuses various Shakespeare plays, incorporating Mughal costumes, have gothic architecture and has a Game Of Thrones influence.

So overall, it is interesting to see how Shakespeare’s influence has transcended from Indian cinema to British-Asian theatre.

JLF takes place until 16th June and will also travel to Belfast for the very first time.

Anuj Radia
Journalist and film enthusiast.

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