404 years later, get ready for more Shakespeare

404 years later, get ready for more Shakespeare

‘Showtime’ speaks to two filmmakers known for their adaptations of the Bard's plays

Although there is some doubt as to the exact date of birth and death of William Shakespeare, the general consensus is that both happened in April. We are once again in April, 404 years after the Bard’s death, and ‘Showtime’ spoke to two filmmakers who are well known for their adaptations of his work, and both of whom are ready for new adaptations.

Abhaya Simha, whose Tulu films have won both state and national honours, had adapted Macbeth for his 2017 movie ‘Paddayi’. The film retold the story of the Scottish king as a fisherman in a Mangaluru village. While it won the National Award for the best film in Tulu that year, Abhaya says he was not always interested in Shakespeare, although one of his majors in degree was English Literature. 

“Shakespeare was part of my curriculum. Macbeth was a text for me. But frankly, I don’t know if it had any sort of impact on me at that time: you know how as students we are. But the plot stayed with me, and it’s only when I was studying at the Film and Television Institute of India that I watched Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Throne of Blood’ and other Shakespeare adaptations, and then things started to make sense,” he says.

Abhaya decided to make his own adaptation when a British-Indian collaboration had called for scripts that are Shakespeare adaptations in 2015, ahead of the playwright’s 400th death anniversary. The scripts were to be judged by the filmmaker in the country best known for adapting the Bard, Vishal Bhardwaj.

“But it felt too mechanical at first. But then, in 2016, the idea popped up again, because of certain political developments happening in Mangaluru at the time. So, I decided to make the story of Macbeth a local affair rather than a story of kings and nobles,” Abhaya says.

Lord and Lady Macbeth became an ambitious fishermen couple, with his boss standing in for King Duncan. The bolder creative choice, of course, had to be made with the three witches from the original. While there have been multiple adaptations of Macbeth, only the European ones generally retain the witches. Filmmakers outside the continent usually replace the witches with a more indigenous figure. In ‘Throne of Blood’, Kurosawa had used a ghostly woman spinning what looks like a charkha. In ‘Maqbool’, Bhardwaj replaced the witches with two shady cops. 

Abhaya, during his turn, chose the bhoota kola myth from the Tulunadu coast. “The bhoota was a very obvious choice if you look at the culture of Mangaluru. The bhoota is a very rare phenomenon in Indian culture. We have gods but nothing close to the Bhoota, except perhaps for the ‘Theyyam’ art form in Kerala. It is an anti-Brahmanical icon, just like a witch is anti-Church. The bhoota is not Brahminical but it is at the same time divine,” he says.

The original adapter

The Malayalam filmmaker Jayaraaj Rajashekharan Nair is much less known than Bhardwaj; although he is a much more acclaimed filmmaker, his fame outside of Kerala rests largely in critical and academic circles. In fact, it is after watching Jayaraaj’s Othello iteration ‘Kaliyattam’ (1997) that Bhardwaj began making his own Shakespeare series, a fact the Hindi filmmaker has acknowledged.

Jayaraaj dares to be more complex with the adaptations. Take ‘Kaliyattam’, for instance. The filmmaker says that the warring moor was made a ‘Theyyam’ performer because the traditional Kerala art form demands that the performer have what may be described as a dual personality, for he is at once both man and divine. It is this dissonance that is reflected in his relationship with Desdemona, wherein he can’t live without her nor will his jealousy let her live.

Jayaraaj was introduced to Shakespeare through an art form that reached its zenith in the second half of the 20th century in Kerala, ‘Kathaprasangam’. Developed out of ‘Harikatha’ performances, where mythological stories would be told and sung with percussion, ‘Kathaprasangam’ told and sang stories from world literature. The most recognisable face of this art form, and the man who introduced Shakespeare to Jayaraaj, was V Sambashivan, a communist leader who even managed to bring doorstoppers like Fyodor Dostoevsky’s ‘Brothers Karamazov’ into his hour-and-a-half-long performances.

The filmmaker who made him take Shakespeare more seriously is an obvious choice: “My next great influence was Akira Kurosawa. I watched his Macbeth adaptation ‘Throne of Blood’ and his King Lear adaptation ‘Ran’."

And while Jayaraaj’s three adaptations -- the other two being ‘Kannaki’ (Antony and Cleopatra) and ‘Veeram’ (Macbeth) -- are being discussed by others aspiring to make Shakespeare films, essentially making Jayaraaj a filmmaker’s filmmaker, he has steered cleared of all other Indian adaptations of Shakespeare.

“I have not seen any films. Because I don’t want to be influenced by anyone. Vishal Bhardwaj had come to see my ‘Kaliyattam’. He has said that he was influenced by it to make ‘Omkara’. But I have not seen any of his adaptations,” Jayaraaj says.

He was invited to Queen’s University in Canada recently to speak about his adaptations. A Cambridge University Press study of Shakespeare and cinema has a picture of actor Suresh Gopi as the theyyam-Othello on its cover.

Jayaraaj is a man of series. Apart from the Shakespeare series, he has also been working on the acclaimed ‘Navarasa’ series, a not-yet-complete collection of nine films on the nine emotions, which has won him Kerala state awards, National Film Awards, the Golden Peacock for Best Film at the International Film Festival of India and the Suvarna Chakoram for Best Film at the International Film Festival of Kerala.

‘Veeram’ is the only film that is part of both series.

The Bard again

Both filmmakers are ready to grapple with the Bard again.

“Macbeth was in 2017 and after that, I did not want to adapt another Shakespeare play. I was scared that it would become a formula. But I somehow started working on another one,” Abhaya says. When asked whether he can reveal which play he is adapting, he says, “Not right now, because it is a little too early.”

When this writer, an admirer of ‘Hamlet’, asked Jayaraaj whether he would take on the Dane at some point, the director says, “ ‘The Tempest’ is the play I have been meaning to adapt for a while. That was Shakespeare in his last days. It is in a way his swan song.”