Indian cinema’s struggles with Shakespearean tragedies

Indian cinema’s struggles with Shakespearean tragedies

Indian popular films haven't been able to accommodate occult elements

Fahadh Faasil in ‘Joji’. The bloodlust of ‘Macbeth’ is not reflected in the film.

Dileesh Pothan’s Malayalam film ‘Joji’, which recently released on Amazon Prime, is the latest Indian version of ‘Macbeth’. To be fair, the film is very vaguely related to Shakespeare’s tragedy and only takes greed, murder and retribution from the play. One should not compare the film to ‘Macbeth’. ‘Joji’ is different from Vishal Bhardwaj’s ‘Maqbool’ (2003) which tried to adapt the play more faithfully. 

In the film Joji (Fahadh Faasil) is the youngest son in a wealthy Syrian Christian family, with two older brothers Jomon and Jaison. Jomon, an alcoholic, is divorced while Jaison has a wife Bincy (Unnimaya Prasad) and there is also a teenage grandson Popy.

The patriarch is the seventy-odd-year-old — but bull-like — Kuttappan (PN Sunny), who rules the household with an iron fist. While exerting himself physically more than he should have, Kuttappan has a stroke and is paralyzed.

Although his sons are not unhappy with his approaching demise, they get him to undergo surgery, and he recovers miraculously. Joji, who has generally been a failure, now tries to broach the subject of property division to the father and finds himself physically hurt and humiliated. This forces Joji to take an extreme step. 

‘Joji’ is weakly scripted and acted (except for N Sunny as the father). The protagonist is not given enough motivation to conduct himself as he does. He could, for instance, have contracted debts in anticipation of his father’s death, the debts subsequently compelling him to commit a crime.

The ‘bloodlust’ experienced by Macbeth in the play is also not in evidence — although Joji commits another crime to protect himself. But there are other departures as well, the chief of which is the absence of the occult element, viz. the witches.

The best film version of ‘Macbeth’ hitherto has been Polanski’s 1971 version and Polanski interprets the witches as a subculture in the custody of the people, those excluded from power. Kings may fight each other for supremacy in the political realm but they ultimately need to seek outside politics. Polanski’s witches are of different ages, and he includes a secret gathering of witches in a nook, which suggests an enduring tradition of witchcraft and the occult resting with the people.  

It is the occult element in Shakespeare’s tragedies that Indian film adaptations have been unable to accommodate. In ‘Maqbool’, for instance, the three witches are replaced by two policemen discussing horoscopes.

The occult, by definition, is outside human comprehension and, when the story deals with the powerful, the occult becomes a way of suggesting forces outside politics and brute power. A horoscope, in contrast, claims to be science, which means that it is within human understanding.

The policemen are another motif that makes little sense since they belong to the same social world as ‘Maqbool’ and his gangsters; the witches most definitely do not belong within Macbeth’s social/political world.

In ‘Othello’, Iago’s motive-less wickedness also fills us with wonder and dread, which the motive of envy offered in Bhardwaj’s ‘Omkara’ (2007) does not. The refusal to include the occult element happens again in ‘Haider’ (2014) when the late king’s ghost is replaced by a militant from across the border. Each of the tragedies deals with the powerful, and these powerful are themselves subjected to domination by occult forces, which is a way of proposing the limits of earthly power.       

Shakespeare is an important element in Indian culture not only because of his universal appeal but also because the teaching of English literature was made so central to education under British rule. But unlike the comedies which fit Indian popular cinema perfectly (e.g.: ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ as ‘Nanjundi Kalyana’) the tragedies, which are the most prestigious of Shakespeare’s plays, do not really answer to the demands of popular film narrative.

The chief reason, in my view, is the occult element central to them, suggesting a world outside human comprehension. Indian popular films are not comfortable with the ‘unknowable’ since every film works is like a fable — in which there is a definite reward for virtue and punishment for wickedness.

Indians, it can be argued, tend to read tragedies as melodramas, with a reassuringly moral universe in attendance. So-called Indian film ‘tragedies’ like ‘Devdas’ are mechanistic in their emphasis and they do not make us wonder at the inhuman forces governing the world, over which even the most powerful have no control.

My own sense of this trend is that Shakespeare’s great tragedies are adapted mainly for their prestige since no Indian film based on them has succeeded artistically – apparently because of the predispositions of Indian cinema. All the great tragedies demand interpretation while Indian popular cinema comes to us already interpreted.

(The writer is a well-known film critic).