A fan of the Bard and bored of watching new series on streaming platforms? Here are five Hindi movies that you absolutely must watch before the lockdown ends
Words Aninda Sardar
India’s tinseltown, Bollywood, of the 20th and 21st centuries is as far removed from Stratford upon Avon or 16th century London as you can possibly imagine. Yet, there is one name that cuts through time, space and history to influence Bollywood, again and again, and again. William Shakespeare. During his lifetime he wrote more than 37 plays, upwards of 370 poems and is credited with having penned some of the most famous lines of dialogue (or monologue) in the English language. And believe it or not, the Bard of Avon, as he was also called, has influenced some of the most memorable Hindi films one can think of.
Angoor, 1982 – Directed by the great Gulzar, Angoor was a Hindi remake of the 1963 Bengali film Bhranti Bilas, which in turn was a take on the Comedy of Errors. Starring the late Sanjeev Kumar, comedian Deven Verma and Mousumi Chatterjee, the story revolves a case of mistaken identity and features two sets of identical twins. All hell breaks loose when Ashok R. Tilak (Sanjeev Kumar) and his loyal servant Bahadur (Deven Verma) travels from their home in Dinakpur to another town on a business trip only to discover that everyone in that town assumes they are someone else! Chaos ensues as they struggle to explain who they are through situation after situation. The two bachelors are shocked beyond measure when Sudha (Mousumi Chatterjee) and Prema (Aruna Irani) claim to be their respective wives. The story climaxes when the duo try to escape. The film is striking not only in its resemblance to Shakespeare’s play but also in the storytelling format, where all events unfold over the course of around 24 hours. Just like in the play. While the depth of the comedy – be it in the movies or in the original play – is questionable, the slapstick is good natured and will not fail to make you laugh.
Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, 1988
Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, 1988 – Directed by Mansoor Khan, this was the film that launched Aamir Khan and Juhi Chawla straight to stardom. How could it not? After all, the story was a near direct lift from one of the world’s greatest love tragedies – Romeo and Juliet. There are some differences of course, starting with the location of the two stories. While the play is set in Verona, Italy, QSQT (as the film’s name was abbreviated to) unfolds in Bombay and its surrounding areas. The other notable difference between the play and the movie is the absence of violence in the latter until the very end. In Romeo and Juliet, Tybalt’s challenge to Romeo to fight a duel and the latter’s refusal is a key turning point in the plot. All of it eventually culminates with the death of the two “star cross’d lovers.” In the movie, it isn’t any sequence of violence that leads to culmination but the discovery of the love affair by the two families and their tracking down of Raj (Aamir Khan) and Rashmi (Juhi Chawla), who have eloped. The other big difference between the film and the play are in their scales. While Shakespeare sets his story in the heart of Verona’s aristocracy where everything happens on a grand scale, QSQT of pre-liberalisation India is far less opulent. In fact, it is the simplicity of both the narrative and the realistic personas of the characters that makes the film as believable as it is. Well, at least for the most part. Where both stories are firmly joined is their ability to come across as convincing tragedies.
Maqbool, 2003 – “When shall we three meet again, in thunder lightning or in rain? When the hurly-burly’s done. When the battle’s lost and won. That will be ere the set of Sun. Where the place? Upon the heath. There to meet with Macbeth.” Few who dig the Bard’s great tragedies will ever forget the beginning of the Tragedie of Macbeth. Separated by time, space, medium and language, Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool opens with a chillingly similar prophecy with the gifted actors Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri essaying the equivalent of the three witches of the Bard, to perfection. While the story of Macbeth unfolds on the unforgiving Scottish moors in the castle of Inverness, Bhardwaj’s film find itself in the equally dismal alleys of the Mumbai underworld. The brilliant Irrfan Khan brings to life the character Maqbool – the Macbeth of the film. The Scottish King Duncan’s substitute, the mob patriarch Jahangir ‘Abbaji’ Khan is portrayed by Pankaj Kapoor. Where Bhardwaj provides an even more macabre twist to Shakespeare’s original plot is by introducing the idea of marital infidelity into the fray. So while the Bard’s Lady Macbeth is essentially Macbeth’s wife and therefore is conspiring to push her husband to lofty heights, Maqbool’s Nimmi – depicted by Tabu – is basically trying to be rid of her plight of being married to the aging patriarch for whom she feels neither love nor sexual attraction. With that Bhardwaj proves himself to be a stellar storyteller who can introduce fresh layers into a Shakespearean drama. No mean feat.
Omkara, 2006 – The second of Bhardwaj’s trilogy of tales inspired by the Bard, Omkara was the film that saw the transformation of actor Saif Ali Khan into an actor to be reckoned with. So significant is his role that it is impossible for the plot of Omkara to progress without his presence in the story. After all it is Langda Tyagi (Saif) who sets in motion the chain of traitorous events that will culminate into a tragedy and bring about the downfall of political hitman Omi Shukla (Ajay Devgn), his trusted captain Kesu Upadhyay (Vivek Oberoi) and Dolly Mishra (Kareena Kapoor). Just like the treacherous Iago had engineered the downfall of the foolish Cassio, the beautiful Desdemona and the Moor of Venice, Othello himself. Unlike in Maqbool where Bhardwaj’s storytelling prowess matches Shakespeare’s own composition of the Tragedie of Macbeth, the cinematic medium’s ability to create suspense when Omi confronts Dolly about her alleged affair with Kesu is no match to Othello’s pathos and sense of betrayal as he approaches a sleeping Desdemona in Scene 2 of Act 5. Even though Othello believes he has been cuckolded by Desdemona he cannot bring himself to stop loving her. Even as he plots her murder he cannot do so while looking at her face. Therefore, “Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men. Put out the light (the candle), and then put out the light (of Desdemona’s life).” Omi’s muted anger cannot possibly be a worthy substitute to Othello’s dilemma. In spite of Devgn’s brilliant intensity.
Haider, 2014 – The final story in the trilogy, this is Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptation of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. In this iteration, one can almost supplant one character with another. Haider Meer, scion of Kashmir’s Meer family, returns to Kashmir to the news of his father having died. Further shock awaits him as he realises that his widowed mother Ghazala is now in a relationship with his uncle Khurram. As Ghazala and Haider struggle to reconcile to these strange developments in their lives, Haider discovers that the whole thing, including the death of his father Dr. Hilal Meer, has been engineered by Khurram. Here on it’s a tale of revenge and bloody murder that ends with Haider’s own life. It’s a near perfect rendition of the story of Hamlet where the Danish prince returns to find that his father has died under strange circumstances and the widowed Queen Gertrude – his mother, is now married to his uncle and the new King Claudius. Bewildered by these turn of events, Hamlet meets his dead father’s spirit who indicates to the prince that he has been murdered by the treacherous Claudius. Driven to the edge of lunacy by the revelation, Hamlet is shredded by his desire to avenge his father’s foul murder while trying to protect the mother he loves dearly. In the process, Hamlet loses everything. The love of his life, the “fair Ophelia” dies, as does her father the foolish Polonius. In killing Polonius, Hamlet kickstarts another revenge saga within the principal revenge saga. One that will end with his own death at the hands of Laertes, Polonius’ son and Ophelia’s brother. Ironically, Laertes himself is also killed in the duel. The plot’s resolution comes when Hamlet is finally able to avenge his dead father by killing Claudius while Gertrude consumes wine from a poisoned chalice and dies too. The film is a brilliant retelling, complete with Haider’s own chutzpah monologue, which is thoroughly enjoyable on its own but can’t really stand up to Hamlet’s existential monologue in Act 3 Scene 1. That aside, it’s a brilliant depiction of a tale that Shakespeare would himself have been proud of for its layered storytelling and complexities of character. Hopefully, Bollywood’s love affair with the Bard is nowhere near the end.