‘Made-in-India Othello Fellows’: Indian Adaptations of Othello

by Claire Chambers

I recently wrote an essay for Dawn on general postcolonial rewritings of Shakespeare's Othello. For the present column, I turn to Othello Iago Moviewhat Ania Loomba has called 'the made-in-India Othello fellows'. In other words, I am interested in those Indian writers who, from Henry Louis Vivian Derozio onwards, have looked to this play about love, jealousy, and race for inspiration and critique.

In her essay '”Filmi” Shakespeare', Poonam Trivedi defies accusations of 'bardolatry' and colonial cultural cringe to trace the history of Shakespeare on the Indian big screen. She shows that this history goes back to 1935 and Sohrab Modi's Khoon-ka Khoon, a cinematic rendering of an Indian stage version of Hamlet. Because the British colonizers laid emphasis on an English literary education for the Indians over whom they ruled, there were many filmic adaptations of Shakespeare's plays. Hamlet's blend of politics and metaphysical mystery seems to have proven the most popular of the Bard's plays for Indian auteurs. These directors, according to Trivedi, in the early days of Indian cinema found themselves between the rock of leaving Shakespeare 'pure and pristine' or the hard place of making him entirely 'bowdlerized and indigenized'. By the mid-twentieth century, the most successful adaptations relocated the plays to India in their entirety. Directors 'used' rather than 'abused' the Shakespearean originals, taking ideas from their plots and themes rather than critically writing back to the plays.

The Bengali film Saptapadhi was in 1961 probably the first to namecheck Othello. In it, a pair of starcrossed lovers − a Brahmin boy Kaliyattamand an Anglo-Indian Christian girl − fall in love during a performance of that other text about a relationship transgressing social and racial fault-lines. Then came Jayaraaj Rajasekharan Nair's Kaliyattam (1997), a 1997 Malayalam remake of Othello. It is set against the backdrop of Kaliyattam or Kathakali, a devotional Keralan form of folk-theatre and dance also evoked in Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things. In Kaliyattam Jayaraaj transplants Shakespeare's racial concerns onto caste, since the plot revolves around a romantic pairing between a low-caste Theyyam performer and a Brahmin girl. Jayaraaj also changes Shakespeare's somewhat trivial, somatic device of a handkerchief that fuels Othello's jealousy into an opulent cloth that also served as a consummation sheet for the two protagonists.

In Ashish Avikunthak's short documentary-style film Brihnlala ki Khelkali or Dancing Othello (2002), he adapts Arjun Raina's dance Dancing Othello theatre show The Magic Hour (2000). Like Kaliyattam, both these 2000s adaptations use Kathakali, that art form mindlessly consumed by Western tourists to India, as a launchpad to discuss the Shakespearean play that is most concerned with what Graham Huggan calls 'the postcolonial exotic'.

The first of two Indian 'Othello fellows' whose work I want to discuss in detail is Vishal Bhardwaj. Omkara (2006) is Bhardwaj's second film in a twenty-first-century Bollywood trilogy of Shakespearean adaptations. (The other two are Maqbool, a remake of Macbeth, and Haider, which transplanted Hamlet to the Kashmiri conflict.) In his essay 'Theorising Omkara', the poetically-named critic John Milton argues that Bhardwaj remains respectful to Shakespeare's tragedy, but makes it relevant to contemporary Indians. Issues of caste and biracial identity in colour-conscious India replace Shakespeare's interest in the people then known as blackamoors.

Omkara Shukla (Ajay Devgan) is the son of a Dalit mother and a higher-caste father. Known as Omi, he is repeatedly castigated as Omkara and Dollya 'half-breed' or 'half-caste'. Raghunath Mishra (Kamal Tiwari), who is father to Dolly (the Desdemona figure, played by Kareena Kapoor), is duly angry about his daughter's elopement with this swarthy gangster. Dolly is contrastingly Brahminical and has a pale complexion. Yet she is unperturbed by the gossip circulating around them as a mismatched couple, declaring, 'A crescent, though half, is still called a moon'.

Othello's status as a general fighting against the Turks is altered in the film so that Omi leads a gang in Uttar Pradesh (Bhardwaj's home province) serving a shadowy political figure known as Bhai sahib (Naseeruddin Shah). This allows Bhardwaj to discuss the endemic corruption that would be attacked a few years later in the 2011-12 Indian anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare.

The villainous Iago character is Ishwar Tyagi, who is known as Langda ('Lame') because he has a pronounced limp. Langda is played Omkara and Langdabrilliantly by Saif Aif Khan, who frighteningly broods, plots and swears his way through the film. To adapt Coleridge's famous phrase, if his felonies are not as 'motiveless' as Iago's are, he nonetheless exudes pure 'malignancy'. Langda has a motive for his evil because he is passed over for promotion in favour of a rival, Kesu Firangi (Vivek Oberoi). Omi chooses to replace himself with Kesu (the film's Cassio character) when he leaves his position as an underworld don to get involved with mainstream politics. In revenge for being passed over, Langda works on Omi's jealousy about his ingénue bride. Dolly's father's words, 'A girl who can deceive her own father can never be possessed by anyone else', come back to haunt Omi, just as Brabantio's line 'She has deceived her father, and may thee' is a repeated leitmotif in Othello. The idea that a deceitful daughter will become a wanton wife finds resonance in a South Asia still shaped by family connections and arranged marriages. It is a shame, though, that a film that is relatively progressive on caste and gender nonetheless reverts to ableist stereotypes. Langda's disability is linked with his evil acts in a way that recalls the sinister hunchbacked Richard III of Shakespeare's history play.

Omkara is a mixed bag when it comes to women's rights. It usefully raises the issue of violence against women. There are some Omkara Womenpowerful scenes, as when we see Langda's sexual violence towards his wife Indu (in the film this character, unlike Iago's wife Emilia, is also Omi's sister, making Omi and Langda brothers-in-law). Instead of a handkerchief, the film uses the device of a gold Indian waistband, which has sexual overtones because of its suggestion of a chastity belt locking up a woman's 'honour'. Omi gives this priceless kamarband to Dolly as a wedding gift, but Langda persuades Indu (Konkona Sen Sharma) to steal it so as to mislead Omi into thinking Dolly has gifted the waistband to Kesu. When Omi sees Kesu's girlfriend, the dancer Billo Chaman Bahar (Bipasha Basu), wearing it, he goes out of his mind with jealousy. He has already been worked upon by Langda's suggestive remarks about Dolly's faithfulness, which he then cleverly appears to disavow, saying, 'Me and my filthy mind'.

Bhardwaj pulls even fewer punches in the sonic detail of the film's tragic final scene. Viewers are assailed by the stark Omkara Inducreaking sounds of a swinging bed on which Omi strangles Dolly – and this has been foreshadowed by various swings that feature throughout the film. The morbid swinging sound is accompanied by the song 'Jag Ja', which contains the repeated lyric, 'Oh ri rani, gudiya, jag ja, ari jag ja, mari jag ja'. This translates as, 'Oh my queen, my doll, come on wake up now', spelling out that Dolly has long been treated as a plaything whose puppet-strings were pulled by the men in her life. Indu, the Emilia character – Omi's sister and Langda's wife – makes a stirring speech near the end about how the Hindu scriptures have painted women as temptresses and unfaithful. Going a part of the way with Emilia in her 'proto-feminist' speech from Othello, Indu rails against the injustice that 'even after holy fires approve us, we're regarded disloyal sooner than loyal'.

On the other hand, the heroine Dolly has little agency, and when her father challenges her relationship with Omi she presents it as something over which she had little choice:

Papa… please forgive me. I can't live without Omkara. Don't trust what your eyes say. Your eyes will betray you. God knows how it all began, how I lost my heart to Omkara. I was in love… before I knew anything. I remember feeling like a blind bird plunging down an empty well. Everything seemed hopeless. And then I decided I'll end my wretched life. But then there was no point to it, when who I was dying for didn't even know why. Rajju will marry me dead. Since you won't in this lifetime, let me confess… I'm yours and yours only. Put me down in your list of slain.

Here Dolly depicts herself as unintentionally losing her heart to Omi, adding to his 'list of slain' and making him the warrior and possessor and her the conquered and the possession. Her only flashes of action are half-heartedly to consider suicide before dismissing this as pointless, and to assert with some spirit that she would rather die than go through with her arranged marriage to fiance Rajju. Omkara is surprisingly explicit for an Indian film, but it is a shame that Bhardwaj did not see fit to allow Dolly to own her sexuality in choosing Omi as her partner.

Whereas Shakespeare's Emilia criticizes men as 'all but stomachs, and we all but food', in Omkara Dolly cloyingly Omkara Embrace tells Indu that a way to a man's heart is through his stomach. Indu challenges this, but only to counter with her grandmother's wisdom that the way to keep a man is by keeping him sexually rather than digestively satisfied. That said, Indu does echo Emilia's lines, 'They eat us hungerly, and when they are full, | They belch us', when she states that women should leave their men somewhat hungry, otherwise 'the day they get satisfied they'll puke you out like nobody's business'. It is nonetheless ironic the seventeenth-century play has more to say about women being treated as meat than the noughties film.

This being a Bollywood movie, broadly conceived, there are of course songs. These are unusual in being written by Bhardwaj, who is a Omkara - Namak Song composer as well as a director, and limited to just two item numbers led by the sexy Bianca character, Billo. The first of these, Beedi (Cigarette), contains the lines, 'Beedi chalayi leh jigar se piya | Jigar maabadi aag hai', which in the subtitles are unromantically translated as 'Light your fag from the heat in my bosom', and elsewhere as 'Light your cigaratte from the heat of my heart'. In Hindi, however, the word used is 'jigar', meaning 'liver'. Although the phrase may be literally translated as 'heat of my liver', it has connotations of intense, fiery passion. This is because in Hindi and Urdu letters, love and desire is said to originate in the liver rather than the heart. The difficulties of translation are highlighted here, given that the South Asian and Western traditions pinpoint different organs as the seat of the emotions.

In some ways Omkara may be equally linked through intertextuality to Kaliyattam and Dancing Othello as to Omkara with Gun Shakespeare's Othello. All three productions use the 500-year old story of jealousy to illustrate caste issues. Like Kaliyattam, Omkara alters the handkerchief to a more substantial garment – whereas Jayaraaj used a cloth, Bhardwaj deploys a jewelled waistband as the 'net | That shall enmesh them all'. Omakara, like its filmi predecessors, is an assured postcolonial adaptation that is neither derivative of nor obsequious to Shakespearean dramaturgy. A sense is conveyed that Shakespeare belongs to everyone, so in Trivedi's terms he can be both used and abused.

Comic novelist Upamanyu Chatterjee contributed a short story entitled 'Othello Sucks' to 2015's Granta 130: India − Another Way of Seeing. In it, as the story's title suggests, his characters are critical of Shakespeare, and their irreverence for the play and its context is often hilarious. In the story's very first line, Chatterjee breaks the fourth wall to debate its generic conventions, which owe a debt to non-fiction, radio plays and 'a comic strip in prose'. He also knowingly introduces the story's 'four Upamanyu Chatterjee principal dramatis personae': Father, Mother, Elder Daughter and Younger Daughter. The two girls reluctantly study Shakespeare at their 'good right-wing south Delhi Punjabi' school. Younger Daughter declares that Othello sucks early on in the story, providing the story's title, while Elder Daughter retorts that she was lucky not to read The Merchant of Venice as the older sibling was compelled to do. Younger Daughter objects to Othello's wordiness and multiple meanings, and claims that Desdemona sucks even harder than Othello: 'No one in fact is sorry to see her strangled. It does improve the play'.

Father derides the educators who put Shakespeare on Indian children's curricula, rhetorically asking: 'do we want them as adults to speak in iambic pentameter when they apply for internships to CNN-IBN?'. It is worth noting that Father is not objecting to the privileging of an English-language text over ancient Indian or Bhasha literature, because CNN-IBN is an Anglophone news channel based in Uttar Pradesh where confident speakers of English would be in high demand. Instead he takes a utilitarian approach to education, desiring the inculcation in his daughters of a modern, tech-savvy English that will be useful on the job market. Above all, he is troubled by what he sees as 'the fundamental assumption of the play that Othello is dumb because he is black'. Since A. C. Bradley's 1904 monograph Shakespearean Tragedy, many critics have viewed Othello as a 'noble barbarian' who reverts to 'savage' type when he is manipulated by Iago. If Father is correct about Othello's underlying racism, it is especially problematic in the girls' multicultural Delhi classroom. There Cheik Luigi Fall (a mixed-heritage 'black guy' who Younger Daughter has a crush on) and the dark-skinned teacher Mrs Dasgupta both come up against 'racist and skin-conscious' Indian assumptions.

But, as the lively speech I have already quoted suggests, perhaps the most interesting ways in which these characters challenge Indian ShakespeareShakespeare is through their language use. Father frequently code-switches into Hindi phrases such as 'Nirbhaya Bhavah' ('Be free from fear') and Shakespearean couplets, while the Daughters feel that 'Communication is possible only by means of SMS, email or sign language'. All the Indian characters speak with self-possession in a Hinglish that shows no sign of being brow-beaten or colonized by Shakespeare's canonical English.

Indeed, postcolonial confidence is the key attribute shared by these 'made-in-India Othello fellows', who borrow from the Bard to shed light on the concerns of twentieth- and twenty-first-century India. They do so very successfully, and it will be interesting to see how adaptations of Shakespeare in general and Othello in particular develop and change as we move further into a twenty-first century already viciously scarred by neo-/colonialism and its afterlife.

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