By: Aayushi Agarwal
I knew Shakespeare’s stories long before I knew anything about him. They came to me packaged in the form of my parents’ favorite Bollywood movies instead of the dense, dramatic literature I am now familiar with. Shakespearean adaptations have been popular in the Hindi film industry for decades, introducing these stories to millions.
My grandparents do not know who Shakespeare is, but they could easily tell you the plot of some of his plays. Instead of Romeo and Juliet, it is Ram and Leela; instead of Othello, it is Omkara. These stories came to India as British but were reborn as Indian. What does it mean for a country that was once a colony under the British Empire to adapt British stories for their own?
British influence on Indian art began with the building of the Calcutta Theater in present-day Kolkata around 1775. Shakespearean plays were performed in racially segregated theaters across the city. As British rule in India got stronger, attempts to “civilize” the “barbaric” native Indian population were made by sharing Western thoughts and ideas.
Over the next few decades, the Indian elite were gradually granted permission to become part of the theater audiences. With this newfound accessibility to the plays, local students began to stage Shakespearean works. However, these only began to take root in Indian art after they were “Indianized.”
With theater came drama and with drama came film. One of the first talkies was a Hindi version of The Merchant of Venice, Savkari Pash in 1925. Some of Bollywood’s most popular adaptations of his plays include Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988), Maqbool (2003) and Omkara (2006). Other than retellings, a lot of themes and devices Shakespeare used, like the mousetrap device, have also been commonplace in Indian cinema.
However, only a fraction of these films gave explicit credit to the bard, indicating just how thoroughly his influence has permeated Indian narrative forms of art. The British had exported his work to India in hopes of creating a universal Shakespeare through which they could strengthen their colonial power, but this exact universality is what betrayed them. In their attempt to showcase their culture as superior and exclusive, they in fact shone a light on its plausible inclusivity.
Instead of Shakespeare’s works remaining a tool of colonialism, they were used to enrich local art and culture. For once, the colonized were able to take from the colonists—a kind of reclamation. In removing his name from their works, filmmakers not only refused to give power to the colonial ideas, but also reflected the far reach and influence of Shakespeare.
The steady relevance of Shakespeare’s stories in India complicates the colonial power dynamic. Is it just dregs of colonialism or universality of art? Is it both? Shakespeare is still being taught in Indian schools (I had to read Julius Caesar in tenth grade) and his works are still being adapted by the Hindi film industry. Colonialism has left its mark on India—in a way, it is almost reassuring to somehow take ownership of our creativity. As someone studying English literature, I am now very familiar with Shakespeare’s written works, but I will always have first known them as pieces of home.