BY: Poonam Trivedi
William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is possibly the most famous play in the world. It is also many plays in one: a “who done it” or rather “how to do it” revenge play, an investigation into sexuality, love and hate, and a deeply reflective and philosophical piece on life and death. These issues are intricately woven together; therein lies its greatness or its mystery. Generations have attempted to unlock this riddling play, which seems to pose more questions than it answers.
Hamlet has been with us in India at least since 1775, when Shakespeare’s plays were first performed for the entertainment of the European traders in Calcutta. We Indians, too, were quite taken with Shakespeare, and began reciting and performing passages and scenes from Hamlet, in English, as early as 1829, at Hindu College, Calcutta. Throughout the last 200 years, there has been a continuous engagement with Shakespeare in general and Hamlet in particular in India, in classrooms, on stage and on film. Hamlet is not the most performed Shakespearean tragedy — that honour belongs to Othello — in India. It has largely been seen as a “foreign” play and resisted adaptation, apart from a few early exceptions. Until quite recently, it was almost always performed with Hamlet dressed in black and, therefore, it is not accidental that the largest number of performances has been in English. Hamlet in India encapsulates critical moments of the cultural dynamic with the West, moments which, in both the colonial and postcolonial contexts, are inflected with a political significance.
Stalwarts from our history are known to have closely engaged with Hamlet. In 1852, social and religious reformer Keshab Chandra Sen acted as Hamlet in a production directed by himself at his residence in Gouribha. Insurgent leader Nanasaheb Peshwa is believed to have translated Hamlet into Marathi in 1857. Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, reformer and comrade of Tilak, translated Hamlet as Vikar Vilasit (Tragedy of Thought) in 1883, while he was imprisoned for his political activism. Parsi theatre appropriated Shakespeare and its production of Mehdi Hasan Ahsan’s Urdu Khoone Nahak (1889) by the New Elphinstone Theatrical Company transformed Hamlet into a typical blood and thunder melodrama with songs and dances. This was performed all over the country till the 1930s. Pammal Sambandha Mudaliar, known as the father of Tamil drama, on the other hand, took meticulous care to translate and perform Hamlet as Amaladityan (The Pure One, 1906), faithfully. He studied accounts of English critics and actors to fully grasp this complex character and play.
Post-Independence, there have been more translations and more interventionist productions, which have localised the play towards current concerns. A National School of Drama production in 1985 directed by Fritz Bennewitz with Piyush Misra, now in films, caught the mood of disillusionment of the young. Another production in Manipuri by Kishorjit (2001) reflected the turmoil of the Northeast, with Hamlet as a man in mourning dressed in white. Kannada actor-director Ekbal Ahmed created a grassroots variant of the play (1992-95) as a one-man or two-actor show (with Bhagirathi Bai Kadam), which he toured in an auto-rickshaw(!), taking the introspective prince to villages all over the state. An extraordinary instance of a popularised Hamlet in Mizo, which was circulated through audio cassettes and which children recited like pop songs, is another among a large Indian repertoire of Hamlet productions.
Today, it is films that have overtaken the stage in powerful Shakespeare productions. Indian cinema has the distinction of producing the first talkie of Hamlet in the world, Sohrab Modi’s Khoon Ka Khoon (1932), which was a cinematic version of his popular, very Parsi stageplay with 17 songs. Unfortunately, no copies of this history-making film survive. Kishore Sahu directed and acted in another version in 1954, which strove to be a more “authentic” showing influenced by Lawrence Olivier’s Hamlet (1948), but ended with a well-known couplet by the Urdu poet Zauq: “Laayi hayat aaye, qaza le chali chale/Apni khushi na aaye na apni khushi chale (Flung into being, by death ushered away/ Unwilling here we come, and must leave without a say)”, giving a local voice to Hamlet’s final acceptance of his fate, “readiness is all”.
A more recent Malayalam film, Karmayogi (2012), relocates the story within the power dynamics of a Shiv-yogi bhakti cult of Kerala to find regional roots for Hamlet’s aversion to taking up arms for revenge. The just-released Haider is a befitting new step in this long tradition. Vishal Bhardwaj’s film, however, goes further than most adaptations in delving into Shakespeare’s Hamlet to make a bolder, more political statement than attempted before. Bhardwaj’s earlier two Shakespeare films, Maqbool and Omkara, had also made acute political comments on urban gang warfare and caste politics respectively. But in Haider, it seems as if the turmoil of Kashmir was waiting for Bhardwaj and Shakespeare to come together to find a voice. Further, Bhardwaj takes another bold step to open up the suggested sexual tension between Hamlet and his mother, the queen, in the play. The Indian film industry has rarely been able to tackle festering political or social-sexual issues boldly with tact and sensitivity. This is what Bhardwaj achieves in Haider, skilfully localising and integrating Hamlet’s dilemma of revenge and the love-hate tensions, both familial and political, to, paraphrasing the Bard, catch the conscience of the nation.
The writer teaches English at Indraprastha College for Women, University of Delhi