Sunday, October 22, 2006

On adapting the Bard

As the side bar suggests, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is something brothers A‑A-A love to read — why, I believe Amar even has it in his i-pod. We do not, of course, know Farsi, and the Rubaiyat we love are the 19th century translations by an Englishman named Edward Fitzgerald. Rushdie waxes lyrical in Shame about such translations being new creations — at the risk of a grossly inarticulate simplification, the point is: what we love should really be called The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and Edward Fitzgerald.

We also love the Dollar trilogy, which owes a lot to Kurosawa, whose work we also love. And as any aficionado knows, Star Wars Episode IV was based on Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress. Then there is Tarantino, who borrows profusely from Hong Kong. These are all examples of successful adaptations. Bollywood has always adapted from Hollywood. Some adaptations are more successful, and cooler, than others. Fifty years ago, Raj Kapoor and Nargis ‘sang’ 'Yeh raat bheegi bheegi’ in a successful adaptation of It happened one night. That was cool. The umpteenth 1980s copy of Death Wish was not cool.

Successful adaptations of Shakespeare are cool. What are some successful adaptations? Bazz Luhrman’s rendition of Romeo and Juliet is one. Setting Richard III in a Fascist Britain is another — A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse cries Richard when his jeep breaks down. Such successful adaptations are not common. Two consecutive successful screen adaptations of Shakespeare are extremely rare. And following Rushdie’s argument, credit for such successful adaptations would belong as much to the modern day director as to the Bard.

Two consecutive successful screen adaptations of the Bard — that is exactly what Vishal Bharadwaj has achieved. In 2003, he gave us Maqbool: Macbeth set in Mumbai underworld. This year, he has brought us Omkara: Othello set in small town Uttar Pradesh. Both movies are thoroughly recommended. Instead of giving reviews, let me just note some highlights.

Maqbool: the food — kheer and biriyani and kofta and korma, and people sitting on carpets, a great ode to the Indo-Muslim heritage that is bound to water anyone’s mouth; Pundit and Purohit — played by Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri, these are two corrupt cops who replace the witches; and Tabu, whose performance as Nimmi (Lady Macbeth) is simply sublime — while all performances were superb, this is the central character, and anything short of what Tabu gave would have made it a lesser movie.

Omkara — again, all performances were excellent, but Saif Ali Khan as Langda Tyagi (Iago) was simply marvelous; ‘Beedi jalai ley’ — I am not sure of the exact meanings, but I gather they are rather suggestive, probably the best ‘item number’ since ‘Khallas’ (Company, 2002); and the rugged countryside — easily evokes scenes from Sholay.

Surely Bharadwaj will go for a hat trick. Surely he will do another Shakespeare tragedy. There is absolutely no point in doing Romeo and Juliet, cross-eyed lovers dying to unite feuding families, hasn’t that been done to death? What, then, should he adapt next?

Shakespeare’s historical dramas about English Kings and Roman generals could be adapted in modern Desi settings. But recent histories in Desh’s fauji republics might be too similar to any such adaptation for comfort. He could turn to happy endings. But who wants those? Multiple deaths pleased the crowd and critics in the Elizabethan England, and they do so in today’s Bollywood. And when it comes to that, what is better than Hamlet?

Surely Bharadwaj’s next venture will be Hamlet. Where will he set the Prince of Denmark? We suggest the world of the super rich, the world of Tatas and Birlas and Ambanis. The elder Bachchan will make the ideal wronged patriarch, while the younger could play the troubled heir to the fortunes of India’s richest family. The movie could begin with a flash back / dream sequence that would be identical to three thousand other movies about the extended family and tradition and all that stuff, but very soon the story will shift gear as the reality dawns. Who will play the conniving mother and the uncle? Polonius and his family can be adapted with ease. Some ingenious thinking is needed to transform the climactic duel into this setting, but I’m sure Bharadwaj will figure something out.

Damnit. I’m excited. Make this movie now Mr Bharadwaj!