Is Bollywood still obsessed with Romeo and Juliet?
Veteran actor Naseeruddin Shah once said, “The roots may look lost, but every big story in the Hindi film industry is from Shakespeare.” What is striking, is to see the amount of inspiration Bollywood has drawn from the literary works of the great Bard, who crafted most of these plays over four centuries ago. The interpretations they have made, have all been related to the socio-economic conditions of the present time. Much to the likeness of the plays that were scripted originally, they too were a complete picture of lifestyle, practices, and beliefs that were rampant during the Shakespearean era. For instance, the presence of soothsayers, usage of thunderclaps and characterization of apparitions and spirits were prevalent in Shakespeare’s plays, be it Macbeth or Julius Caesar or Hamlet. This shows the strong belief that Shakespeare’s society had in the occult.
Being one of the world’s finest tragedies for over four centuries, Romeo and Juliet has influenced lives, films, and theater alike – a unifying thread for countless love stories that have come and gone across the ages. The story of two clans hailing from two halves of the same town – two star-crossed lovers falling in love with each other despite the tradition of hatred between their clans – resultant bloodshed and loss in accordance, and the eventual death of the two lovers that unite them and their clans forever, has been a timeless classic tragedy.
Interpretation of the play in Bollywood
In Ek Duuje Ke Liye, Vasudev, a Tamil man, and Sapna, a North-Indian girl, fall in love, only for their families to never accept their love. Back in the ‘70s, this was a huge cultural and social barrier, and such relationships were never seen ‘respectful’. Featuring Kamal Haasan and Rati Agnihotri, the film speaks volumes about the then-prevalent cultures and social norms. The instance is highlighted when Sapna is raped in a temple – showing how farce the values of love and respect were, then. Unable to be united, the lovers commit suicide to ‘unite in death’.
Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak
Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, directed by Mansoor Khan, brought in the setting of Rajput wars – reflecting on the Montagues and Capulets of Shakespeare. His Romeo and Juliet here are Raj and Rashmi, enacted by Aamir Khan and Juhi Chawla. Yet another masterpiece of the ‘80s, this phase of Bollywood was resplendent with sagas of families – their stories and feuds.
Ishaqzaade by Habib Faisal shot Arjun Kapoor and Parineeti Chopra into the limelight. This film focused on the much-known tense feud between the Hindus and Muslims. Zoya (Juliet) is Muslim, while Parma (Romeo) is Hindu. What ensues is a refusal of their love, and their fight to keep it alive.
Goliyon Ki Raasleela: Ramleela
Finally, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Goliyon Ki Raasleela: Ramleela is a complete adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. From the balcony scene, to Romeo fighting members of Juliet’s clan to reach her, to being sent on an exile, to the two families Rajadi and Sanera who have been at war since ages finally uniting over the death of Ram (Romeo) and Leela (Juliet): the set is beautifully exorbitant to bring out the wonderful colours and traditions of the state of Gujarat.
The films have a complete understanding of Romeo and Juliet, but stretch too far by exacting almost a prototype of the novel in the Indian context. It becomes an obsession that is visible in the end – despite so many takes on the tragedy, the wish for more of the same is still not satiated for the Indian directors.
William Shakespeare makes for a good source of interpretation and adaptation in Bollywood, seeing how deeply etched in melodrama Shakespeare’s tragedies are. The industry of Bollywood filmmaking has predominantly been a melodrama-ruled theme. Bollywood’s interpretations, thus, have definitely been an apt representation of how the Bard may have thought and perceived the world in the present-day Indian society. Be it Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider set in the present-day Kashmir scenario, to Gulzar’s 1982 classic Angoor based on the Great Bard’s Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare has never failed to evoke the emotion that has been so crucial to the sustenance and existence of the mass of audience who expect the films to speak on their own.
The obsession might not be justified. However, it has worked for filmmaking in Bollywood. It is a strong belief, that William Shakespeare has been the best scriptwriter of Bollywood.
Even Vishal Bhardwaj, now sitting on his comfortable throne at the back of his successful Shakespearean trilogy, will possibly admit without a word.
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