Today, April 23, 2016, marks the 400th death anniversary of one of English literature’s greatest writers, a man who had a huge hand in making English what it is today. Though William Shakespeare’s date of birth is unknown, he died on this day, nearly 52 years after he was baptized. In less than half a century, he created a corpus of work that has endured—and continues to spawn adaptations by the dozen in popular culture—ever since.
Considering the number of films that have been based on works by Shakespeare, I thought it appropriate to commemorate the Bard’s death anniversary by reviewing a film based on a Shakespeare play. There are plenty to choose from, of course, but I decided to go for something a little less predictable: a Hindi film. Hindi cinema has been influenced heavily by Shakespeare (all you have to do is look at all those cases of long-lost siblings, women disguised as men, and so on, to see just how much we love Shakespeare), and there have been several adaptations of his plays: Gustakhi Maaf, Angoor, Do Dooni Chaar, Vishal Bhardwaj’s more recent Omkara, Maqbool and Haider.
What those films have in common is that all of them use Shakespeare as an inspiration, and create their own settings, adapted to India, their own twists on plot elements, and so on. You can see the Shakespearean essence, but it’s much diluted.
Not so in in this version. Kishore Sahu, in 1954, produced and directed (not to mention starred in) a version of Hamlet that uses the setting of Shakespeare’s original play. This realm, we are told, is Elsinore. This man is the Prince of Denmark, Hamlet. Each of the characters bears the name Shakespeare gave them, each of them has the same relationships Shakespeare gave his characters; they wear the costumes medieval Europeans would have worn. The only difference is the language: they speak Urdu, not English.
The story is simple enough. It begins on a night on the ramparts of a castle in Denmark. Horatio (Shreenath), the friend of Prince Hamlet, is on the ramparts with two guards when they see an apparition, wearing what looks like a long and translucent white tent over its garments. This seems to be the ghost of the late King, Hamlet’s father, and Horatio is importuning it to speak, when the approaching dawn makes the spook vanish.
The scene now switches to inside the palace. Hamlet’s uncle Claudius (Hiralal), his father’s younger brother, is now not just King, but since he has married Hamlet’s mother, also Hamlet’s stepfather. He has just received news that Fortinbras, a prince of Norway, is planning to attack Denmark. The King orders the sending of a missive to the King of Norway, cautioning him to stop Fortinbras, or else.
The King’s Prime Minister, Polonius (S Nazir), who pretty much takes the cake when it comes to sycophancy, also gives the King the news that Laertes (Polonius’s son), is about to leave for France, where he is studying. The King is approving, wishing Laertes well. He also fawns over his new queen, who seems to enjoy her new husband’s attention.
While all this camaraderie is in progress, the central character of the play, Hamlet (Kishore Sahu), is all angst and misery. He is still grieving over the death of his father, and the fact that his mother has married her former brother-in-law so quickly has only made him feel even more bitter. Hamlet is so disillusioned at what he perceives as the fickleness and infidelity of womankind that he cannot even bring himself to be near his beloved, Ophelia (Mala Sinha, in one of her earliest roles). Ophelia is puzzled and hurt: this was the man who had given her his handkerchief for remembrance, for whom she had sung love songs: why is he so brusque and unloving now?
Ophelia, who is Polonius’s daughter and therefore Laertes’s sister, now must also bid farewell to her brother. As he’s leaving, Laertes warns Ophelia not to have anything to do with Hamlet. He may appear to love her, may make whatever promises, but Ophelia must beware. Hamlet, after all, is the prince, and heir to the throne: he cannot marry whoever he pleases. Ophelia’s love will come to naught.
Amidst all this, Horatio meets Hamlet and tells him about the apparition he had seen on the ramparts of the castle. Horatio is so certain that it was Hamlet’s father’s ghost (and that the ghost would like to communicate with Hamlet) that Hamlet readily agrees to go up on the ramparts and see for himself.
… which he does. The ghost duly appears and summons Hamlet. When they’re alone, just Hamlet and his dead father’s spirit, the ghost reveals why he’s still wandering the earth, restless and unable to find peace. He did not die a natural death; he was murdered. The queen, Hamlet’s mother, laid him down to sleep in the garden, and as soon as he was asleep, his younger brother—now the King—came along and poured poison into his ears, killing him.
Hamlet’s tenuous grip on his senses deserts him. Already grieving for his dead father and agonizing over his mother’s infidelity, he’s now thrown into even further turmoil. His mother did not merely marry (with such unseemly haste) her brother-in-law, it turns out now that the brother-in-law was the man who widowed her, too! Hamlet makes up his mind: he must avenge his father’s slaying.
The King and Queen are unaware, of course, of all that has transpired with Hamlet. They, like everybody else in court, however have seen Hamlet’s grief, which seems to have driven him half-mad. Hamlet needs cheering up, decides the King; there is a company of players newly arrived, and they should be ordered to perform a play. Something light-hearted, and possibly rather rambunctious and bawdy, no doubt.
Polonius, ever-interfering, does send them a little offtrack for a while, because he insists that Hamlet’s madness is a result of lovesickness. As proof, Polonius presents a love letter he has ferreted out from his daughter’s belongings: its words are evidence enough of Hamlet’s love for Ophelia.
Just to make sure, though, Polonius (who shows a startling lack of scruple) decides to listen in on the next conversation between Ophelia and Hamlet. What he sees and hears shatters his hope that he may soon be becoming the father-in-law of the heir to the throne. While Ophelia pleads with Hamlet and weeps, asking him why he rejects her so, Hamlet scorns beauty and says that beauty is always fickle; beauty cannot be trusted. He’s so obscure that Ophelia does not realize whom he’s referring to.
Neither does Polonius, and so neither do the King and Queen. All of them are mystified: why is Hamlet so enraged (or deranged, or both)?
But remember the King’s order to Polonius, to have a play staged? Little does the King know that Hamlet has met the actors beforehand and has made them agree to stage a certain play about a murder—with a few additional dialogues to be supplied by Hamlet himself. The play will reveal all. The horrific crime of the King, the reason behind Hamlet’s madness.
And there is more to come, for Hamlet, in his mad scramble for vengeance, will stop at nothing. This is not just a tale of vengeance, but of self-destruction too, and of a fury that will destroy everything and everyone that comes in its way. Whether intentionally or by accident, whether friend or foe.
What I liked about this film:
The dialogues, by Professor BD Verma and Amanat Hilal. These are very unlike ‘regular’ Hindi film dialogues; they are, as Shakespeare meant them to be, poetry. The metre is there, the cadence is there, and the beauty of Urdu gives it a lovely old-fashioned feel that may have been lost had the language used been khadi boli. Not all the lines try to be perfect translations of what Shakespeare wrote, but they manage, mostly, to do justice to the original, even if they convey only a part of what was meant.
Here’s an example, of what is probably one of the best-known speeches in English literature:
Original: To be or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die—to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to…
Urdu soliloquy: Zindagi ya maut, kisko apnaaoon?
Zinda rahoon ya mar jaaoon?
Yeh gutthi kaise suljhaaoon?
Is dil ko kaise samjhaaoon?
Zinda hoon magar deed ki lazzat nahin baaki,
Mar jaaoon, hai bas ik yehi hasrat baaki.
(Interestingly, there are occasional instances of poetry from renowned Urdu poets woven into the dialogue as well. There is, for instance, a speech where a desperate Ophelia, trying to appeal to Hamlet, bursts out: “Hum hain mushtaq aur woh bezaar; ya Ilaahi, yeh maajra kya hai?”)
Kishore Sahu’s acting. I admit to not being a fan of Kishore Sahu’s, but I do think he plays Hamlet well: the confusion, the anger, the grief, the turmoil of a man who is torn between revenge and despair, between seeking vengeance for the dead and living his own life, finding his own happiness—and who ends up destroying all of it. Sahu is restrained when he needs to be, passionate and emotional when he needs to be. What I found most impressive about his performance was the way he manages to say even poetic lines in a non-theatrical way.
The music, by Ramesh Naidu (assisted by Jagmohan). Hamlet is not chockfull of songs (thankfully; this is really not the sort of film that should have had songs in the first place), but the songs that are there, though little-known, are good. I especially liked Chaahe sataaye woh chaahe rulaaye, and Ghir-ghir aaye badarwa re bhaiyya (which is the gravediggers’ song).
What I didn’t like:
Some of the acting. Most of the dialogue is poetry, no less, and some of it in rhyme—as a result of which some of the actors succumb to the temptation of saying their lines in a singsong voice that didn’t appeal to me. Mala Sinha, in particular, is guilty of this through much of the film. Her last couple of scenes, when Ophelia has lost her mind and is wandering around strewing flowers and singing Na kisi ki aankh ka noor hoon (it seemed to me, in her own voice?) are the only ones which were somewhat convincing.
The songs, too, while good, are misplaced in a film like this.
The whole point is that Hamlet was probably not a film suited for an Indian audience used to the ‘typical’ Hindi film. The closest I’ve seen to this film are some of the historicals (like Nausherwan-e-Aadil) that were made by Sohrab Modi in the 50s and early 60s: films with much ‘declaiming to the skies’, as my father describes it. Long and poetic speeches, more than a hint of the theatrical, and tragic endings.
But Sohrab Modi’s films, despite that, were deeply rooted in the tradition of Indian theatre: there was always plenty of action, extravagant sets, lots of song and dance built into the fabric of the film. Hamlet isn’t like that—it follows, fairly faithfully, the Shakespearean style of tragic theatre. There is very little ‘action’, so to say; the speeches are long and full of poetry, and the songs, while there, are short and more to enforce an emotion than anything else. I can understand why this film flopped at the box office: it probably just didn’t conform to anything Indian audiences were expecting.
If you like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, however, I would recommend this film: it’s a surprisingly good adaptation. Uncluttered, faithful, a good tribute.