Written by Randeep Singh
In the high and palmy state of Bombay, the Bard and Hindi screen did meet … It was the Parsi theatre which brought Shakespeare to Hindi cinema. The Parsi theatre flourished between 1870 and 1940, adapting Shakespeare’s plays into Urdu, the literary lingua franca of northern India. Those plays were in turn screened and adapted to Hindi cinema.
One of the earliest such films was Dil Farosh (1927), a silent film based on the Parsi theatre adaptation of The Merchant of Venice. The Taming of the Shrew, Antony and Cleopatra and Measure for Measure were adapted respectively in Hathili Dulhan (1932), Kafir-e-Ishq (1936) and Pak Daman(1940). Hamlet meanwhile reigned among tragedies, adapted first into the silent film Khoon-e-Nahak (1928) and later into the “talkies,” Sohrab Modi’s Khoon Ka Khoon (1935) and Kishore Sahu’s Hamlet (1954).
In adapting Shakespeare to India, the dramatists of Parsi theatre recreated his pathos, wit and intrigue in Urdu. With the exception of the drama and opera Inder Sabha (c. 1853), Urdu literature lacked a tradition of drama in the Sanskrit or Elizabethean sense; and yet, the verses of Ghalib and the marsiya of Anis and Dabeer demonstrated that Urdu was capable of dramatic resonance. The Parsi playwrights exploited that potential by making an elaborately rhetorical Urdu the vessel through which Shakespeare was carried to Indian audiences.
Take the following excerpt from Safed Khoon, Agha Hashar Kashmiri’s adaptation of King Lear. The dialogue relates to the first scene between Khakan (Lear) and Zara (Cordelia) where Khakan addresses Zara:
Khakhan: Haan, ab teri gulfishani ka intizaar hai
(Now we await a shower of flower from thy lips)
Zara: Abba jaan, mai kya arz karoon
Ita’ut mujh se kahti hai ki tu chup rah nahin sakti
Magar mera yeh kahna hai ki mai kuchh kah nahin sakti
(Respected Father, what shall I say –
Obedience tells me that I cannot remain silent
But I have only this to say that I can say nothing)
In the following dialogue, each character speaks half a line to the other, a rising tension building in rhyme:
Khakan: Chhor de yeh zid………Zara: abhi chhooti nahin
(Leave this stubbornness)……….(No, never)
Khakan: Be-adab hai tu…………Zara: Magar jhoothi nahin
(Disrespectful art thou)………(But not a liar)
Khakan: Nuqsaan uthhayegi…………..Zara: era bari ta’ala hai
(You will suffer great loss)…………….(The Creator is supreme)
Khakan: Mai kuchh na doonga tujhko……Zara: Khuda dene wala hai
(I will give thee nothing)…………………… (it is for God to give)
This intensely dramatic Urdu style was well suited not only for adaptations of Shakespeare plays in Parsi theatre but for Hindi cinema as well.
Gulzar’s adaptation of The Comedy of Errors in Angoor (1981) aside, adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays in Hindi cinema petered out after 1960. The influence of Shakespeare though has been felt in the theme, story and dialogue of Hindi cinema whether through the The Taming of The Shrew in Junglee (1966) and Naukar Biwi Ka (1983) or Romeo and Juliet in Mehboob Khan’s Aan (1952) and Mansoor Khan’s Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988).
In more recent years, the bard has travelled to the Bombay underworld, the dusty towns of Uttar Pradesh and Kashmir’s valleys of snow. Shakespeare will continue to evolve and inspire in Hindi cinema as in this monologue from Haider:
Dil kī agar sunooñ to hai
Dimāgh kī to hai nahin
Jaan looñ ki jaan duñ
Main rahooñ ki main nahiñ
“Shakespeare in Hindi Cinema,” Rajiv Verma in India’s Shakespeare: Translation, Interpretation and Performance (ed. Poonam Trivedi and Dennis Bartholomeusz), 269-290.
 R. Verma, “Shakespeare in Hindi Cinema,” 273.
 R. Verma, “Shakespeare in Hindi Cinema,” 274.
 The barely sane Haider speaks revolver in hand:
“If I listen to my heart – it’s there
It’s not of my mind
To kill or to die
To be or not to be