Spicy bard

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the only one among his 40-odd plays in which William Shakespeare mentions India. Titania, the queen of fairies, recalls frolicking with a friend in the Indian air, and makes her son — “A lovely boy, stolen from an Indian king” — the object of all her attention, and thus a cause of jealousy for her husband, Oberon.

But the Bard has been a constant obsession for Indian writers, artists, dramatists, and later, filmmakers. The influence of Shakespeare on Indian cinema has been so vast and has been written about so much that one would pick up the book under review with some scepticism. Why another one on this subject?

Professor Harris, a Shakespeare scholar and cinema enthusiast, strikes a fresh note early in his book by claiming that the Bard is not an alien, colonial literary influence in India, but “a collaborative and irreducibly plural partner. In this book, he is the twin of traditional Indian storyteller.” This is not a remarkably original point — undergraduate English students routinely learn that the way plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries were staged in the 16th and 17th centuries had many similarities with the collaborative culture in contemporary film industries.

The original point that Professor Harris makes, however, is claiming that the Indian artistic and social ethos is essentially defined by the masala or mixture — and this is also essentially Shakespearean theatre.

This book, however, is not only a comparative study of Shakespearean theatre and Indian cinema, but also a political statement. Professor Harris detects that the essential masala of Indian society and cinema is on the retreat, and an aggressive obsession with purity, often defined through Hindutva, is on the rise.

Masala Shakespeare:  How a Firangi Writer Became Indian
Jonathan Gil Harris
Aleph, Pages: 282; Price: Rs 525

To illustrate his point, he cites the example of two Aamir Khan-starring blockbusters Dangal (2016). Professor Harris argues that while the former was about a team game (cricket) and represented hybrid Indian society, the latter is about the aspirations of one man in an individual sport (wrestling). For him, this represents a sea change in Indian society.
The writer can hardly resist a jibe at Prime Minister Narendra Modi: “This (chhappan-inch (56-inch) chest demands and wins the unquestioning compliance with those he rules.”

He argues that the Lagaan are not merely entertainment, but also “a utopian political vision” — one that Professor Harris finds appealing in the current political moment. This is an attractive argument; unfortunately, it is incorrect.

While films about individual sports — Lagaan was released, the only sport in which India performed well internationally was cricket.

A reader might also be put off by Professor Harris’s description of cinema audiences who visit Select Citywalk in Saket, Delhi: “Wealthy and mostly Punjabi, carrying bags laden with goods.” Professor Harris is trying to make a point about how audiences in multiplexes have become more homogenous compared to the one with which he had watched Lagaan at Chanakya. He, however, ends up revealing a regionalist and classist attitude. If you don’t like it, why do you go there, Professor Harris?

He also makes an inscrutable point: “[Shakespeare’s] father, John Shakespeare, was a committed Roman Catholic at a time when Protestantism was the official state religion.” It is impossible to believe that Professor Harris is unaware of the lively critical debate on the subject. The jury is still out on John Shakespeare’s religion. One wonders why Professor Harris makes no mention of it.

Despite these points of disagreement, however, the book is a delight to read. Even if one doesn’t agree with some of the arguments or analysis in the book, one is unlikely to not enjoy lines such as these: “I didn’t care much for Hrithik Roshan’s masala.

His research, spanning from his specialisation, Shakespeare — he has been a member of the Shakespeare Society of India — to contemporary theatre and literature, cuisine, linguistics, and Bollywood history is breath-taking. He takes a cue from Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath’s anti-Romeo squad to launch into meditations not only on The Comedy of Errors — and launches into a discussion of Partition angst. I was sceptical about this analysis till he produced a direct quote from Gulzar to substantiate it.

But the most delightful part of the book, at least for me, is Professor Harris’s own travels with Shakespeare, from a university production of The Taming of the Shrew, in which he cast men and women in opposite gender characters, to teaching Shakespeare at Ashoka University.

The “firangi” of the subtitle is not only Shakespeare who has by now become completely Indian, but also Professor Harris himself, who has been seduced by the country he chose to live in.

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