Shakespeare in Bollywood: Some Less Straightforward Reinterpretations

Today is believed to be Shakespeare’s 449th birthday. Many of us had to read Romeo and Juliet in ninth grade English class and memorize the “To Be or Not To Be” speech from Hamlet. We’ve probably all seen some sort of adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s plays at some point in our lives. But Shakespeare isn’t just something we read in school or go to the theater to feel self-important about. Shakespeare’s influence is pervasive worldwide.

Even in India, Shakespeare is influencing the arts still today – more than 60 years after the British left and all of their pretentious literature could have been thrown out with them. We already know about the obvious Shakespeare adaptations in Bollywood: Omkara, Maqbool, and Angoor. These movies are all direct Shakespeare adaptations, but there are many Shakespearean plots forming the basis for our favorite movies in less explicit ways. They’re not really adaptations; they are full reinterpretations that bring the Bard’s plotlines into a new, uniquely Indian context.


Om Shanti Om and Hamlet

Hamlet is, at its essence, about avenging a loved one’s death in the most melodramatic way possible. It therefore follows that when making a movie whose primary purpose is to mock Bollywood’s melodramatic tendencies, they would just decide to rewrite Hamlet.

But Hamlet doesn’t lend itself well to song and dance sequences with happy endings where everyone ends up happily in love – or even alive! How can we mock Bollywood without a love story and a happy ending? As Om Shanti Om reminds us: “Hamare filmon mein…agar tik na ho, to hoti hai nahin; picture abhi baaki hai” (In our films… if it’s not happy, then it’s not the end). The answer is: we reinvent it.

Instead of Hamlet taking revenge for his father’s murder, we have Om taking revenge for the murder of his beloved Shanti. Throw in some backstory (one thing I love about Bollywood is that very rarely is character development taken for granted), a bit of reincarnation, and more than a handful of clever references to ‘60s Bollywood, and we have a film!

The best reinterpretations: the play Hamlet stages where he reenacts the murder of his father is reimagined into an absolutely chilling song sequence, and both versions of Hamlet include iconic speeches that I have memorized.

Unlike Hamlet, Om Shanti Om leaves us with an optimistic message: “Agar kisi chiz ko dil se chaho, to puri kaynath usse tumse milane ke koshish mein lag jaati hain” (If you want something with all your heart, then the entire world will conspire to help you get it). I have been told this quote is also a rip-off – from The Alchemist – but it sounds better in Hindi anyway.

I could go into all the specifics of why Om and Shanti’s love story is better than Hamlet and Ophelia’s, but I’ll leave it short for now. Just don’t worry: Shanti is never the object of Om’s heart’s desire as presented in the iconic quote. Despite Deepika’s role as an actress being to stand and look pretty, Shanti as a character is quite strong. Shanti’s situation is much worse than Ophelia’s, and yet she would never erode into a depressed mess and try to kill herself.


Dil Bole Hadippa! and The Twelfth Night

Just like Om Shanti Om remains true to the melodrama of a Shakespearean tragedy, Dil Bole Hadippa! is a pure Shakespearean comedy. It actually simplifies the original Shakespearean plot, and really just takes from it the basic elements: girl pretends to be a boy, meets another boy, and they eventually fall in love. Of course, Dil Bole Hadippa! does this through effervescent Punjabis with over-decorated trucks and excessive ethnic pride.

The movie, like Lagaan, builds patriotism through cricket. Once again, the Indian team is the underdog, but through proper training they defeat their enemies (this time it’s Pakistan). Dil Bole Hadippa! also relies on strong family loyalty: The only reason Rohan comes to India to coach the cricket team is because he loves his father. None of these elements are present in the original, and help to bring a distinctly Indian flavor to a Shakespearean story.

The similarities remain in the antics. In The Twelfth Night, Viola has a real life twin brother. In Dil Bole Hadippa!, Veera only pretends to have a twin brother (herself). And, although involving only two characters instead of Shakespeare’s four, the confusion that arises is classic: Veera as Veer despises Rohan, but Rohan falls for Veera, not recognizing she is Veer. After a while, Veera as Veera starts to fall for Rohan, too. However, she still has to be Veer in order to be allowed on the cricket team. All of this results in a number of comedic scenes that are even Shakespearean in their delivery.

Dil Bole Hadippa! also adds a slight feminist twist through a speech Veera gives about women in sports. It resolves itself very quickly and doesn’t really show any sort of realistic struggle on Veera’s part – but then again, that was never the point.

There are three real reasons to watch Dil Bole Hadippa!, which I imagine aren’t much different from the reasons 17th century Brits went to see Shakespeare’s comedies: to have mindless fun, to fall in love with Rani Mukherjee, and to stare at Shahid for three hours.


Ishaqzaade and Romeo and Juliet

Ishaqzaade presents itself as a modern-day India’s Romeo and Juliet (the title even means “star-crossed lovers”). In both, young lovers from feuding political families are destined to have a tragic ending, but the simple setting of modern-day India allows the same story to be more than just simply retold.

I’m not even going to try to avoid spoilers here, because it would be impossible.

The setting of Parma and Zoya’s romance is entirely dependent on an Indian context. Only in India are college politics and government politics so strongly interconnected. This setting, as well as the traditions of patriarchy, are essential to understanding Parma’s conflicted attraction to Zoya’s defiance of him.

The primary breaking point from the original occurs at the climax, when Parma and Zoya are married. When the original Romeo and Juliet consummate their marriage, Romeo doesn’t run off saying “haha! that was a fake marriage! now you’re tainted and I’m a man!” What’s more: The character development is such that we actually understand his motives. The corruption and violence in his family’s life has influenced Parma so strongly that doing something like this to someone he loves seems natural.

Much like Romeo and Juliet’s hasty, melodramatic love is dependent on their youth, Ishaqzaade is dependent on Parma and Zoya’s immaturity. Romeo falls in love with Juliet and quickly forgets all about the other girl he had been pursuing. We see this same naivety in Parma during Zoya’s rape, as well as in Zoya in her slow but eventual forgiveness of him.

No one today can deny the love between Romeo and Juliet; the story has become this universal symbol of love, like the story of Radha and Krishna. I saw Ishaqzaade a while ago, and still don’t even know if I actually approve of them being together. The framing of Romeo as a rapist was a clever choice; it brings Ishaqzaade a deepness and relevance that other tales of young star-crossed lovers don’t have, and emphasizes to a modern audience how not straightforward this romance really is.

12 responses to “Shakespeare in Bollywood: Some Less Straightforward Reinterpretations

  1. Whoa! Though, Ishaqzaade and Romeo and Juliet was obvious, the similarities Om Shanti Om and Hamlet took me by surprise! And it is actually true!
    Great post.

    • Thanks so much for reading! Yeah, OSO is never attributed to Hamlet ever, so it often surprises people when I point it out, even though it’s always been so obvious to me. I first heard the plot of OSO described to me through someone else, and so the similarities were really apparent when my friend said “and so Shahrukh has this really innovative idea, he stages a performance reenacting the murder scene to get the guy to confess!” Yeah, real innovative, I’ve never heard that one before 😛

  2. What a fascinating take on Romeo! I taught the play for years and never thought of him this way. He and Juliet just confirmed my own experience that love at first sight is a reality. Fortunately any similarities end there! 🙂

    • Thanks so much! I’m so happy I was able to say something fascinating to a teacher of Shakespeare 😀 I also only started thinking of it as more than just a straightforward love story after seeing the Bollywood “version” – sometimes foreign insight can shed so much light on something we thought we completely understood.
      P.S. The reason I feel so strongly that Om and Shanti’s love story is better than Hamlet and Ophelia’s is because O&S are MY confirmation of my own experience with love at first sight. Fortunately neither of us have died tragically [yet], either 🙂

  3. What surprises the shizz out of me is the writers who had such a good body of writing to go back to and even then they made a mess of it all. Dil boley hadippa…the trailer scarred me for life…:)

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