Indian cinema’s favourite writer died 400 years ago. Here are his greatest characters
Shakespeare, his biographies tell us, had some money troubles from time to time. Exactly 400 years after his death, it seems clear that if the Bard had decided to take the ship to India, he’d certainly have a heavy purse. (Comedy, tragedy, intrigue, action, murder – what more could we want?) Over the years, Indian cinema has taken his unforgettable characters and resurrected them, making sure that the Shakespearean dynasty multiplies by the dozen. The ten faces we’ve chosen are pukka Shakespeare-wallahs. They have the Bard’s blood flowing through their veins. Together, they just prove one thing – when anything from Stratford gets stratified in India, the result is always A-one.
Cordelia aka Gunasundari
First seen: King Lear Point of rebirth: Gunasundari Katha (1949)
Telugu director KV Reddy liked King Lear, but didn’t care for an ending where almost everyone dies. He wanted a happy spin. (The year was 1949. We had just become independent. You can’t blame him.) Like Lear, King Ugrasena has three daughters. Cordelia was the most likeable there. Gunasundari is the most loving here. Strangely, though, both are banished. Coredlia makes her comeback with an army. Guna sends her husband to find a magic diamond. That’s just how we roll.
Ophelia as herself
First seen: Hamlet Point of rebirth: Hamlet (1954)
Almost everyone was a casualty in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but Ophelia really had the worst luck. Caught between her controlling father (Polonius) and insane lover (Hamlet), she could make anyone sob. It made sense that Mala Sinha would choose such a role for her debut. There was just one problem. Director Kishore Sahu made her frolic and sing songs with friends, effectively killing the tragedy. As she hummed ‘Na kisi ki ankh ka noor hoon’, a few critics hurt her more than melancholy.
The Dromio twins aka The two Bahadurs
First seen: The Comedy of Errors Point of rebirth: Angoor (1982)
One set of doubles can be hard enough to handle. Shakespeare went and gave us two. In The Comedy of Errors, the two Dromios, both hapless slaves, were bullied and beaten each time identities were mistaken. But in Angoor, director Gulzar made things more humane for his Bahadurs, a delightfully innocent pair of servants. In a memorable double role, Deven Verma was the ideal accomplice Sanjeev Kumar could have wanted. The two Devens had both, bluffs and bhang.
Cleopatra aka Kannaki
First seen: Antony and Cleopatra Point of rebirth: Kannaki (2001)
There is one thing we know about the Romans – they love to plunder and go to war. Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra seems to have a battle after every act. Director Jayaraj needed something more local for his Malayalam film Kannaki, so he replaced combat at sea with bloody cock fights. Like Cleopatra, Kannaki (Nandita Das), sees her man take his rooster for a feud, while she frets and pines. A snake killed Cleo. Things for Kannaki end badly too. Oh, how love again tames the shrewd!
Duncan I aka Abbaji
First seen: Macbeth Point of rebirth: Maqbool (2003)
Known to family, friends and conspirators as Abbaji, the first few scenes of Maqbool prove that Jahangir Khan (Pankaj Kapoor) really had it coming. Not just was he a cuckold, his wife Nimmi (Tabu) and aide-de-camp Maqbool (Irrfan Khan) really had it in for him. In Macbeth, however, King Duncan I of Scotland didn’t suffer this disaffected a betrayal. You might’ve laboured to hear Abbaji’s whisper, but when you’d hear the murmur, “Mumbai hamari mehbooba hai”, you could only delight.
Iago aka Langda Tyagi
First seen: Othello Point of rebirth: Omkara (2006)
Langda Tyagi (Saif Ali Khan) is undoubtedly evil incarnate, but it’s hard to deny that he gives Omkara some healthy doses of fun and funny. As he spits, limps, lies and disturbs the peace, you realise that the entire narrative of a film hinges on his ambitions. It isn’t without reason that Iago has been described as one of Shakespeare’s most perfect villains. Director Vishal Bhardwaj wrote a fitting script, and Langda Tyagi’s every dialogue was a satanic invitation. So, will you bite that apple?
Hamlet aka Rudran Gurukkul
First seen: Hamlet Point of rebirth: Karmayogi (2012)
If you’re reading Hamlet and don’t have the patience for long ‘to-be-or not-to-be’ monologues, it is possible that you’ll throw your hands up and go, ‘Go on Prince of Denmark, make a decision already!’ You might also find yourself feeling that same kind of frustration with Rudran Gurukkal (Indrajith) in VK Prakash’s Karmayogi. Part of a family that carries on the lineage of Lord Shiva (no less!), he does everything Hamlet did. He talks to skulls and all, but just can’t ever make his mind up.
Romeo aka Ram
First seen: Romeo and Juliet Point of Rebirth: Goliyon ki Raasleela Ram Leela (2013)
A bevy of Ranveer Singh’s female fans screamed ‘Adonis’ when they saw his chiselled frame in trailers, but a bunch of other more hot-headed detractors thought Goliyon ki Raasleela was out to defame some of our more revered gods. Sanjay Leela Bhansali quickly clarified that his inspiration came from Shakespeare, not mythology. And then Ram climbed balconies, fell in love, fought his family and ultimately died beside his beloved. Like Juliet, all audiences gasped, ‘Romeo, oh Romeo!’
Othello aka Ranjan Ghosh
First seen: Othello Point of rebirth: Hrid Majharey (2014)
Othello is a general in the Venetian army, but when he resurrects as Abhijit Mukherjee (Abir Chatterjee), we find him teaching calculus in a Kolkata college. How did this exactly happen? We’ll leave you to do the math. Desdemona meets her tragic end at the end of Othello, while Hrid Makharey begins with Abhijit discovering his wife’s corpse. Director Ranjan Ghosh throws in some themes from Macbeth and Julius Ceasar too. We would like to call this a Bengali DJ house mix.
The Ghost aka Roohdar
First seen: Hamlet Point of rebirth: Haider (2014)
Hamlet had reason to go mad. His father’s ghost kept making an appearance, asking him to avenge his death. Haider’s experience of course was not that paranormal. His girlfriend has seen Roohdar (Irrfan Khan). Roohdar even gives him a gun. Revenge, though, is the same message that Hamlet’s strange ghost and Haider’s stranger want to deliver. Much devastation follows in both cases. Haider’s plight does leave us feeling that perhaps it is not best to always listen to your dad’s buddy.