Even though Vishal Bharadwaj has not made a film on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the Indian audience is quite familiar with the tragedy. The prevalence of the Heer-Ranjha narrative in Hindi cinema is one reason. Shakespeare’s popularity is another. But Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet subverts transnational expectations and there is no equivalent — Indian or otherwise — to that.
Romeo + Juliet converts Shakespeare’s chorus into a voiceover and the prologue into a news report. The prologue is first recited by a woman on television. A few seconds later, it is simultaneously spelt and dramatised in a quickly moving montage to complicate the mediation of the textual and the visual. The television screen that emerges from the background comprises of a grain composition, which marks the film’s fictionality with a unique sense of authenticity. How does a postmodern film do all that?
Luhrmann somehow retains elements from the play despite the complete substitution of the film’s social context. Here, Sampson and Gregory drive a bright yellow car on Verona’s impeccable roads with MTV music playing in the background. Benvolio and Tybalt fight with guns, not swords. Romeo’s friend Mercutio is a drag queen. The name Abraham is changed into Abra — a man who flashes his teeth at one point simply to showcase a metal plate that says “sin.” The homoerotic relationship between Romeo and Mercutio is much more obvious in the film than it is in the play. Despite such revisions, the characters continue to speak in Shakespeare’s language and dialogues like “look upon thy death” don’t appear asynchronous.
But Luhrmann’s brilliance lies in the reconfiguration of textual silences. Tybalt is first introduced by a knee-level shot that captures him crushing a fallen bullet with his metal-plated Mariachi boots. The dialogues of Romeo and Juliet are interspersed with French kisses. The evocation of meaning continues since action does not cease even when the dialogue does. Visual action thus punctures aural silence.
Equally masterful is the employment of the soundtrack, which almost destabilises you since there is no narrative exposition. For instance, the emergence of the television in the opening scene is accompanied with silence, giving the impression that there is no opening theme. But the sudden outburst of loud radio music, as Sampson and Gregory talk to each other, disrupts this assumption. Sometimes the music is synchronous with the sequence, sometimes it isn’t.
The simultaneous use of actual and contrapuntal sound becomes a defiance to the cinematic tradition. That explains why the cultural capital of the film lies primarily in the music-video essence, especially the manipulation of contrapuntal sound. The music and the visual track maintain a spatiotemporal continuity, but also disrupt linear predictability despite narrative coherence.
Everybody knows that Romeo and Juliet die in the end. But Romeo + Juliet, with its challenges to convention, forms a cinematic protest of sorts against monotony. Luhrmann’s film will stay with you for a long time.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.