Jonathan Gil Harris, Professor of English at Ashoka University, says that Indian popular culture, exemplified by Hindi movies, is connected to Shakespeare by a common recourse to “masala”, which he generously defines as a “concoction that is tasty and spicy, but it is also literally a mixture”.
As Shakespeare fed Indian theatre in the 19th and 20th centuries, the theatre fed the movies. Harris’s Masala Shakespeare is, he says, his “idiosyncratic critical memoir” that investigates these connections through the story of his own discovery of Indian absorptions of Shakespeare.
The book begins with what he thinks of as an essentially Shakespearean experience – watching Lagaan in Delhi’s Chanakya theatre at the turn of the millennium. He is enchanted both by a movie full of appealing fantasies of diversity, and a mixed crowd of people watching it. Shakespeare’s first audiences, in the London playhouses of the 1600s, were not so different. From there, through a mix of cultural criticism, film journalism, social history and lively, opinionated autobiography, he goes on to demonstrate how “a firangi writer” – the signifier is Shakespeare, but the signified is Harris himself – became Indian.
From the strong if simple argument that Shakespeare is too polyphonic to be irreducible, Harris derives a variety of ideas. First, he argues that although Shakespeare was imposed on India by Macaulayites, he was embraced and absorbed into an existing tradition of popular theatre that made him not a parent to modern Indian drama and cinema, but a twin.
He doesn’t linger on the wealth of scholarship that focuses on colonial Indian encounters with the play, even though this must have been impossible for a Shakespearean such as himself to avoid. Instead, Masala Shakespeare devotes praise and consideration to many contemporary forms of Shakespeare-related exertion, from the creations of theatre director Atul Kumar to Saikat Majumdar’s novel The Firebird, which takes colonial Calcutta theatre as its setting.
But the highlights of Masala Shakespeare are the movies. Harris pays marked attention here to Hindi films made after the turn of the millennium, rather than the obvious monuments. There are two reasons for this. The first is that his own discovery of Hindi movies took place over the last couple of decades. He may have begun with Lagaan, but Harris, an Anglophone new to Hindi cinema, is in some ways, the exemplary Dil Chahta Hai initiate (about which he includes a sparkling riff in Masala Shakespeare).
The second is Harris’s political concern about how India and its popular cinema have questioned and rejected old ideas about “masala” and mixing in the last 20 years. Of the “multiplex” effect of liberalisation in Hindi cinema, much has been said, and Harris does not argue with the Sunset Boulevard complex – “it’s the pictures that got small” – that many Indians have acquired about 21st-century Bollywood.
Harris doesn’t explicitly address electoral or party politics in the book, either, but he pointedly stares down “Englutva”, the puritanism of pretend-aristocrats and muscular social polarisers alike. (Swapan Dasgupta is not this book’s ideal reader.) Both Shakespeare and Hindi cinema stand to lose their life force when these counter-revolutionaries try to take the pluralism out of them.
Masala Shakespeare is counter-counter-revolution, a plea to Indians not to make the same mistake as the Victorians who took to revering Shakespeare at the cost of enjoying his work. As Harris has been a Shakespeare theatre-maker as well as a teacher, this argument may well be read as the former trying to reason with the latter. After all, for as long as we’ve had his work, Shakespeare’s heirs in the performing arts have joyously squandered their inheritance through translation, parody, abridgement and argument. Why rescue Shakespeare from the pulpit if he never really belonged there?
It appears from the book that the pluralist Shakespeare of the theatre has made few inroads into the classrooms and teaching methods Harris has encountered around India. In such spaces, Masala Shakespeare will arrive as an appealing argument, with a liberal, even comic worldview that’s easy to respect. I wonder, though, about what it says to Indian readers who came to Shakespeare from the opposite direction. There are many who, upon reading his plays for the first time in high school or college, recognised him as a kindred spirit because we had already been prepared for these goofy, multi-valent, sometimes even radical texts by the ridiculous (but also sublime) movies, to which they were distant ancestors.
A warning, not a plea
Harris’s interest in new Hindi cinema is bracing, as are his astute, often minutely inscribed readings of songs, scenes and sequences. His reflections on the continuities and divergences in the tradition of Gulzar and Vishal Bhardwaj – both Shakespeare adaptors as well as cross-generational collaborators – and essays on how Twelfth Night and Taming of the Shrew have been adapted in India are mischievous and thoughtful. If his choice of movies sometimes seems arbitrary, it’s difficult to complain: a memoir must be allowed its eccentricities, even if Angoor needs no defenders, and Ishaqzaade (yes, really) deserves none.
Harris’s breadth of Shakespearean experience is astonishing, although the book wears this lightly. From making theatre in New Zealand to scholarship in the United States to teaching and even the chieftainship of the Indian Shakespeare Society, I wish the book had been more personal yet, and left arguments such as Harris’s declaration of himself as a “love jihadi” in cross-cultural partnership with an Indian, implicit. The term was not, after all, invented to hunt and oppress men with Harris’s racial and socio-economic privileges.
From its beginnings in Elizabethan London, Shakespeare’s work has comforted the afflicted while trying not to get thrown out of court by afflicting the comfortable too much. The Victorians could classicise him; authoritarians could co-opt him; today’s oligarchs are usually happy to deal out loose change for new prestige productions. Masala Shakespeare is not really a plea for cultural preservation, either of Shakespeare or of “classic” Hindi cinema. It’s a warning that an obsession with self-regarding, middlebrow tastefulness cannot co-exist with grand fantasy – and that it will never be sufficiently humane to settle for the former.
Masala Shakespeare: How a Firangi Writer Became Indian, Jonathan Gil Harris, Aleph Book Company.