Masala Shakespeare

by Jonathan Gil Harris

Category: Non-Fiction

Masala is a word that conjures up many associations. The word derives, through Urdu and Persian, from the Arabic ‘masalih’—ingredients. To a westerner, it immediately suggests exotic eastern spices. In its most widespread metaphorical use in India, it means embellishment or exaggeration. It also means a mixture—originally a mixture of ground spices, but more metaphorically any kind of mixture, especially one of cultural influences.
While Shakespeare today is considered ‘literature’ and is taught as a ‘pure’, ‘high’ form of art, in his own day it was the quintessential ‘masala’ entertainment he provided that attracted both the common people and the nobility. In Masala Shakespeare, Jonathan Gil Harris explores the profound resonances between Shakespeare’s craft and Indian cultural forms as well as their pervasive and enduring relationship in theatre and film. Indeed, the
book is a love letter to popular cinema and other Indian storytelling forms. It is also a love letter to an idea of India. One of the arguments of this book is that masala—and, in particular, the masala movie—is not just a formal style or genre. More accurately, it embodies a certain version of India, one that celebrates the plural, the polyglot, the all-over-the-place. The book is also ultimately a portrait of contemporary India with all its pluralities and contradictions.
In Masala Shakespeare, the author focuses on twelve Shakespeare plays—The Comedy of
Errors, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, Twelfth Night, Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet, King Lear, The Tempest, Pericles and Titus Andronicus— that have acquired Indian lives independent of the familiar English texts of the plays. The plays are a diverse mixture whose Indian avatars—including films such as Angoor, 10ml
Love, Ishaqzaade, Goliyon ki Rasleela Ram- Leela, Gundamma Katha, Isi Life Mein, DilBole Hadippa!, Maqbool, Omkara, Haider, Arshinagar and The Last Lear and plays such as Kamdev ka Apna Basant Ritu ka Sapna, Jangal mein Mangal, Chattan Kathu, Piya Behrupiya, Chahat ki Dastaan and Hera-Phericles—are very different from each other. In their own ways, however, they all chafe against an oppressive power by refusing the current vogue for shuddhta (purity), and singularity, and instead celebrate the plural and mixed.

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