Peter Bradshaw on the ‘Shakespearean’ in Bollywood

thanks to Tyler..
Dance In The Glade

Indians Who Made It Big Abroad

A.R. Rahman
Aishwarya Rai
Kabir Bedi
Freida Pinto
Shekhar Kapur
Om Puri
Anil Kapoor
Mallika Sherawat

A few years back, a screening of Mehboob Khan’s 1957 classic Mother India was laid on for British critics in London, to mark its re-release there. This took place in a small theatre in the Twentieth Century Fox building in the South-West corner of Soho Square; it’s a building in which I seem to have spent a great deal of my life in the last decade or so. We sat down to this mighty popular classic with a good deal of enjoyment—I did anyway. On the way out, I said breezily to my colleague, Derek Malcolm: “Well, they don’t make ’em like….” I was half-way through the old cliche when the words died on my lips. With a smile, Derek appeared to read my mind, and said: “Actually, they make ’em like that all the time!”

And it’s true. The Bollywood genre has survived and prospered mightily over the decades, offering its audience a genuine, thriving musical cinema long after Hollywood gave up on the idea. One thing the Indian film industry has had no difficulty surviving is the ignorance and condescension of the British reviewers: and I’m sorry and embarrassed to say that I could have done a lot more to reverse this situation in my case. And of course Indian cinema means more than just Bollywood. One of the first films I reviewed professionally was Santosh Sivan’s The Terrorist, in many ways a remarkable premonition of the global nightmare of 9/11. But here again I have had to defer to the great passion of my colleague Derek Malcolm, from whom I first heard the names of Guru Dutt, Bimal Roy, V. Shantaram, Ritwik Ghatak, and latterly Adoor Gopalakrishnan.

Just after I started on The Guardian in 1999, I made my first visit to South Asia: a trip to Dhaka, and then Delhi and Rajasthan in India. It was while I was there that I fell into conversation about the great master, Satyajit Ray. “You know The Music Room, of course?” I was asked. Numbly, I shook my head. More education was needed—I made a start on rectifying that, and before I left India I bought a copy of Ray’s fascinating short stories, a collection called Indigo, which is now on my desk as I write.

Indian cinema has a lowish profile in the British press currently. A while ago, distributors like Eros made a big effort to put on early screenings of their films for the press. When Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan: Once Upon A Time In India (2001) came out, it was a big event: the first mainstream Bollywood picture to feature British actors in the cast. I loved it. It had brashness, energy and life. There was a touch of Kurosawa in it, and Kipling too. Bollywood continues to be a mighty force in the UK, but it still functions below the media radar. Bollywood films are rarely reviewed—but the industry is so prosperous it does not need press attention. The colossal success of Danny Boyle’s Indian-set film Slumdog Millionaire in 2008 further popularised the Bollywood aesthetic and made it a media trope, but again Indian commercial cinema itself was not absorbed into the mainstream Anglophone movie business here. And again, I think that is evidence of the muscular independence and prosperity of an industry which simply dwarfs ours.

What happened is we woke up to the existence of massive stars like Amitabh Bachchan, Shahrukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai. Now, I myself have written rather ungallantly about Aishwarya, calling her performances wishy-washy. But I have to put on record that she is easily the most beautiful and glamorous star I have ever seen in the flesh: far more hypnotic than people like, say, Nicole Kidman or George Clooney, whom I have also stood near at various premieres. I once found myself standing near Aishwarya at a dinner at the Cannes Film Festival, and she was like an impossibly gorgeous creature from another planet, with a benign aura. I found myself standing there in a slack-jawed daze. Like everyone else.

Again and again, watching Bollywood movies I have been struck by their emphasis on bittersweet fantasy, and again and again I scribble the same words in the notebook on my lap: “Shakespeare”, or specifically “late Shakespeare”, the Shakespeare of Pericles, The Tempest and Cymbeline. However broad they are, the films have, for me, a connection with something dreamlike and gentle and escapist, which reminds me of Shakespeare—there’s simply no other way to describe it, although I know of no other writer who feels it as strongly as I do.

Now that brings me back to Satyajit Ray’s 1969 film, Days And Nights In The Forest: a wonderful film, which is a perfect example of Ray’s almost miraculous, unforced, untutored cinematic style. When the four bachelors encounter the two women from a well-to-do family in an elegant country estate, it conjures the sublimely Arcadian world of Shakespeare: the world of As You Like It or A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

I found myself re-reading Ray’s short story, Patol Babu, Film Star, about a middle-aged guy, quite the amateur thespian in his youth, who becomes wildly excited to be offered a walk-on part in a movie. All he has to do is bump into the leading man in the street and say the single word: “Oh!” And so, as he waits around for his scene, he frantically starts thinking about he can endow this monosyllable with meaning. This is a lovely, gentle, funny story, building up to something quite different from the embarrassing catastrophe I had been expecting. It’s a reminder of the energy, sophistication, and sheer enjoyment to be had from Ray, and Indian pictures generally.

(Bradshaw is film critic of The Guardian)

18 Responses to “Peter Bradshaw on the ‘Shakespearean’ in Bollywood”

  1. ‘It’s a reminder of the energy, sophistication and sheer enjoyment to be had from Ray, and Indian pictures generally.’

    That’s a pretty odd thing to say considering that Ray is hardly representative of Indian cinema in general. This piece strikes me as a political correct overcompensation for the condescension that Indian cinema is generally treated with in the West.


  2. Despite his intention to do just the opposite it is rather astonishing that Bradshaw puts everything from Mother India to Lagaan to Santosh Sivan to Ray under the ‘sign’ of Bollywood. Now he says at the outset that Indian cinema is “more than Bollywood” but nonetheless proceeds to move fluidly among these starkly different names and legacies.

    Leaving this aside there is the by now cliched error of lumping all of Bombay film industry under the same rubric. The old ‘song and dance’ charge seems to have legs yet! Would anyone ever think that Hollywood from the 30s was the same as Hollywood from the 50s, in turn the same as Hollywood from the 70s or 90s or what have you? A lack of exposure is not an excuse for a leading film critic. First he does have this exposure by now and ought to know better but even assuming it’s still limited so what?! When I knew little about Japanese cinema I didn’t think it was all the same no matter what the era! In fact why would one imagine this about any industry anywhere no matter how commercial and how devoted to formula cinema? Because there are very many ways of being commercial!

    Again there is from my perspective the relatively uninformed view that Bollywood is ‘like’ the Hollywood musical. My sense has always been that it is completely unlike it for the ways in which ‘time’ works very differently in both and how the music itself fulfills a very different purpose in each case.

    Nonetheless I am glad to see Bradshaw introduce the shakespeare analogy even if I think it can be used with greatest force and in the deepest structural sense for masala cinema with its similar and improbable mix of various genres.

    Finally there is an elegant and suggestive observation on Ray’s Days and Nights in the Forest. I certainly see the point but I remain unpersuaded that the essential tone of the film is that of Shakespearean romance (the examples Bradshaw has mentioned). Which is not to dispute the correspondence completely.

    Once again the lack of ‘competence’ in commentary on Bombay cinema (and Indian cinema) both from within India and ‘outside’ continues to be disappointing. And the writing reveals not just minor errors but massive gaps in understanding and really just fathoming this heritage. Bradshaw’s heart is in the right place but I wish his very impressionistic piece here had surer ground to stand on.


    • masterpraz Says:

      A very insightful comment here. I REALLY hope the tag that Bollywood films are all “song & dance” and also the really lame lame cliche of when India is portrayed in Hollywood film it’s all about slums and more slums will die out soon.

      Will be putting up your comment on my site with a reference to this article.

      Hope all is well


    • masterpraz Says:

      And here it is:

      Saw DEPARTMENT, and will be doing a series of reviews in coming days.


  3. I have too much on masala all over the blog (!) but here’s part of a longer comment from Bachchan’s blog:

    [I have often called masala a ’supergenre’ or the ‘genre of genres’. An analogy with Japan’s Samurai genre might be worthwhile here. The latter is within its contexts very much like masala a ‘super-genre’ as it often encompasses all other genres too. So within this you get the romance track, the thriller narrative, the action, the epic format and so forth. The only clear distinction is of course the fact that one always involves a period setting and the other is mostly contemporary (though there are important period exceptions.. Dharam Veer for example). In each instance, i.e. whether India or Japan, the supergenre in question has been historically useful to interrogate the entire the national experience all at once. These formats create complete Shakespearean worlds of the high and the low and the genres within (romance, thriller etc) are spread out across all cross-sections of this social divide. This results in a vast canvas or at least the promise of one even on a poor day for the genre. There is always more implicated in any ‘narrative’ here because more is included in its socio-political fold. ]

    and again from the same:

    [masala cinema has been in my view a unique (and uniquely Indian) mode to launch many of the interrogations that a meaningful cinema should always aspire to. The Mahabharata is masala in very many ways! So there is a strain of Indian thought and experience behind this. But it is not as if there could not be another to do the same. And I’d be all for it when and if this happens. Shakespeare for example is also the ultimate masala writer in history! Not to sound anachronistic here (though this would be appropriate for the Bard!) but the mix of elements I have earlier referred to are of course present in Shakespeare with simply unequaled fluidity and force. And so masala in commercial cinema is this sort of project where more is represented by way of people and ‘things’. It is just a more capacious world. This doesn’t mean that all cinema must only be about such a ‘world’. Not at all.]


    • related comment:

      [I have long felt that masala cinema with its mixing of the genres in unorthodox ways was like Shakespeare. And of course the influence of the Bard on various Indian theater traditions is well known and dates back to the 18th century if not earlier. Indian cinema in turn drew on these histories (including street theater). Javed Akhtar himself has been a translator of Shakespeare and even otherwise ‘Vijay’ is a rather romantic hero and the whole wave of Romanticism owes a great deal to Shakespeare. And the actor who breathed life into Vijay was of course one who had played parts from Shakespeare’s oeuvre. So there are all these interesting connections. I’ve said this before and more than once but leaving aside this entire ‘documentary’ trail there is something Shakespearean about all your important performances. In more ways than one]


    • from the masala post in the sidebar here:

      [It is akin to Shakespeare in many ways where you have the most lofty thoughts expressed in the most exquisite poetry in one moment and then you suddenly get the most obscene sexual puns! The overall effect of Shakespearean drama depends on such a juxtaposition of elements. These are in many ways questions of ‘filmic’ time. The comedy portions rudely interrupt the more serious dramatic ones and vice versa. The same is true for masala cinema. The genre operates in linear fashion on the one hand but also laterally in other ways. There are sequences that take the story forward and others that simply keep it ’still’. But both are equally necessary.]


    • finally:

      [Mani Rathnam in many ways seems to preserve the disjunctive aspect of musical numbers, at least on his best days. The musical number always involves a different sense of time and pace as opposed to the rest of the narrative. Or at least this is classic Indian commercial cinema as distinct from the classic Hollywood musical. The music has to be integrated into the script but also serves to subvert the latter in some ways. RDB is a more ‘Western’ effort in this sense. The great examples of Indian commercial cinema to my mind follow the ‘disjunctive’ principle at least as much as the ‘integration’ one. Because again this seems to define the musical number. Literally the time of the narrative is stopped for the moment of music to occur. The advancement of plot by way of the musical number is of relatively recent provenance in Indian cinema. for the vast period of this history the songs did interrupt plot and functioned in a quasi-operatic sense for the ‘intensification’ of various ‘passions’. The trick was to somehow balance this ‘disjunctive’ aspect with the demands of the narrative, or the remainder of the narrative.

      Now opera of course always works within a musical framework. The Hollywood musical follows by and large this logic with the spoken lines simply forming interludes to the music. But in Indian commercial cinema the non-music narrative and the musical one are really juxtaposed and play off each other. I think the best directors all did this. The Raj Kapoor example I quoted certainly respects these ‘disjunctive’ principles (in my terms).

      Rang De Basanti is faultless, the music is beautifully integrated but in a much more Hollywood-inspired sense with there essentially not being much difference between the actual soundtrack and the background score. In recent times the balance has shifted entirely in the other direction. Now there is total disjunction so that the musical numbers even when impressive often have no real relation to the narrative and could really be used in any other film as well.]


      [And here I have liked Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet. He ‘Bollywoodizes’ Shakespeare. Now perhaps he makes the Bard a bit too ‘pop’ (though those elements are also there in the text) but what I like about his film version is the fact that he captures the dynamic and sheer electric quality of Shakespeare’s narratives. Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet moves with a certain velocity and the musical numbers help greatly.]



  4. I don’t believe this at all but just see this-Manmohan Desai, one of the more successful Bollywood directors of the 1970s who is considered by many to be the father of the Masala film, defended his approach thusly: “I wantpeople to forget their misery. I want to take them into a dream world where there is no poverty, where there are no beggars, where fate is kind and god is busy looking after his flock.”

    here is the link-


  5. Alex adams Says:

    “[And here I have liked Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet. He ‘Bollywoodizes’ Shakespeare. Now perhaps he makes the Bard a bit too ‘pop’”
    Ha agree
    Lol@ ‘super genre ‘


  6. alex adams Says:

    thanx tyler
    have probably read this before
    undersatnds the iconicity of AAA…
    Also intersting how he starts about bachchan as “the biggest of the biggest…”
    “Amitabh Bachchan is the equivalent of merging Clooney, Pitt, Redford, Newman, Cary Grant, and Rock Hudson all into one actor. It may be that current star Shahrukh Khan is the biggest of star Bollywood has ever produced, but his predecessor is Amitabh Bachchan.”
    satyam–any comments lol about the second line
    think this deserves a thread…


  7. How on earth is Kabir Bedi or Mallika Sherawat on that list but not Irrfan Khan?!


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