Vishal Bhardwaj

Postcolonial Shakespeares in India

 

Interview audio 

Published on 26 September 2023. 

 

Vishal Bhardwaj, a South Asian man in a black t-shirt and dark-framed spectacles smiles at the camera.

Vishal Bhardwaj; photograph courtesy of Sujit Jaiswal

 

Interview transcript 

Introduction

 

Amrita Dhar 

Hello and welcome. My name is Amrita Dhar, and I am the Director of the project Shakespeare in the “Post”Colonies which is hosting a series of interviews with postcolonial Shakespeareans from around the world.

In today’s conversation, my collaborator Dr Amrita Sen and I speak with the Bollywood film director, screen-writer, producer, music-composer, and singer Vishal Bhardwaj.

Conversation

Amrita Dhar 

Vishal, would you mind introducing yourself, please, to start us off? 

Vishal Bhardwaj 

It’s very difficult for me to introduce myself, but I’m a filmmaker in Mumbai, and I work for Bollywood, and I had been working for past many, many years, more than now thirty years. I have been a music composer. I started my career as a music composer. My first commercial release was in ’95, ’96, a film called Maachis. In early 2000, I shifted my career to direction, and my first film was released in 2002.  It was a kids’ film called Makdee. Since then, I have directed ten films, yeah, ten, eleven films.  

Amrita Dhar 

And we are here to talk to you about your work with Shakespeare and we’re going to get there in a second. But I just want to note here that Shakespeare appears very early in your directorial career. Is it perhaps just the second film that you…

Vishal Bhardwaj 

Yeah.

Amrita Dhar

… did, Maqbool

Promotional poster for the film Maqbool, directed by Vishal Bhardwaj.

Film poster for Maqbool, directed by Vishal Bhardwaj (2003)

 

Vishal Bhardwaj 

Yes. Yes, it was, it was my second film. In fact, I wanted that to be my first film, but somehow, I was not able to arrange funds or got a producer to produce that film. So, in fact, when I went to shoot my first film, Makdee, I had the, that script with me, of Maqbool

Amrita Dhar 

Let me ask you right away about the choice of the films that you have directed. And why these particular Shakespeare plays—Maqbool from Macbeth, Omkara from Othello, and Haider from Hamlet

Amrita Sen 

And if I might tag on to that, why Shakespeare at all? I mean, why did you want your first film to be Shakespeare? 

Vishal Bhardwaj

Oh, there’s so many questions in these two questions! It’s a very, very long journey, because Maqbool, we started shooting in 2002/2003, I think. So it’s like 20 years back. So, why Shakespeare at all is that one thing very early in my life I discovered and realized—that I am not that aesthetically profound writer as Shakespeare was. So, I knew that fact, and I realized it very early. And not just Shakespeare or lot, like many others, you know, that I’m not a great, a writer. So, once you know your weakness— You know, there’s a saying in Zen,  that “I’m a fool, I know I’m a fool, so, I’m no longer a fool.”  So, to recognize your foolishness and your stupidity early in life, you know, helped me. To be very honest, and I won’t pretend, that I wanted to make a film in underworld genre. And for a filmmaker, that’s a very juicy genre, you know. And so, I was looking for a story for this underworld genre. My problem with the underworld films were that they end up in the gang wars, or the people killing each other, mindless violence. Rarely you see a film like Godfather, which is so deep, and then like many other films later, Martin Scorsese’s, many films after that, and Coppola’s films, and many other films, you know. But rarely in India. There were very, very less films which were made with deep profoundness where you can get into human psyche and see them as humans. Not just see them as caricature-ish, you know, violence-mongers and, you know, gun-wielding gangsters.  

So, accidentally, I was traveling in a… And I was a very bad student. I never wanted to be a filmmaker, I wanted to be a cricketer in my life. Shakespeare used to scare me in school. I remember Merchant of Venice in class eighth, ninth, and it was so scary [laughs], my God. So, I didn’t have a good impression of Shakespeare [laughs], because I was a sportsman, and you have to mug things up.  

And one thing which I realized later, you know, Shakespeare, you can only understand when you are above thirty, when you’re matured, the depth of it. But it has to be seeded in in your childhood. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have known about Merchant of Venice, either. So, accidentally, you know, my godson was there with me. We were travelling in a train. From Dehradun to Delhi. And my godson was with me. He was in class eighth, and I was accompanying him back from his hostel to Mumbai. So, we had to catch a flight from Delhi. I was getting bored, it was like a four, five hours’ journey. And I asked him, “Do you have any storybook with you?” Toh, he said, “Yeah, I have that.” And he brought out that Lambs’, that abridged version of Shakespeare.

 

The cover of the book Tales from Shakespeare: A Folger Shakespeare Library Edition, by Charles and Mary Lamb.

Tales From Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb (1807; Folger Shakespeare Library, 1979)

 

And I, accidentally the first story I read was Macbeth. I was shocked to read that. I think it was a slow process for me. Now when I look back… So, I watched Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, early. Again, you know, I was shocked when actually Macbeth kills the king, Duncan. I remember watching it, even when I was watching Throne of Blood. And then again, I go back, that, when I watched, in eighties, Gulzar sa’ab’s Angoor, and in the last shot, Shakespeare’s portrait was there, and he winks from his portrait.

 

Film poster for the film Angoor; image showing two eggs, from each of which two human twins appear to be hatching.

Film poster for Angoor, directed by Gulzar (1982)

 

That image was also there in my head. And I think all that came back. And I realized that you know, how shallow am I, that I have not read this great writer and it has been coming to me again and again and again since my childhood. So, the moment I reached Bombay, I, I bought not just Macbeth, but all his plays. And I started with Macbeth. And then I went into research. It’s always there in my life, you know. Right now, two [Shakespeare] books are here. No Fear Shakespeare is still there! And I read the critical analysis and the essays from various scholars. I just jumped into this sea of Shakespeare. And I came out very enriched.  

And first was this Macbeth. And in India, you know, in those days, especially— Now, we have OTT platforms where we have executives who have read, and still if they have not read, they can act very well that they have read. And so, in those days, the underworld had just gone out of Bollywood. And there was still a lot of black money and the people with black money were producing. It was very difficult to… I remember a very close friend of mine, he was like one of my mentors, but he was into commercial filmmaking. Very a nice man, great. And understanding of commercial cinema and you know, parallel cinema. He was the guy who, who supported the parallel cinema the most in our country in ’70s. Mr. Manmohan Shetty. He owned Adlabs at that time, and he was the guy who made films like Ardh Satya. And all Shyam Benegal films, Govind Nihalani’s films. He was the, like the torchbearer of parallel cinema. Great man. In those days, IDBI—it’s a bank—toh they had came out with a policy they that they will fund feature films. I had applied for a loan because nobody was coming to make the film I wanted to make. So, one day he called me home, and he said, “You know, today I did you favour.”  The Bank had a committee, special committee, executive committee made from the film industry where they will evaluate a film, whether, you know, their money will come back or not from this. So, he called me home and said, “Come for a drink.” And he said, after cheers, “I saved you. I did a big favor to you by rejecting your loan.” So, I was heartbroken. I said, “I was so much looking forward to this, ke, at least, you know, I’ll get a loan.” He said, “Are you mad? Who’s going to watch Shakespeare? Who is going to watch Naseeruddin Shah, Tabu, and Irrfan? And the kind of money… You will end up selling your own house. I care for you, that’s why I rejected it.”

So, I said, nothing doing, this film is not going to get made. And then he told me, “I’m giving you advice, because I’ve made so many parallel cinema films, please take off Shakespeare’s name in it, because the financiers will not finance it, they will think this is something so…” It would be something so surreal, and, you know, literary, that people… There wouldn’t be any entertainment in it. I was scarred in the brain. But I had so much faith in my script, and I knew that this is going to work. But I didn’t realize the path I am getting into. Because I thought that this is like a small world of Bollywood, which is not respected by West, in any case, and they see us as people dancing around the trees, singing, and all that. This is not going to go out of Mumbai or Andheri or maximum Delhi. Toh, I took all the liberties I could take in Shakespeare’s Macbeth and I made, changed the Lady Macbeth into King Duncan’s mistress, and all those kinds of things I did. But later, I realized, when the film was appreciated, that you know, I could have really gone wrong also with that. This is how my relationship with Shakespeare started.  

Amrita Dhar 

Did you take Shakespeare’s name off your next funding proposal? 

Vishal Bhardwaj 

No, actually, that was again a story in that. So, you know, the film was premiered in Toronto Film Festival, Macbeth [Maqbool]. Even then, I, I’d not realized the kind of, the mess I could have gotten into if I had gone wrong with Shakespeare. So, after the screening, the international press was there. And the kinds of questions they asked me… I had not even thought that somebody would know who lady Macbeth… You know, I was not expecting those kinds of appreciation and analysis of that work. I got scared. After making Macbeth. That once I have saved myself, it will be very difficult to save myself the next time.  

But I came back to Othello. Because that was also the back of my mind. Even now, like I have Shakespeare lying on my table. It’s like my fixed deposit. So the moment I feel okay, people are not taking notice of me, okay, I’ll take one Shakespeare and make one Shakespeare. [laughs] And I have that kind of, a little envy towards that. Because why can’t I think of something of, so profound and yet so, you know, reachable, that you can connect with. So I try to do on my, my own story… When I fail again and again and again, I go back to Shakespeare.  

So that’s what happened in Othello. And when Naseeruddin Shah—great actor—so when he came to know that I’m making Othello… He met me once, we were in a festival together, and he said, “Why are you making a film on Shakespeare’s weakest play?” So according to him, it was. I, I didn’t know. And later when I read critical analysis, so it was like 50% people thought that it’s not in top of his tragedies. So, again, I got scared. But I said that “You have to read my script, my version of it. Because the way I have brought in the politics and the socio-political, economical problems of my country. In that context, you have to read it.” Then I told him that, “Even then, if you feel that, you know, I shouldn’t make it, I won’t.” But he read it overnight. And he said, “No, you have to make it. And now, I’m doing this part. Because it is so good.”

Then I came to Hamlet after eight years. That was 2006.  

Amrita Dhar 

Let me just take one step back and go back to the school stuff that you were talking about. You said Shakespeare scared you. Can you elaborate?  How present was Shakespeare in your school curriculum? What was the school curriculum? Where was this? And how do you mean that Shakespeare scared you? 

Vishal Bhardwaj 

[laughs] Okay, so, I was in a place called Meerut in UP [Uttar Pradesh]. Very close to Delhi, like one and a half hour away from Delhi. I was in government school. Because I wanted to be a sports person, there was no thrust towards… Ki, it was just a matter to, you know, get pass. Not any division, first division, second division, third division, it didn’t matter to me and my father. Because he was supporting me. My mother was still that, you know, “You have to get good marks.” My father was that: “You want to be sportsman, I don’t want you to, just, that don’t get failed in your class. So, just pass and no problem.”  In sports, if you want to be professional cricketer, or any professionals, then your routine is totally different. So, you come to your books, only, like two months before your, or a month before your exams. And at that time, if you have, Shakespeare, though, thou, you know, that kind of thing…  And there was no, like a inquiry from inside. It used to be like, ki  “Sine theta plus cos theta, you know, what happens in…” You know, who cares?

Amrita Dhar

[laughs]

Vishal Bhardwaj

Okay, I had to get passed. It was like that towards Shakespeare. [laughs]

But, you know, there was some creative person who was also behind that sportsman who was equally strong—which I didn’t know. So, I remember that pound of flesh. That I remember. When I reached there, because when we were reading that, I still remember, that “How will this get solved?” Because, yeh toh, you know, he is going to cut a pound of flesh from his body. So, when that twist came… All this came back to me. So, the “scary” is just that because there was no interest. When your thrust is to just that you have to just pass and get a degree. And so, the scary was because I didn’t have any interest in it. Of course, if you have interest in something, then you won’t say that it’s scary.  

Amrita Dhar 

And this was all happening in English?  

Vishal Bhardwaj 

Yeah, yeah. 

Amrita Dhar 

And the curriculum obliged you to read how many plays? 

Vishal Bhardwaj 

Yes. I remember only Merchant of Venice

Amrita Sen 

And around which class would this be?  

Vishal Bhardwaj 

It was class ninth grade. And I’m, I’m so happy that they had in their curriculum… I want to go back and see that they must be having even now in, in a government school.

Amrita Sen

Yeah.

Vishal Bhardwaj

And government schools are very bad, in very bad shape in, in India. I’m very happy that what’s happening in Delhi, this AAP government, what has done. The government schools, actually, have overtaken these public schools. So, in UP, in those days, it was in a very bad shape. Even now, they will be in a very bad shape.  

Amrita Sen 

And they still had Shakespeare.  

Amrita Dhar 

Exactly. What would you say was the general level of interest? Was it about the same among your friends that you can think of? What was it like? 

Vishal Bhardwaj 

In those days, what used to happen, especially in a government school, because people used to come from all the economic strata… The only thing was either you become a doctor or an engineer. In a government school, who will pursue arts? After tenth, when you have to select either for biology or maths, if you have to become a doctor, you take that. In those days, if then you have to go to IIT, you take math, science. Art, I don’t remember, ki people used to, even… Because it was forced that you have to, you know, like a subsidy subject, you have to pass in English. 

Amrita Sen 

Right, right. Thinking now, and it’s not an exaggeration at all what I’m going to say next, which is that you have, in a sense, completely revolutionized Shakespeare adaptation, cinematic Shakespeare adaptation, not only when it comes to Indian films, but also globally. I’m sure you’re aware of this, that you know, when it comes to global Shakespeares, everyone turns to your films, because it’s not just what Shakespeare had said or written, but also everything that you’ve added to it, the interpretation that you’ve made to it, which makes Shakespeare come alive. Which, perhaps he can’t in the classrooms where they are not performed.  Shakespeare’s plays were originally meant to be performed. Unfortunately, in Indian curriculum, that does not happen. It does not happen in the schools. It also does not happen in the universities. And I was wondering, you know, as you were making these films, and as you were adding your own amazing, interesting inputs into them, what was the most difficult thing for you to direct? What was the most difficult part of Shakespeare?  

Vishal Bhardwaj 

Everything. And I’ll be very specific, each film had a different thing. Because, now, Gulzar sa’ab, you know, he disagrees with me on many terms. He thinks that I have just, you know, exploited Shakespeare’s name. To get noticed. I use Shakespeare’s name. And we have a lot of argument over it many times. He’s like my father.  

But the difficult part… I’ll first come to your question here. The first one was the easiest one. Macbeth. Usme, I’ll come to the difficult, but the overall adaptation of Macbeth was so easy, because I didn’t have the burden of Shakespeare on my shoulders. I thought, nobody will care. First, I was a first-time filmmaker who’s coming from music into filmmaking. Nobody trusted me. Nobody had, and rightfully so, that, thought that I’ll be a good filmmaker, I’ll make  a good film. I had no training in filmmaking.  I was so looked down upon by everyone, when I was shifting from music to filmmaking, that I also became very careless, that who is going to care? Whatever liberties I have to take, I’ll take. I’ll make three witches into two, I’ll make witches into the cops. And of course, I was being very, very honest to the spirit of the play, not the text of the play, because I knew that what I felt after reading Macbeth, I have to translate that feeling. 

Amrita Dhar 

I’m going to here tell you that that actually was the moment when I thought, “Okay, this man is a genius.” 

Vishal Bhardwaj 

[laughs] 

Amrita Dhar 

There is something that Shakespeare can access about very peculiar energies in the world around him. And he finds a way to suggest, just suggest something. 

Vishal Bhardwaj 

Yes. 

Amrita Dhar 

And that gathers its own momentum.

Vishal Bhardwaj

Yeah.

Amrita Dhar

And to me, the three witches becoming these “forces-of-nature-balancing-each-other”-rhetoric cops, was the moment when I thought, “Okay, now I am interested.” 

Vishal Bhardwaj 

[laughs] Thank you, thank you, Amrita. So, that overall adaptation was not a problem. Because the problem came in actually Hamlet. Because that’s the most difficult play to adapt. 

Amrita Sen 

Yes.  

Vishal Bhardwaj 

The longest play. And no drama, interiority. And the people were scaring me, that there’s so much internalized character. It will be so boring on screen. Why are you doing this.? And somewhere I had to choose between Hamlet and Julius Caesar and King Lear. And I was very, very keen for King Lear. And it was like 50/50, rather divided that what should I take? I’ll come to that, that why did I choose Hamlet?  

So in Macbeth, the most difficult scene for me was Banquo’s ghost.

Amrita Sen

Ah.

Vishal Bhardwaj

When it appeared, when Macbeth freaks out. 

Amrita Sen 

Yeah. 

Vishal Bhardwaj  

My co-writer Abbas Tyrewala was with me, and we wrote that scene. It was written that he gets, in our Maqbool context, that Banquo’s son was killed, was attacked and Banquo’s killed. So, he used to get, like, Irrfan is sitting, that our Maqbool is sitting in a ceremony, and he gets a call that son fleed and the father died, and he freaks out over the phone. So, when we were on set and we started shooting, that bothered me that Maqbool or Macbeth losing his mental balance and freaking out making it so obvious for everyone that actually it is him who has killed. We have to see Banquo’s ghost. We have to bring that element into our screenplay. I rewrote that scene that the cops bring the dead body. Before they take it to the police station, they bring it to Maqbool’s haveli. And that’s where he hallucinates that he’s not dead, and he’s opened his eyes, and he freaks out. So that was the parallel of ghost for me, ki, at least. you know, I got this impact that he hallucinated this ghost of Banquo.  

 

 

My co-writer, he objected so strongly on this, that this is so loud, this is so bloody Bollywood, you are doing. And it’s so subtle that when he gets the news over the phone. And I shared this conflict with all the actors, Irrfan, Naseer sa’ab, Om-ji. And, so they all sided with my co-writer. That dekh, maybe he’s right, maybe you’re wrong. And I called up Gulzar sa’ab. I was so convinced that they are feeling it. Because Shakespeare also goes over the top many times. Very over the top. But the profoundness and the depth of that over the top is so, like Hamlet’s soliloquies, or many other places… And gravediggers sing in his play. So, I was convinced that this needs to be a little over the top, we’ll do it very, very elegantly, so it won’t feel loud. So I spoke to Gulzar sa’ab over the phone. And I told him that this is the conflict. He said that “I don’t want to pass a judgement, but if you’re a director, if you’re feeling that it should be done, it should be done. Tell me what’s your apprehension.” So, I told him my only apprehension as director is the logic that two cops, they cannot bring a dead body to a gangster’s house before doing a panchnama and taking him to the police station. Toh he said, “first thing is that these cops are so corrupt in your film, they are witches, they can do anything.” Second thing was he told me—I always remember it—he said “In cinema, emotion is stronger than logic.” So, emotionally, if you think this is going to make more impact, nobody’s going to think of the logic. 

Amrita Sen 

Willing suspension of disbelief.  

Vishal Bhardwaj 

Yes. And nobody ever asked me this question. And I was going so much into detail of the logic, the cops, they can’t do panchnama, before panchnama, and how can they bring, and after panchnama, they can’t bring… [laughs] 

So this was one thing. Then, climax of Othello. In that, there was a lot of overhearing in Shakespeare’s Othello. Then people overhear and then they react, overhear, they misunderstand. So, how to weave that into contemporary time. That’s where I remember using, on phone…

Amrita Dhar

Hm.

Vishal Bhardwaj

… he puts him on the speaker and makes him hear. That the line which he wants him to make it hear, that he is sleeping with his wife. And he’s saying about his own girlfriend, but he interprets it for his wife.  

And of course, in Hamlet, the soliloquies, the disappearance of father. And “To be or not to be”–I mean, it’s a challenge to have to translate it or to interpret it in your own context. TohHum hain hi hum nahin,woh jo aya. And that came in the context with Kashmir, because Kashmir became Hamlet in that itself, like the existence of, ki do I exist, or do I not? To be or not to be is actually Kashmir.  

Amrita Dhar 

I’m very glad you’re talking about, you know, these political dimensions, because I wanted to ask you about that. And it sounds from what you’re saying that it may not have been overtly how you started the adaptation process, that you had specifically a political or even polemical statement to make. But as scholars, it is very hard to not see some very strong statements in each of the films. What was that process like for you, and how do you feel about how things have shaped up? Haider may be most explicitly the film with political dimensions, but I see that in all the three. 

Vishal Bhardwaj 

Yeah. I think the filmmaker is a journalist, he has a journalist’s job, to bring the truth in front, with entertainment, hidden behind the entertainment. Every filmmaker has his own personality. Some may not think like that, some may think like that. But I think it’s my job to, to react to the circumstances I’m living in, to bring out on screen what I feel, and the social, political conditions of my country. That I have to react. So that’s how I think. And I think I’m impolitical person from inside. I don’t belong to any left wing or right wing, I think I’m a centrist. But I’m against injustice.

Amrita Dhar 

This ties to something that this series of interviews is trying to think very deeply about. The series is called Shakespeare in the “Post”Colonies.

Vishal Bhardwaj

Mm.

Amrita Dhar

And what do we mean by that? Where this work started was with a realization that colonialism has never ended, even in places that have apparently reached some kind of political post-, or after of colonialism. The violence of colonialism is such that it has evolved into neocolonialism, that… 

Vishal Bhardwaj 

Yeah. 

Amrita Dhar 

… the most disenfranchised have only changed masters in the name of this so-called “post-”colonialism. And that is why we have the “post” in scare quotes for this project. I want to ask you about how you position… You just said you are against injustice. And you mentioned that you consider the work of the filmmaker to almost be like that of a journalist, to show on screen a socially responsive reaction to what is happening in the world around you. I wanted to ask you, how do you see yourself? Do you in any explicit way position yourself as a postcolonial filmmaker? We are all postcolonial by inheritance. But perhaps we all have very different positions to our postcoloniality, and I wanted to ask you about yours. 

Vishal Bhardwaj 

So, as you rightly said, I believe in that it’s a different kind of colonial thing which we are having now. And so, maybe, the names, and the and the color of the master can be different, but the master never changes. So, so that’s the thing, it never changes. Master remains the same, and his greed and his want and his injustice, and his sin, hardly any virtue, remain same.  

Amrita Sen 

In this respect, I have a slightly different but I think related question that has to do with your choice in casting, the actors specifically, the repetitions. Like Naseeruddin Shah, for instance, as Purohit in Maqbool and then Bhaisaab, the Duke— And then Tabu, of course, who’s absolutely amazing. Nimmi in Maqbool and then Ghazala. And then, Irrfan Khan as Maqbool but also Roohdar. I mean, why return to these actors to play these roles? 

Vishal Bhardwaj 

I wish, you know, I had one common actor in all three films. I should have had Naseeruddin Shah, or Tabu. Either Tabu in Omkara or Naseer in Haider. So that would have been one continuity of an actor and that is not there. Or Irrfan in Omkara.

Amrita Sen

Yeah.

Vishal Bhardwaj

I think because they’re great actors. And Tabu. And I miss Irrfan so much that every day I feel that there’s something missing in my life, because, my creative life, especially. And yeh Tabu is a great actor. There’s not a conscious pattern in this. It’s like ki, who will be the best Ghazala. And Tabu was so reluctant to play that part. It took me so long to convince her, so long to woo her to play that. Yeah, and Irrfan was great. Irrfan… And I wanted him to play the Ghost. And he was so lovely. Given a chance, I would love to make films again and again, with Tabu and Naseeruddin Shah. They are great performers. They elevate your writing to some other level when they play it on screen. 

Amrita Sen 

Yeah. 

Vishal Bhardwaj 

So it’s that greed that because as a writer, as director, you bring it to a point, they make it alive on the screen. They give them life. So really it’s a collaboration of two minds and two souls. So, then we come together on a screen, I can express myself through them. Then you need the best medium to do that. 

Amrita Sen 

Your interpretation of Hamlet’s ghost is Roohdar. That was, again, absolutely brilliant. But that also sort of brings into focus the political angst that we’ve all been talking about, right? So, it’s really interesting how you interpret Shakespeare’s Ghost.  What made you go with the decision of actually having someone in the flesh, so to speak, when it came to the Ghost of Hamlet’s father? 

Vishal Bhardwaj 

So, after making Macbeth and adapting Macbeth and Othello, I realized one thing, the taste of blood was there on my tongue, that to interpret making a ghost a ghost would have been the easiest thing to do.

Amrita Sen

Hm.

Vishal Bhardwaj

So, how to interpret witches into cops? In contemporary time, the best witches you can have in the, in our world are the cops. So, one thing which again, my co-writer and myself— Basharat Peer is the co-writer in that, very, very profound journalist from Kashmir. And I had never been to Kashmir ’til I directed Haider. I had never been to Kashmir. I wanted to make a film on Kashmir because I thought that the representation of what’s happening in Kashmir, it’s so one-sided, so, like, a state’s point of view, or journalistic point of view, or a jingoistic point of view. We are not going and seeing what’s happening on the ground, to see the inside out. Who can give solution to such a, you know, such a complicated situation? So at least see, see it from inside out. That’s when, you know, I read this book, his book.  

Amrita Dhar 

Curfewed Night.  

Vishal Bhardwaj 

Yeah. It’s a very interesting story actually, I should tell you. So, first I was making Hamlet. Again, you know, a shallow child has not died in me. I wanted to make it a film on espionage. So the spy film, you know, people are following each other in disguise. And, you know, you don’t know who is the right person or the wrong person. Alfred Hitchcock kind of espionage. So I developed, with a friend of mine, Hamlet in espionage world. And it was like very well developed, like 30-35 pages, whole story we wrote. And he’s a very great writer, Steve Alter. First thing, actually, I decided in Hamlet, that we are not representing Ghost as a ghost, we will find a parallel to that. So, again, Gulzar sa’ab, when he read my espionage version of Hamlet, and he said, “Yeah, it’s very good, but it’s like, very, you know, regular American CIA thriller. Where is the tragedy in it? Hamlet is a tragedy.” 

 

Film poster for Haider, directed by Vishal Bhardwaj. A man looks over his shoulder while holding a rock, his teeth bared. Beside him is the text UTV Motion Pictures in Association with Vishal Bhardwaj Pictures Presents, a Vishal Bhardwaj Film, Hairder, an adaptation of William Shakespeare's Hamlet, releasing 2nd October.

Film poster for Haider, directed by Vishal Bhardwaj (2014)

 

Amrita Dhar

Hm.

Vishal Bhardwaj

And my first reaction was “He’s not able to see what I’m trying to do.” And after two days, you know, my ego, you know, it took the backseat, and I realized maybe, you know, he’s right. And that night, I woke up and I found my wife Rekha, she was reading Basharat’s book and crying. So I asked her what happened, she said, it’s such a tragic account of what happened to him as he’s growing, his growing years.

 

The book cover for Curfewed Night by Basharat Peer.

Curfewed Night by Basharat Peer (Penguin Random House, 2010)

 

Amrita Sen

Hm.

Vishal Bhardwaj

And that remained with me. And then I took out that book and read it and I realized that this is where I should place Haider. So in that we had already decided that, you know, the Ghost is not going to be a ghost. Then Basharat— Because there’s so many extra judicial deaths in Kashmir… There’s a scene in Hamlet, in Haider, there they have a graveyard of unknown bodies. So they have numbered them. So every grave has a number and they have clicked a photograph. So if someone comes looking for their loved one, they can show him that okay, is this a photograph? That this is grave #… That is so tragic. So, Basharat’s… that’s how we made this Roohdar’s character. Who was his father’s friend.  

Amrita Sen 

Yes, yes, yes.

Vishal Bhardwaj 

They were in jail together, and… It was a very, very good parallel to Ghost. 

Amrita Sen 

And it works so well. Someone who is literally a ghost you know, like, literally cannot be mapped, cannot be recognized, by any of the legal structures.  

Amrita Dhar 

And he is supposed to have died. So he is technically a ghost.  

Vishal Bhardwaj 

Yeah. 

Amrita Dhar 

He just managed to make it out alive. 

Amrita Sen 

Yeah.  

Amrita Dhar 

So it’s a fantastic use of a kind of haunting. And I also thoroughly enjoyed the Salmans.  

Vishal Bhardwaj 

[laughs] Yeah. 

Amrita Sen 

[laughs] 

Vishal Bhardwaj  

Yeah, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, yeah. 

Amrita Dhar 

I mean, the absurdity but also the… It’s not quite tragedy what they are up to, it almost is farce. But…

Vishal Bhardwaj 

Yeah. 

Amrita Dhar 

… even that, I mean, there is such heartbreak in all the ways in which these human beings are impacted… 

Vishal Bhardwaj 

Yeah.

Amrita Dhar

… in this landscape.  

Vishal Bhardwaj

And that’s the reality of it, you know, that it’s so absurd. The theatre of absurd it is, that place.

 

 

That, you know, there’s such huge fans of Salman Khan in Kashmir, that youth at that time. So they’re, you know, there’s a film, called, titled Tere Naam, had come in early 2000. And, you know, all the boys, the young boys of Kashmir, they copied his hairstyle. Which was very funny, which was, our Salman and Salman also have it. So, you know, there was one terrorist, one militant, whose name was Tere Naam. So everybody named him Tere Naam, because he had that Salman Khan’s hairstyle. So I thought that, because I’m making a film in that era, I have to give this homage to Salman Khan in that, and that’s what the best way. And again, you know, my love for spy things, Salman and Salman come from Thomson and Thompson, you know, so, these two things met. [laughs] Thomson and Thompson, Salman and Salman, yeah.

Amrita Dhar 

And equally, clearly you have either sometimes over the top and sometimes understated, clearly, you have a very quirky sense of humor—there is also that that comes across [laughs] with the Salmans and the Salmans.

Vishal Bhardwaj  

[laughs] 

Amrita Dhar 

We have to talk about Omkara. Othello is one of the most fraught plays. Where I am, and I am teaching Othello right now…

Vishal Bhrdwaj

Mm.

Amrita Dhar

… it is the play that, like The Merchant of Venice, the state government doesn’t want us to teach because it is supposed to be “divisive content.”

Vishal Bhardwaj

Ah.

Amrita Dhar

Divisive content, why? Because you’re talking about interracial marriage, you’re talking about a Black man, this white woman, you’re talking about tragedy…

Vishal Bhardwaj

Ah.

Amrita Dhar

… you’re talking about the stage history of Othello, and so on.  

Vishal Bhardwaj 

Hm. Yeah. 

Amrita Dhar 

And I guess I wanted to ask you, first of all, and feel free to talk about method, feel free to talk about craft, but…

Vishal Bhardwaj 

Yeah…

Amrita Dhar 

… how did you arrive at Omakara as the half-caste, the “adha-Shukla,” the “adha-Bahman”… 

Vishal Bhardwaj  

Yeah, the “adha-Bahman” yeah…

Amrita Dhar

Yes.

Vishal Bhardwaj 

So, again, you know, again the parallel of “Moor”—that how do you, you know, find a parallel to “Moor” in your own context. So, in UP, you know, there is such a caste thing. In UP… Leave UP, all of India, we are…

Amrita Dhar 

Everywhere, yeah.

Vishal Bhardwaj 

… so casteist. Yeah. So, this half-caste came from trying to find the parallel of “Moor” in your context. And I’m from UP, and I know, over there, there’s upper caste and lower caste is so, the people kill each other. I mean, the gangs, have their caste. Like upper caste gang and the lower… In Bihar, they have Ranvir Sena, you know, the gangs of the thakurs, and dacoits of the thakurs, and dacoits of the Dalits. So it was very easy to find, actually, but, again, I didn’t want to play with the colour of the skin. I wanted to play, you know, the colour of the inner, inner being. It’s not in my hands to, you know, be born in a [laughs] upper caste or lower caste, but what we do to ourselves is the thing. So, it was very easy to find the parallel for half-caste Brahmin. 

 

Film poster for Omkara, directed by Vishal Bhardwaj. The main cast's faces are shown across the image, and below is the text: Shamaroo Films presents Omkara, a Vishal Bhardwaj adaptation of Shakespeare's 'Othello,' produced by Kumar Mangat.

Film poster for Omkara, directed by Vishal Bhardwaj (2006)

 

Amrita Dhar 

It works very, very well. Just as there has, for a long time, been a lot of resistance to seeing Othello, truly a person potentially of African descent in Shakespeare scholarship— In Shakespeare scholarship, there has been all kinds of arguments about how Othello cannot be really Black, because look at his beautiful language, and so on.  

Vishal Bhardwaj 

[laughs] 

Amrita Dhar 

So, in the kind of pervasive casteism that we are all familiar with, in India, it works brilliantly. And the other side of the story, of course, in that play, is with gender. The tragedy precipitates where pre-circulated ideas about caste and pre-circulated ideas about gender, all negative, reinforce each other. And that’s where the tragedy happens. Could you, could you talk a little bit about Dolly? 

Vishal Bhardwaj 

Yeah, Dolly and that Indu, you know…

Amrita Dhar

Yes.

Vishal Bhardwaj

… that Konkona’s character. That was my favorite character in the film. And I was so happy to make Iago killed by his own wife. I enjoyed so much when you open the door and she kills him, you know? So, yeah, that’s the liberty I took in, in that. My female characters in general are very strong. And that when I look back at my work, I realize that you know, I’m more fascinated in exploring the female characters, because for various reasons, because I think especially in our society, this… we’ve repressed our women a lot. And in my own family, I saw it. So, and maybe I was conditioned at that time also like that. So it’s direction to my own upbringing and retaliation towards that.

And, like, this Manusmriti? I feel, feel so horrible that our, the ancient men, they were so repressive and so… Again, injustice hai… One, another thing which I very strongly feel, that men are actually weaker from inside. The women are stronger. Yeah. They are very strong. Men when they are weak, in their weaker moments, in their personal moment, they will cry on women’s shoulder. And the women also take advantage of that, you know, when you see later when you see the Dadi or Nani, she becomes like the master of the house. Dada is, will do nothing, you know, like a docile man sitting in the corner, won’t even argue. So that changes happen. That’s the arc of a man-woman relationship. But that comes from because they suppress them so much when they’re young. And men is so, “kaan ka kachcha, jo hamare usko bolte hain, na,” in Hindi, not trustworthy, so they keep doubting. Husbands. Othello is a doubting husband. I mean, if you see that character, I mean, he’s being so easily manipulated by Iago because he had that, I think, complex in him, because he never felt worthy of, of such a beautiful wife.

When he accuses Dolly, Omkara, and she says, “I don’t want to live anymore now.” I don’t remember whether it happens in Othello or not. But in my context, I said that it’s enough because when we were talking to Kareena, toh when I was explaining her the emotionality of that scene, so I told her that she’s so hurt, so broken inside, that she says, “I don’t want to live, please kill me.” And he is, like, in doubt. He’s going to get married to her. And even then, that’s where you know, the Konkona’s character, that she comes and says ki, “if you’re in such a doubt why are you marrying that girl now? Leave her now, and, you know, I’ll take care of her.” So, there were great female characters in Omkara. Omkara is, actually became famous for Langda Tyagi, because he was the most colourful character. But I think the female characters of Omkara were, in all three films, they were the best female characters. Dolly and Indu. And even Bipasha’s character.   

 

 

Amrita Sen  

Talking about, you know, interesting and powerful female characters in other Shakespeare plays, I did see that you had Midsummer Night’s Dream with you.  

Vishal Bhardwaj 

[laughs] Yeah! Actually, please suggest me. I want to start making comedies. I think tragedies are done!  

Amrita Sen 

I read something about that. And I was going to ask you about that. Because that would be very exciting. If you sort of delved into the comedies. Are you planning like a trilogy of the comedies? 

Vishal Bhardwaj 

Yes, yes, I want to do that. And now, again, you know, look, like, Hamlet was nine years before. 2014 it came and we are into— Because it came with BJP. Now, the problem is, you know why I’m not taking Shakespeare also, there’s a reason because it’s very difficult to say political things in this country right now.  

Amrita Sen 

Yes.  

Vishal Bhardwaj 

You are personally threatened.  I cannot imagine of making a film like Haider now.

Amrita Sen

Yes.

Vishal Bhardwaj

It’s impossible. So, I am looking… I have worked on Twelfth Night. Tell me which Shakespeare comedy has a strong male protagonist.  

Amrita Dhar

Comedy with a male, with a strong male protagonist… 

Vishal Bhardwaj 

Yeah. Your favorite protagonist. 

Amrita Dhar 

Well, very, very problematic, but strong…

Amrita Sen

Tempest.

Amrita Dhar

… Measure for Measure. Measure for Measure is, I mean, it’s supposed to be a “comedy.”  

Amrita Sen 

But it’s a problem play. It’s deep. It takes you to the dark corners. It’s a problem with law, it’s a problem with morality. It’s a problem with everything. It’s about a country that’s in a mess, in, like, horrid doldrums and corruptions. But it is very interesting, but it’s a problem play. Just not sure if it’s a comedy. Yeah.

Amrita Dhar

I think that one has your name on it.  

Vishal Bhardwaj 

Let me read then. Yeah…

Amrita Dhar 

There is of course Tempest—as Amritadi is saying. Tempest is…

Amrita Sen

Prospero…

Amrita Dhar

… the postcolonial play of postcolonial plays.  

Amrita Sen 

… another god-awful… But A Midsummer Night’s Dream is also postcolonial. I’m actually in the middle of writing a chapter on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and what to do with the Indian Boy, right, what to do with India, what to do with the appropriation and colonial desires that go into all of that. 

Vishal Bhardwaj 

Yeah. And how to find that parallel of that magic potion— 

Amrita Sen 

And are you going to stage the Indian Boy at all or not, which is, like, the million dollar question in that play.

Vishal Bhardwaj 

[laughs]  

Amrita Sen

Are you going to stage him? Or are you not going to stage him? 

Vishal Bhardwaj 

[laughs]  

Amrita Dhar 

And in India, would he be the “Indian Boy”? 

Vishal Bhardwaj  

[laughs] I know, I know, I haven’t thought that much about it. And how…

Amrita Sen

He would have to be a tribal figure. Who’s then kidnapped, appropriated. That’s also the context, right? I mean, at the time when Shakespeare was writing this, the Atlantic slave trade has already started, but Indians are also getting kidnapped. There is the Indian Ocean slave trade as well, that no one really talks about. So, it is about kidnapping. It is about slavery as much as other things. 

Amrita Dhar 

What is in the works for you? What is coming up?  Earlier on you teased by mentioning Julius Caesar and one of the plays of Shakespeare that I am actually obsessed with, which is King Lear. Why were you considering them? How close are you to doing them? Will you do them, please? And what is in the works for you? 

Vishal Bhardwaj 

Oh, yeah, I wanted to do King Lear and Julius Caesar both, but what attracted me, the conflict of Hamlet. Supposedly it was non-cinematic and that attracted me. In Lear that was a man betrayed by his daughters and I found that this Hamlet more juicier for to delve into it. King Lear, the most character I was fascinated with— Who’s that who’s having affair with both the sisters?  

Amrita Dhar 

Edmund. 

Vishal Bhardwaj  

Edmund. Edmund was my favourite character in that. And I would have made him like a star of that film, as he was a very good character. My God. So dark. Then I wanted to cast Rajnikanth [laughs]. Then Bachchan sa’ab. Yeah, still, you know, just to work with them, I want to make Lear.  

Amrita Dhar  

I was going to ask you about this. There is a matter of age. You were talking about these magnificent actors, and clearly people that you like working with. And after a point, what I’m hearing is that you are like Shakespeare, you are looking for the story that will display the actor that you want to work with, at the age and at the stage of life that they are best in a position to portray. 

Vishal Bhardwaj 

Yeah, [laughs] yeah. Obviously, I’m very naturally drawn to tragedies. I think to find a tragedy in a comedy will be fun. So, I have worked extensively on Twelfth Night. For me, the problem is to find an actress who can play a boy as well. So, to make it believable. For that I really need somebody, very, very strong actor who believes in me. And that I have not found.

Amrita Dhar 

So is Twelfth Night actively in the works, or is it sort of in the plans at this point?  

Vishal Bhardwaj 

Twelfth Night, yeah, I have a script with me. I have a script with me of Twelfth Night

Amrita Dhar 

I am very excited. 

Vishal Bhardwaj  

But anyways, I will think— 

Amrita Dhar 

This has been absolutely fantastic.  

Amrita Dhar 

Thank you so much. 

Amrita Sen 

Wonderful. 

Vishal Bhardwaj 

So nice talking to you both, it was so nice. 

 

Conclusion

Amrita Dhar 

If you enjoyed this conversation, please subscribe to this podcast, spread the word, and leave a review. Do take a look also at our project website at shakespearepostcolonies.osu.edu for materials supplementing this conversation and for further project details. Thank you for listening, and until next time, for the Shakespeare in the “Post”Colonies Project, I am Amrita Dhar.