Jonathan Gil Harris – Shakespearean Masala

Event Dates: 28 April 2016
Asia House
63 New Cavendish St,
London W1G 7LP

Indian Shakespeare on Screen

Professor Jonathan Gil Harris (Ashoka University) – Shakespearean Masala

This paper is interested in the politics and poetics of Indian film recreations of Shakespeare.  But it turns away from Hindi film adaptations of specific works and focuses instead on what we might term the Shakespearean syntax of Hindi cinema, particularly the so-called “masala” movie – a popular genre of film entertainment distinguished by song-and-dance routines, boisterous stories with improbable endings, and an abiding preoccupation with forbidden desires.  How can “masala” and its various connotations – spice, mixture, extra pizazz, what have you – be put in dialogue with Shakespeare’s plays?  And how does the masala movie, despite its mass populist tendencies, suggest a politics of generic impurity shared by the “Shakespearean”?

Song-and-dance “item numbers” are a vital part of masala movies, even though they are often as self-consciously extraneous as the bergomask that Bottom offers to dance at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  From a lyrical point of view, they are also occasions for extraordinary verbal wit and invention.  This invention is of a translingual hue: the lyrics of a masala film song often swerve between different Indian languages – Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Bhojpuri, English – and coin remarkable new words and phrases.  This paper will consider the polyglot lyrics of songs in masala movies from Ishaqzaade, an extended dialogue with Romeo and Juliet, to Omkara, a more scrupulous adaptation of Othello, as point sof entry into “Shakespearean” wordplay.  In both masala movies and Shakespearean drama, we can glimpse a micro-politics of linguistic resistance to borders, one that closely mirrors their shaping interest in love across cultural divides.

Introduction by Koel Chatterjee (RHUL):

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