The semester is drawing to a close and it is time to squeeze the last drops of fun from our ragged lives before being sent back to the grind of finals. But the guilt of shirking our studies for a moment or two of revelry weighs heavily upon us. This is a time at which slacking off can only be justified if it has the faint hint of highbrow studies to it. So this week, Movie Magnate Mark Hay is giving you a large dose of culture in your film choices with three fabulous adaptations of the classics of Shakespeare. Watch them, waste time, and feel good about yourself.
Throne of Blood (1957)
Something in the character of feudal Japan, or at least Kurosawa’s image of feudal Japan, lends itself to Shakespearian tragedy. The only way to describe it may be through the image of Japanese sword fighting, as explained to me once by a practitioner of Kendo. Many other styles of fighting are clumsy – full of rage and full of change, injury, and drawn-out, exhausting melee. But in a traditional duel between two Japanese sword fighters, their tools are so sharp and their bodies so exposed that the entire thing will be over in one swoop. There are no second chances. So the duel becomes a dance of stoic faces, gracefully drifting back and forth, hiding the building fear and tension, the boiling rage, and subverting it all into the search for their opening with one eye, for their death with the other. And it all explodes in one moment of loud fury.
Throne of Blood applies this sensibility of the fight and the chase and fear to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, with the title character here known as Washizu Taketoki (Toshiro Mifune). The story is a straightforward parallel save for one major respect: there is no Macduff character, driving the fight deeper inside the tormented and increasingly mad Macbeth/Washizu deeper than perhaps it was in Shakespeare’s original. It is an interesting decision of plot, and somewhat a subversion of expectations as it deprives audiences of the dual and the slash of the sword that we know, from Japanese tradition and from the play, should be coming. But what replaces this scene, for its sudden shocking barbarity after such creeping tension, is perhaps beyond expectation.
Many would argue, perhaps, that Ran (1985), Kurosawa’s adaption of King Lear, would be a better pick. To this critic’s sensibilities, though, Ran lacks some of the tension of Throne of Blood. Ran may be a little more subtle in its characterizations and exposition, and perhaps more accessibly emotionally. But it is all chaos and sense overdrive. Throne of Blood is a calm dance hiding under the most blatant and Noh veneers absolute insanity. And waiting for that revelation, and having it paid forth beyond expectations, is one of the most gratifying experiences for a filmgoer.
Looking back on the list of picks and recommendations this feature has made, your critic is surprised and ashamed to realize that he has never before represented Bollywood on the lists. A great injustice (or, for friends of Bollywood, bahut nainsafi hai yeh!). Perhaps Omkara is the wrong movie to start with—it has its serious flaws, and arguably does not even hold a candle to director Vishal Bhardwaj’s reinterpretation of Macbeth, Maqbool (2004). But your critic has made the judicious choice to choose Omkara for one simple reason: everyone loves a good villain, and this film, modeled after Othello, does greatest justice to Shakespeare’s character of Iago, crafting a truly sinister, skin-crawling, and gripping villain for us to view and to hate.
The film is a great success in transferring the story of Othello to a dramatically new setting, the rough political scene of rural northern India, making the story readily accessible to a vast new audience while retaining all of Shakespeare’s flavor. The character of Othello, Omkara Shukla, or Omi for short (Ajay Devgn), elopes with the daughter, Dolly Mishra (Kareena Kapoor), of a local mover and shaker, Ragunath Mishra, known as “lawyer, sir” (Kamal Tiwari), much to his chagrin, and begins to ascend the ranks under his political boss, Tiwari Bhaisaab (Naseeruddin Shah). Upon assumption, though, he promotes an underling by the name of Kesu Firangi (Vivek Oberoi) over Langda Tyagi (Saif Ali Khan), much to Langda’s displeasure. The scheming and displeased Langda starts to devise a plot to avenge this injustice, punish Omi, and climb himself, becoming Iago. And the rest is straight Shakespeare.
Admittedly, the romance between Omi and Dolly does not pop. They are far overshadowed by the schemes of Langda. But the film is more than worth the watch, if not to see a mostly successful transfer of Shakespeare from book to Bollywood, than just to watch one of the great modern villains of Bollywood – a class of character far too lacking in this otherwise rich medium.
Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight (1965)
A slight break from the general character of this list, Orson Welles’s Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight is neither a foreign, nor a modern reinterpretation of Shakespeare. Nor is it a direct reinterpretation, but rather a hodgepodge of Henry IV, Part 1 and 2, Richard II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. It is also, admittedly, not an easy movie to procure by conventional means—but fear not, one may easily find it if he/she sets about it correctly. However, both Welles and his critics hold this film dear to their hearts, and lovers of the Bard could not help but do so as well as it is a fabulous take on one of the most fascinating characters in Shakespeare’s canon.
The film is taken from a stage production of Welles’s invention that bridges together the scenes of Shakespeare’s plays in which Falstaff appears, at times injecting him into the background of soliloquies in which he was not originally or traditionally involved to lend them new life. In a grand and unique way, Welles breathes new life and meaning into a sometimes-complex line of history portrayed by Shakespeare. And he does it all in tribute to himself as well as to Shakespeare.
Welles is Falstaff, not just in the sense of playing him in the film, but in his life. To barrow the phrase a friend used when describing Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler (2008) to me, “it’s the perfect intersection of actor and character.” Welles is a fat and merry man, and at the time was beginning his descent into alcoholism and obesity. He often fell into debt and rode by on the glory of yesteryear, but still through the poverty and the wine managed to squeeze out moments of extraordinary genius and resonance. If not for the new light on an old tale, if not for love of the character he portrays, than the film is worth tracking down just to see the most autobiographical portrayal – rough, but still beautiful – of a man of equal grandeur and import to any ever dreamed up by the Bard.
Images via IMDB.com