Temple Of Fine Arts brings the Bard to Bollywood

  • Arts
  • Monday, 15 Dec 2014

Temple Of Fine Arts’ adaptation of Shakespeare's The Taming Of The Shrew brings Indian soul to Elizabethan English.

If you are a fan of both Bollywood and William Shakespeare’s plays, you can’t help but see the many similarities between the two. From the archetypal characters to the dramatic and often tangled storylines, there are many aspects to the Bard’s works that would fit quite seamlessly into mainstream Hindi cinema.

And if you want definitive proof of this, you need look no further than the Temple Of Fine Arts’ (TFA) recent staging of Chalo Shaadi Karenge (CSK), a Bollywood-ised retelling of Shakespeare’s comedy, The Taming Of The Shrew. CSK was part of the inaugural Shantanand Festival Of Arts organised by TFA.

While retaining most of the play’s original language, CSK set its story in Mumbai, so the Shakespearean English blossomed amidst eye-poppingly colourful costumes and heady Bollywood song-and-dance numbers. The story itself remained faithful to the original, with just minor changes to account for the setting.

Katyayani (Vishaka Rajasingam), eldest daughter of the wealthy Balchand (Prakash Kandasamy), has acquired a reputation for being “unmarryable” thanks to her infamous temper. Her sweet-natured younger sister Shweta, meanwhile, has two suitors – Haridwar (Mayilai Kumaran Jeyaratnam) and Gangadhar (Aaron Sharma) – who are both desperate to win her.

Balchand, however, is determined that Shweta can only marry once Katyayani does, which leads Haridwar and Gangadar to engineer a potential match for her; and so in comes Pyarelal (Kanthan Segaran), a gold-digger willing to put up with almost anything as long he can marry up. So Katyayani is married to him, and the rest of the story is about how Pyarelal “tames” her difficult personality.

Hariraam Tingyuan Lam (right) and Divya Shesshsan Balakumar clowning around in Chalo Shaadi Karenge.

The plot is further complicated by Laxman (Divya Shesshsan Balakumar), a rich man’s son who falls in love with Shweta and disguises himself as her tutor to woo her, leaving his best friend Tarang (Hariraam Tingyuan Lam) to pose as him to everyone in Mumbai.

Like most of Shakespeare’s comedies – and indeed, many Bollywood movies – it was a hilariously madcap journey till the end, with disguises, mistaken identities, subterfuge and reverse psychology.

Surprisingly, it all came together quite well; if anyone wanted to stage a full-blown musical production of The Taming Of The Shrew, they could well learn a thing or two from TFA about making the language work in a modern context. Director Lam Ghooi Ket did a brilliant job with the script, ensuring that every witty line and double entendre was perfectly placed and delivered within the show – no simple task when it comes to working with Shakespeare’s words.

It would have been easy for the difficult language to get lost amidst the riotous activity onstage, but Lam kept the focus (rightfully so) on the dialogue. The result was non-stop laughter from almost beginning to end, as the inherent humour of the lines was further enhanced by the actors and staging.

CSK’s musical component, however, could have done with more attention. While it was fun to have the occasional Bollywood hit number thrown in (and danced to enthusiastically by TFA dancers), it often felt tokenistic. The songs selected didn’t always complement the script too well, and the numbers sometimes felt out of place within the events of the play. The one exception was a huge, colourful wedding song during Katyayani and Pyarelal’s wedding – an original composition sung and performed by the cast, it was fun, colourful and perfectly choreographed to move the plot forward.

Credit, of course, needs to be given to the cast, most of whom did a great job balancing the broadness of their characters with the intricate lines. This was particularly impressive when considering that most of the actors were relatively new faces with little experience in performing Shakespeare’s works.

The most memorable performance is likely to be Mathan Rajasingam as Gurmit, the typical Shakespearean clown. Enhancing his hilarious and often naughty lines with over-the-top Bollywood-style physical comedy, he elicited laughs even when he was just in the background of a scene.

Hariraam, too, was infectious as he infused his Tarang with an exuberance that helped keep the audience engrossed in the less interesting subplot.

Bear in mind though, these characters were easy to like; the selfish, conniving Pyarelal, on the other hand, wasn’t, and Kanthan deserves praise for endearing us to him, with his confident delivery, knack for humour and Rajnikanth-style swagger.

Disappointingly, the female characters weren’t nearly as nuanced, which was CSK’s biggest flaw.

The Taming Of The Shrew is an inherently problematic play to perform, as it can easily veer into chauvinist territory. Strong development of and performances by the two female leads is essential to create layers to the text, which wasn’t quite achieved here.

The final scene, where Pyarelal presents an obedient and respectful Katyayani, could have pushed the envelope further to make some relevant points about gender relations, particularly since the underlying tensions so strongly parallel those within the Indian community. Instead, the production played it safe.

CSK’s shortcomings, however, are only apparent because the show displays so much potential. Here is a production that really gets Shakespeare and the multiple layers and possibilities within his works.

With some tweaking, I’d love to see CSK – or perhaps another Shakespeare comedy – staged by TFA as a proper musical, with the same inventiveness and reverence for the original work.

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