#Books For You | Masala Shakespeare: A love letter to Bollywood and India

Editor | Non-fiction

Masala is a word that conjures up many associations. The word derives, through Urdu and Persian, from the Arabic ‘masalih’—ingredients. To a westerner, it immediately suggests exotic eastern spices. In its most widespread metaphorical use in India, it means embellishment or exaggeration. It also means a mixture—originally a mixture of ground spices, but more metaphorically any kind of mixture, especially one of cultural influences.

While Shakespeare today is considered ‘literature’ and is taught as a ‘pure’, ‘high’ form of art, in his own day it was the quintessential ‘masala’ entertainment he provided that attracted both the common people and the nobility.

In Masala Shakespeare (Aleph, Pages 298, Price Rs 798) Jonathan Gil Harris explores the profound resonances between Shakespeare’s craft and Indian cultural forms as well as their pervasive and enduring relationship in theatre and film. Indeed, the book is a love letter to popular cinema and other Indian storytelling forms. It is also a love letter to an idea of India. One of the arguments of this book is that masala—and, in particular, the masala movie—is not just a formal style or genre. More accurately, it embodies a certain version of India, one that celebrates the plural, the polyglot, the all-over-the-place. The book is also ultimately a portrait of contemporary India with all its pluralities and contradictions.

In Masala Shakespeare, the author focuses on twelve Shakespeare plays—The Comedy of Errors, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, Twelfth Night, Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet, King Lear, The Tempest, Pericles and Titus Andronicus—that have acquired Indian lives independent of the familiar English texts of the plays. The plays are a diverse mixture whose Indian avatars—including films such as Angoor, 10ml Love, Ishaqzaade, Goliyon ki Rasleela Ram-Leela, Gundamma Katha, Isi Life Mein, Dil Bole Hadippa!, Maqbool, Omkara, Haider, Arshinagar and The Last Lear and plays such as Kamdev ka Apna Basant Ritu ka Sapna, Jangal mein Mangal, Chattan Kattu, Piya Behrupiya, Chahat ki Dastaan and Hera-Phericles—are very different from each other. In their own ways, however, they all chafe against an oppressive power by refusing the current vogue for shuddhta (purity), and singularity, and instead celebrate the plural and mixed.

About the author

Born in New Zealand and educated in England, Jonathan Gil Harris lived in the US for twenty-three years before moving to India. Formerly associate editor of Shakespeare Quarterly and president of the Shakespeare Society of India, he is the author of many books, including Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare, Shakespeare and Literary Theory and, most recently, the bestselling The First Firangis. He is also an avid follower of Hindi cinema; his articles on Bollywood and globalization have been published in the Hindustan Times. Harris now lives in Delhi, where he is Professor of English at Ashoka University.

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