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Masala Shakespeare: Prof. Gill Harris at GESP’s Mumbai Speaker Series

The seventh presentation of GESP’s Liberal Arts Speaker Series at Breach Candy Hospital in Mumbai, was held on February 27 with a talk by Prof. Jonathan Gil Harris.

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2 March, 2020 | 10 min read

Professor Jonathan Gill Harris who teaches English Literature at Ashoka University, presented his recent book Masala Shakespeare: How a Firangi Writer Became Indian and showed us why “Bollywood and Shakespeare” go well together as well as “Romeo and Juliet.” His research work focuses on Shakespeare, India, and globalisation.

In the presentation, Prof. Harris explored the profound resonances between Shakespeare’s craft and Indian cultural forms as well as their pervasive and enduring relationship in theatre and film.

Speaking about the session and his experience, Prof. Harris said, “I am glad Ashoka can play a key role in fostering a vision of liberal education and interdisciplinary learning not just in the classroom but also in professional spaces like Breach Candy.”

In his talk he showed how although, Shakespeare is often considered ‘literature’ and ‘pure/high’ art, in fact, his plays were written as quintessential ‘masala’ entertainment that traded in impurity and mixture.  Writing for both the common people and the nobility, Shakespeare mixed tragedy, and comedy, poetry and prose, philosophy and vulgarity, drama and naach-gaana. “If Shakespeare was writing today, he’d be writing not for theatre but for the cinema, and not for Hollywood but for Bollywood.” 

One of the arguments of the book is that 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 and the polyglot, the all-over-the-place. The book is ultimately a portrait of contemporary India with all its pluralities and contradictions.

Jerry Rao, one of the founders of Ashoka University who was in the audience said, “The summary reenactment of Hamlet was to die for – as we desis say.  The Bollywood songs and Gil’s elucidation of both formal and colloquial Hindi was simply brilliant. The extra note on the iambic pentameters was an absolute revelation. The cross-linguistic puns were other eye-openers. Lip-synching actors running around trees as someone else sings, became central to our movies as soon as the talkies arrived. ‘Playback singing’ is a virtually unique Indian art form-and a pretty glorious one at that.”

In the audience also was Karishma Kapoor, the famous Bollywood star of the 1990’s, who enjoyed the presentation immensely. When asked by another member of the audience if he had ever tried to compare Bollywood to Hollywood? Prof. Harris answered, “No, I haven’t but I would anyway choose a Bollywood movie over a Hollywood one.” He also noted a shift with younger people watching media on new platforms like Netflix and Amazon. He lamented, it is sad that choreographers are losing work; moreover ‘the whole experience of a group of people sitting together in a cinema hall and watching a film together is rarer among young people.’

The presentation was followed by an interactive Q&A segment and dinner hosted by Dr. Farokh Udwadia, head of the doctors group at Breach Candy. 

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