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How Shakespeare came to Hindi cinema with Sohrab Modi

On the distinguished filmmaker’s 31st death anniversary today (28 January), we examine how the plays of William Shakespeare inspired Modi to make the transition from theatre to film.

Sonal Pandya

The relationship between the world's greatest playwright and Hindi cinema is nowhere recent and not just limited to filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj. In fact, it dates all the way to the silent era when director M Udvadia and the Excelsior Film Company came together to make Dil Farosh (1927) starring Udvadia himself, along with Nargis and Syed Umar. JJ Madan's Hathili Dulhan (1932), starring Abbas, Khurshid Begum and Patience Cooper, was an adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew. But the man who faithfully brought William Shakespeare to Hindi films was the renowned actor and filmmaker, Sohrab Modi.

Sorabh Modi in Nausherwan-E-Adil (1957)

From the late 1860s, Parsi theatre staged theatrical productions in Mumbai (then Bombay) with all kinds of classic folklore and mythologies which then led to several Shakespeare plays adapted in Urdu. With the decline of Parsi theatre due to the popularity of sound films, Modi inaugurated the Stage Film Company to revive its waning traditions onscreen. Modi, a well-known Shakespearean actor in his own right, acted and directed in his first film Khoon Ka Khoon (1935), based on The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. He took on the lead role of Hamlet, while newcomer Naseem Banu (mother of Saira Banu) played Ophelia and her mother Shamshad Bai was Gertrude.

The poster for Khoon Ka Khoon (1935)

A year later, he made Saed-e-Havas (1936) based on Agha Hashr Kashmiri's play which in turn was an adaptation of Richard III and King John. Saed-e-Havas borrowed more from Shakespeare's King John and even placed a picture of William Shakespeare prominently on the film's sets. But clearly, both films were basically a filmed version of the plays. Khoon Ka Khoon was an attempt at experimental filmmaking as well. Modi shot the film with two cameras as the play was being enacted, with 17 songs. The film was edited together afterwards.

Modi's early works featured lavish sets and an innate attention to detail that went on to become his trademark style in later productions like Jhansi Ki Rani (1953) and Mirza Ghalib (1954). His theatrical performances, exaggerated by his booming voice, commanded the screen. Like JF Madan, Ardeshir Irani and the Wadia brothers, Sohrab Modi is celebrated as one of the early innovators and contributors of Indian cinema. Modi's interest in the Bard's plays inspired the grand historical films such as Pukar (1939) and Sikander (1941) for which he is remembered even now.

From 1927 until today, 400 years after his birth, Shakespeare's works have been told again and again numerous times in Hindi films, from Anjuman (1948) to Haider (2014); yet it started with one man's dedicated vision for his audiences to experience the works of Shakespeare from the stage to the screen.