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Across Generations And Cultures, The Tragedy Of Macbeth Remains Favourite With The Filmmakers

A still from Jayaraj’s Veeram movie based on Shakespeare’s play Macbeth.
Snapshot
  • Jayaraj’s Veeram is the latest entry in a long list of adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth. It merges the tragedy with the fable of Chandu Chekarvar, warrior in 13th century North Malabar.

There is a high chance of getting swayed by the hypnotic imagery in Jayaraj’s Veeram, an epic adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Pitched as a “bold new vision” of Macbeth, Veeram also takes inspiration from the Vadakkan Pattukal, ballads in Malayalam, and merges Shakespeare with the tale of Chandu Chekavar, a warrior in 13th century North Malabar. Simultaneously made in Malayalam, Hindi, and English, Veeram features Kunal Kapoor, the actor best known for Rang De Basanti (2006), in the lead. The alluring imagery and the proocative context aside, a question might plague the viewer’s mind. Does the world need yet another cinematic retelling of the tragedy?

With its period setting, Veeram is more of a “performance” of Macbeth in the spirit of Orson Welles’ 1948 film version or Roman Polanski’s 1971 version, as opposed to Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957), which was more of a reading of the original. Closer home, Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptation of Macbeth, Maqbool (2004) that set the play in present time’s Mumbai underworld is perhaps the first thing that comes to mind the moment either Shakespeare or Macbeth are mentioned. Interestingly, Jayaraj’s version is more faithful to the source and released close on the heels of a similar 2015 English version directed by Justin Kurzel that featured Michael Fassbender as Macbeth and Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth. At first glance, both garnered much acclaim but while Kurzel’s film failed in spite of positive critical reaction, the jury is still out on Jayaraj’s interpretation.

Macbeth has been a favourite with filmmakers across generations and cultures. It is understandable for this particular tragedy to be the darling of actors and filmmakers with a theatre background such as Laurence Olivier, who toiled endlessly to get his version made, and Orson Welles, who not only featured as Macbeth but also directed the one featuring him. Even filmmakers like Kurosawa and Polanski, who were not connected with the stage in the strictest definition of the word, adapting Macbeth transformed into their greatest cinematic offering. In Ran (1985), Kurosawa’s adaption of Shakespeare’s King Lear, the central character appears to be a great lord of the Japanese feudal empire and the play is transformed beyond recognition, and The Bad Sleep Well, his adaptation of Othello is set in 1960 corporate Japan, but when it came to Macbeth (Throne of Blood), Kurosawa remained more faithful to the original text.

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In fact, Anthony Dawson, in his essay Reading Kurosawa Reading Shakespeare, mentions that his resistance to Kurosawa’s cinematic strategies notwithstanding, the filmmaker’s imagery in Throne of Blood hovers on obviousness to the Bard’s text. The repeated shots of clouds, the overly insistent fog, the web-like forest “smack of significance” and even the scene where Washizu/ Macbeth (Toshiro Mifune) takes the spear to kill his lord, there is a shot of the crescent moon, the symbol of the feudal lordship with a screeching crow crossing it, is too true to the word—in the play, Lady Macbeth says “The raven himself is hoarse.”

By contrast, Polanski’s Macbeth (1971) concentrated more on “the internal ugliness in physically beautiful characters” and observers felt that the theme of murderous ambition fit well with Polanski’s filmmaking. Noticing the revival of Macbeth’s primitive edge and Polanski’s decision to push his actors more towards naturalism as opposed to expressionism, there was also a sense of history being depicted as a “vicious circle of crimes and miseries”. Intriguingly enough, a few even interpreted Polanski’s Macbeth as a reflection on the murder of his eight-and-a-half months pregnant wife Sharon Tate by members of the Charles Manson Family and even wider issues such as the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr and the Vietnam War.

In a wider global as well as Indian context, too, Macbeth would readily qualify to be the go-to Shakespeare for filmmakers. Thematically speaking, the concept of lust for power and ambition play well with the tradition of popular Indian cinema and more specifically Hindi cinema. Perhaps this could be the reason that despite adapting Othello and Hamlet in Omkara (2006) and Haider (2014), Vishal Bhardwaj’s rendition of Macbeth in Maqbool continues to be his most beloved film. By the time Bhardwaj made Maqbool, Shakespeare had been translated into Hindi films on many occasions; Rahul Rawail’s Betaab (1983) was screenwriter Javed Akhtar’s interpretation of The Taming of the Shrew and Gulzar’s Angoor (1982) was an adaptation of The Comedy of Errors, which was previously attempted as Do Dooni Char (1968) with Kishore Kumar and Asit Sen playing the roles that were played by Sanjeev Kumar And Deven Verma. Mansoor Khan’s Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1989), which was written by his father and celebrated filmmaker Nasir Husain, retold Romeo and Juliet. In Maqbool, Vishal turned Macbeth’s witches into corrupt police officers Pandit (Om Puri) and Purohit (Naseeruddin Shah) who predict that Maqbool (Irrfan) would soon take over Jahangir Khan or Abbaji’s empire. But it was the inspired move of making Lady Macbeth Abbaji’s mistress and her fear of losing her hold over the old don which triggers Maqbool/ Macbeth’s actions more than his desire to be the lord that made Bhardwaj’s version of Macbeth exceptional.

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The central theme of ambition merged with a warped sense of loyalty, something that Kurosawa’s Washizu and Vishal’s Maqbool display with great aplomb. Both Washizu and Maqbool may be ambitious but are also fiercely loyal. While every samurai or gangster’s henchman, Washizu and Maqbool’s occupation respectively, might harbour a desire to be his own master, they both are relatively content with the position they hold. Imagine any samurai or a Hindi gangster film and it would not be totally incorrect to say that similar characters from other films would be more eager than the Macbeth in Throne of Blood and Maqbool to commit the sins that become their undoing. It is this concept that makes Veeram a luscious prospect in the pantheon of Macbeth adaptations and when it is merged with the legend of Chandu Chekaver, who is also known as Chathiyan (Betrayer) Chanthu, it offers a great platform to interpret Macbeth.

There are numerous versions of the fable of Chandu Chekaver, the warrior who supposedly lived in the 16th century (the film Veeram places him in the 13th century) and hates his cousin Aromal Chekavar for winning the love of Unniyarcha. There is one version where Chandu becomes Aromal’s helper in a duel, ankam, and stabs him while another version says that Chandu replaces the metal rivets holding the blade of Aromal’s sword with wooden ones thereby leading to his death. Perhaps the cinematic span of Macbeth, from Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood that places the character against a samurai backdrop and Bhardwaj, who puts him in the underbelly of the Bombay underworld, makes it natural for Jayaraj to place Veeram in between the fable of Chandu Chekaver and kalaripayattu, the ancient Indian martial art that originated as a style in Kerala.

There is written evidence of martial arts in southern India dating back to the Sangam literature of about the 3rd century BCE to the 2nd century CE. According to Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, kalari is not about fighting with men but was developed by Agastya Muni to essentially fight wildlife. Sadhguru mentions that some of Agastya Muni’s followers went to China and when they encountered robbers and bandits they adapted kalari to fight men. The transformation and the distinction between kalari and karate can be gauged from the very crouching kind of martial art (kalari) in south India to a standing up kind of martial art (karate) in Southeast Asia.

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Transporting Chandu Chekaver to Shakespeare’s Macbeth is perhaps as intriguing as a previous telling of the legend in Hariharan’s 1989 epic Malayalam film Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha (A Northern Story of Valour) where the story was presented from Chandu’s perspective. Mammootty, who won the National Film Award for Best Actor for the role, portrayed Chandu and here Chandu was shown as an orphan who suffers only losses in his life and most of them at the behest of Aromal (Suresh Gopi). The “betrayer” part of Chandu’s persona in Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha comes in a roundabout manner where his teacher and master kalaripayattu exponent Aringodar (Captain Raju) is fighting Aromal but the latter’s sword breaks; Chandu requests Aringodar for a break to fix Aromal’s sword that has been purposefully ruined by a blacksmith on the directive of Aringodar’s daughter Kunji (Geetha), who loves Chandu.

Aromal deceptively kills Aringodar during the break and later blames Chandu for making his sword brittle and in the fight that ensues Chandu accidentally kills Aromal whose dying words—Chandu betrayed us—seals Chandu’s destiny.

In addition to being his third adaptation of Shakespeare after Othello and Anthony and Cleopatra, Veeram is also the fifth installment in Jayaraj’s “navarasa” series. The Rs 35-crore film is also the most expensive Malayalam film made till date and in many ways is an amalgamation of global talents; the film’s stunts have been choreographed by Allan Poppleton whose previous credits include The Expendables 2 (2012), Hunger Games (2012) and Avatar (2009), while Trefor Proud (Gladiator (2000), Star Wars: Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (1999)) has designed the make-up, and Jeff Rona, a former associate of Hans Zimmer, has scored the music.

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It has been almost a decade since the previous film in the Jayaraj navarasa series, Adbhutam (2006), which made more news for its production where the 71-minute long film was made in two hours. The series has cemented the prolific filmmaker’s Jekyll-and-Hyde-esque persona where he can balance art house with popular films that he at times labels as “crass commercial”. The series came into existence with Karunam (2000) that dealt with how the old in India were treated. The same year also saw the second in the nine-film series, Shantham that featured footballer I.M. Vijayan as the lead and explored the tumultuous journey of two young men who get drawn to rival political movements.

Years ago, when Laurence Olivier was attempting to make his version of Macbeth, he had decided to make many changes to the original. Amongst other surprises, Olivier had written in a scene where his Macbeth, along with Lady Macbeth, which was supposed to be played by his wife and actress, Vivien Leigh, morph into the witches. The manner in which Jayaraj places Macbeth and Chandu Chekaver together in Veeram promises to be a great rendering that in the years to come could inspire younger filmmakers to change their perspectives while viewing the tragedy of Macbeth.

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