Before I get into the topic, let me introduce you to Bhasa. Bhasa I would say was the Quentin Tarantino of Sanskrit plays, he had a vision to turn the stories around and surprise you. Whatever we know of him is very limited, in fact there are disputes as to the very existence of such a person.
My article here, is an experiment. I am not going to edit or delete the product of my experiment, if it does not succeed I am going to be proud that I have come up with something phenomenal, and if it does succeed I am going to be proud of something too. So, here is what I plan to do, I am going to take 2 plays an ancient Indian and an ancient Greek, try swapping the context ie. Try adapting the Greek play to a 21st century Indian context, and try adapting the Indian play to a 21st century European/American context.
Let my point be the surprise element here.
Here are the plays I plan to adapt
1. Ajax by Sophocles
2. Urubhanga by Bhasa
Let me start with adapting Ajax. I am extremely curious as to the outcome of the Indian adaptation; here is the crux of the play for better understanding, before I can start.
“Ajax , is basically enraged because the Achilles armor is awarded to Odysseus rather than to him. He vows to avenge this insult by killing all the Greek leaders who disgraced him. Athena the goddess tricks him into believing that a herd of sheep grazing are the leaders in disguise, Ajax kills most of the sheep and takes home one, which he believes to be Odysseus. Later, he realizes he has been tricked, insulted and disgraced, he decides to kill himself.
His mistress Tecmessa, begs him not to do so but Ajax is stubborn. Meanwhile, his step-brother Teucer comes to know of this and tries to save Ajax. They must reach him before Ajax acts stupid, but its too late. Ajax kills himself and his mistress is the first to find out. The drama unfolds when the people start questioning as to what to do with Ajax’s body, Odysseus intervenes and requests the leaders to give Ajax a proper funeral. The play ends with Teucer organizing for Ajax’s funeral and Odysseus not attending the funeral to respect Ajax’s wish.
So here goes the adaptation, let’s assume Ajax is some Ajay in Rural North India, he is a trusted lieutenant of the head of the village, he has never been in good terms with this man Om(Odysseus) , so when the honorary shield is awarded to Om instead of being awarded to him, he is enraged. He decides to kill all the village elders, to seek revenge. Anger prevents him from thinking logically; he is so enraged that he just wants to go have a blood bath.
Enter, the head of the village’s police station say inspector, who wants to spare the village of all the blood shed. Let’s call him Anantha (Athena). He tricks him into believing that a theater troupe be the village leaders, who fear facing Ajay’s anger are trying to escape dressed as sheep. Ajay murders almost the whole lot, he takes a one player captive, whom he thinks is Om, he wants to torture and kill him. Upon reaching home, he realizes that he has been tricked by Anantha to avoid a bigger riot. He is guilty and let down at the same time, an already unstable Ajay, is now a mixed bag of strong emotions, he decides to kill himself. Amid constant pleas from his mistress, he is just not able to come to terms with both him being tricked by Anantha, and not being awarded with the honorary shield.
Enter, his step brother Tharak, who is quite affectionate towards him. He comes to learn of Ajay’s situation, wants to stop Ajay before he can do anything to himself. Meanwhile, Ajay has gone far from the village, to a place where he cannot be traced easily. Tarak learns from Ajay’s men that, if he is not stopped before evening, he would kill himself by all probabilities. Tarak now rushes to save Ajay. So does his mistress. Meanwhile, Ajay has an elaborate conversation with himself about his past, present and the future (or the lack of it). This further aggravates him, what happens to him next is kept as a suspense, till his mistress discovers him impaled to the sword that he always carries. His step-brother and his henchmen reach the place later.
The news of his death spreads to the whole village, the elders gather around the body , to decide what should be done with it. There is a major conflict as to what to do with it, because of the cast issues. Finally Om intervenes and presses on a proper funeral amid Ajay being his enemy. Tarak organizes for Ajay’s funeral while Om leaves as per Ajay’s wishes.
Now, a line by line adaptation too is possible, obviously for the good of both the play and the adaptation a few lines need to be left out, a few characters need to be left out. But the story does not end up losing its soul amid being adapted to a modern Indian context. The message of Sophocles is clear: 'A man who is blinded by anger and envy shall carve out his own decline.' The adaptation may most probably convey the same message.
Bhasas’s Urubhanga :
Bhasa’s Urubhanga can easily be called a beautiful tale, told Tarantino style written almost 2500 years before Tarantino was even born. So this tale, sets on the glorify Duriyodhana as a hero and a person who has realized the maladies of the war. Also in this play, DURIYODHANA DOES NOT DIE AFTER THE WAR! He lives after the war and experiences trouble in coping up with life. However, in the end one realizes that the actual intention of Duriyodhana was to destroy the Pandava clan.
Here is the play:
“Urubhanga begins with a fight between Duryodhana and Bhima, where Duryodhana gains an upper hand , he throws Bhima down but refuses to kill him. Bhima meanwhile, hits Duryodhana on his thigh disabling permanently, Baladeva , Duryodhana’s aide arrives. He sees the Pandava’s quickly carrying away Bhima, leaving Duryodhana to die, this angers Baladeva when he seeks justice Duryodhana asks him to keep quiet. The story begins to unfold when Duryodhana reconciles with his blind parents and wives. He leads a contended life, blames Krishna for all the losses. His only worry being, he is now unable to bow properly before his parents and is not able to let his son sit on his thighs. He leaves a contended life realizing the maladies of war before he dies, Ashwathaman later sets out to avenge what Pandavas have done to him”
Now, I will try adapting the play into the Western world of the 21st century, lets hope that it works well. Instead of giving names to people, let’s assume Dhuridhana is D , Bhima is B , Baladeve is B2, Ashwathaman is A.
The play begins in a fight scene, where D is winning a fight over B, B has fallen but D refuses to kill B. B by foul play hurts D, by shooting him on his thigh. When D’s trusted aide B2 arrives, he seen B’s brothers carrying B away and demands for justice as to why D is not being nursed. However, D wants B2 to be silent on the issue, he is a contended man now, doesn’t want to fight with anyone any more. D comes home and is not angry on B for making him handicapped; instead he blames another person K.
Now D’s only worry is he cannot bow to his father, his son cannot sit on his thigh. He lives a contented life, does not seek revenge. However, his life inspires A to seek revenge for the destruction of D’s clan.
Now, in the above adaptation there is absolutely no logic or no sense because it is removed from the Indian context. B2, seeks justice for leaving D to die, the problem is, why does a person have to seek justice from his enemy for letting him die? Here comes a very contextual and an Indian point. This departs heavily from logic when adapted to another culture. And D leads a content life, it is purely not logical when an aggrieved person does not seek revenge, again a point that fails to make sense when taken out of Indian context.
On a comparison, when one looks at the adaptation of Ajax, it does make sense even when it is removed from Greece. Whereas, when the Indian play is removed from its context, it looks like it has no meaning at all, the reason for this might be it is deep rooted in Indian philosophy also an epic like Mahabharata is more of a philosophical implication rather than a material implication.
Both Ajax and Urubangha are minor deviations from major epics, but Ajax can make sense without understanding the Greek culture, Urubhanga however cannot be understood without understanding Mahabharata. The writer is not to be blamed for this, absolutely not. You have to blame the theater for it, the Indian philosophy for it. For instance, let’s take Kalidasa’s Shakuntalam, it is basically about a husband forgetting his wife after the marriage. Gandharva vivaha is an alien concept abroad, to understand it one needs to understand why and how Sakuntala was born. Who was Vishwamitra and why was he seduced by a celestial nymph? And these unfortunately are mere references in the play.
Now, in Greek drama there is no set pattern. The drama can be anything, taken from anywhere. The Sanskrit drama should be an organized one, which by all means should not conclude tragically. Whereas, Greeks are known for their tragedies. I assume, India was more an emotionally strict culture than Greece.
One can apply the same concept in the films too. Any, given western film can be adapted to Indian context. Whereas not all Indian films can be adapted to the western context.
There have been quite a few films, adapted from the western plays as it is. To start with, Bimal Roy made a film called Yahudi , in 1958 starring Dilip Kumar and Meena Kumari, the film was an adaptation of this play called La Juive by Fromtal Halevy. The film I heard, was a box office bomb, the one mistake which Roy committed was not adapting the film to a more Indian context. Whereas, this one gentleman called Satyajit Ray did perfectly well with this film called Gnanasatru (enemy of the people) it was an adaptation of this play called Enemy of the State by a Norwegian playwright called Henrik Ibsen. The film was made in an Indian context, and hence worked properly with the audience.
The one instance, when the Westerners tried to adapt epic was way back in 1929 by a German filmmaker called Franz Osten, the film was called A throw of dice, unable to adapt it to the western context he made it in India, with Indian actors and the story was set in India.
Well of course, many adaptations of Shakespearean plays followed later, including the amazingly funny Angoor (Gulzar) which was based on Comedy of errors and the really amazing Maqbool (based on Macbeth) and Omkara(Othello) by Vishal Bharadwaj. Fortunately or unfortunately they all fit perfectly well in India.
Before concluding the essay, I would like to state another example Hermann Hesse , the German novelist wrote a brilliant book called Siddhartha . There are 2 film adaptations of the book 1 which was set in India named Siddhartha made by Conard Rooks and the other was stylishly named Zachariah. Today the most famous film adaptation of the book is this one by Conard Rooks which made absolute sense. So the point is, if a German novel set in India, can make no sense if taken out of context, think of the rest.
Now to come to the point that I have been trying hard to drive at, whoever Bhasa was, he would be very proud of starting such a deep rooted theater tradition in the country. Adaptations may not always work. The essence of Indian Theatre lies in its originality and we must learn to respect that fact.
Sai Prasad Narendra
The Writer is An aspiring writer/filmmaker who constantly feels out of place at Law school!