William Shakespeare’s plays explore numerous issues that play an essential role in the formation of identity – race, gender, social status. Shakespeare’s plays, Othello, Titus Andronicus, and The Merchant of Venice demonstrate how the black and non-Christian characters were marginalized and often became the victims of prejudice and outright racism during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century England. The representations of the Moors (the character of Othello in Othello and Aaron in Titus Andronicus) as irrational and ruthless and the Jew (Shylock in The Merchant of Venice) as greedy and heartless mirror the general attitude of his time. These social groups particularly the non-white and the Jews were considered as outsiders/marginals in the early modern English culture. Shakespeare’s plays, and the Assamese cinema that began with Joymoti in 1935, despite having vast difference in the time of creation and background, bears parallel sensibility in the way they express the socio- political impression of their times. Filmmakers of Assamese Parallel Cinema have adopted Shakespeare’s way of representing contemporary socio-political condition of Assam through the portrayal of marginal social groups. Assamese Parallel Cinema has become a significant study of the contemporary Assamese society in terms of changing socio-economic political milieu. In my paper, I have endeavored to explore into the representation of politics of identity and political realism in the Assamese Parallel Cinema through the interpretation of some marginal social groups of Assam like Bengali minority, fishing community, tea-tribes and how they are made to feel outsiders in the mainstream Assamese society. The films that I have selected, are – Othello (We too have our Othellos) by Hemanta Kr. Das, Jetuka Pator Dore (Enchanting, Challenging… The Life, 2011), directed by Jadumoni Dutta and Timothy Das Hanse’s film Ronga Modar (A Subdued Cry,1990).
William Shakespeare was “not of an age, but for all time”, as rightly said by his friend and contemporary writer, Ben Jonson. Shakespeare’s plays that deal with numerous themes - love, marriage, friendship, and of contemporary political issues of England — are constantly experimented and reinterpreted in diverse cultural and political contexts throughout the world.
Carole Levin comments on the margins of the English society in the article “The Society of Shakespeare’s England” that in the first part of the Middle ages, a large number of Jews had been in England, but in the 1290, they were banished from England. Despite their banishment, the word ‘Jew’ had become a part of the English vocabulary to abuse at the other Christians. Jews were not legally allowed to come to England till 1650s, but in the early sixteenth century some Jews immigrated to England and outwardly practiced Christianity. 1
Again, Levin remarks on how some seamen actively involved themselves in the slave trade in the 1560s and how they brought African slaves to England in small numbers from the later part of the sixteenth century. But Queen Elizabeth was dissatisfied finding several Africans in England. Realizing that the black African might be a threat to the needy Englishmen, Queen Elizabeth passed an edict in 1601 that the Africans might be banished from England. Though the edict could expel a few blacks from England, yet some managed to stay back in England. 2
The apparent racism in Shakespeare’s plays could be compared with the way the Assamese Parallel Cinema is structured. Filmmakers of Assamese Parallel Cinema, who have challenged the stereotypical and conventional narrative techniques, have adopted Shakespeare’s way of representing contemporary socio-political condition of Assam through the portrayal of marginal social groups. Assamese Parallel Cinema has become a significant study of the contemporary Assamese society in terms of the changing socio-economic political milieu. Assamese cinema stepped into the world of alternative or Parallel Cinema with the arrival of the filmmakers like Padum Barua, Bhabendra Nath Saikia and Jahnu Barua during the 70s and 80s in Assam who focused on social realism.
The Assam Movement (1979-1985) is the most significant socio-political event that changed the social structure of Assam. The Assam Movement led by All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the 'All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad' (AAGSP), was a non-violent program of protests and demonstrations to compel the government to identify and expel illegal immigrants. The way Queen Elizabeth passed an edict to banish the black Africans from England, in Assam too, the IMDT (The Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act was enacted in 1983 by the Indira Gandhi government, to detect illegal immigrants and expel them from Assam. But the Act was not successful in deporting so-called illegal immigrants from Assam. The problem of illegal immigrants especially Bengali and Muslim immigrants persists in Assam like the threat of the black people to the Englishmen during sixteenth century. The way Shakespeare used his plays as a tool to portray his contemporary social pictures, in the same manner the Assamese filmmakers have used cinema as a medium to present the social and political scenario of Assam.
As Professor Paul Cantor comments in his lecture on “Shakespeare and Politics” : “ Shakespeare’s plays do not really deal with ancient Rome but are about his own England. His Romans have been called Elizabethan Englishmen in disguise. If the plebeians clamor for grain at the beginning of Coriolanus, Shakespeare is supposed to be thinking of an event closer to home, the Midlands Insurrection of 1607. This agrarian uprising threatened the interests of the landholding class in England.” 3
Hemanta Kumar Das’s Othello (We too have our Othellos…), has been set in the socio-cultural background of Assam, to show how the notion of discrimination may vary according to the social context. In the Shakespearean play, Othello was a black man among the whites, which made him estranged; in the Assamese film Othello (We too have our Othello…), it is a white-skinned man among the brown-skinned, normal looking people which makes him a social exile. It shows how in different cultural contexts the construction of identity may become different. The issue of social estrangement resulted by one’s skin color becomes the prime focus of the Assamese Othello.
The film Othello questions the cultural diversity of Assamese society through the voices of the characters like Bankim, a Bengali; Mun, a Muslim and Tina, a Christian who want to assimilate with the greater fabric of the mainstream of Assamese society but their sense of belonging as social categories and as an individual is negated for the cultural and social prejudices. All the three characters, Bankim, Mun and Tina suffer the crisis of identity in their own ways. Bankim Bhattacharjee, usually a common name to the Bengali community, is a character who does not belong to the Assamese society. Bankim is from Karim Ganj, a Bengali populated district of Assam. So, Bankim is, in a sense, an outcast and a social ‘Other’ as he belongs to a minority community. His sense of alienation forces him to construct an ‘identity’ –a life in isolation in a crowded world.
“Shakespeare’s Othello, the moor of Venice stood apart in a white dominated society of Venice. He was a dark man in a white society. But Mun, another central character of the Assamese film Othello, is an auto rickshaw puller. He suffers from - leukoderma – a white man among a dark-skinned people. The skin color separates the two characters namely Mun and Othello from their respective societies in their respective historical time -one representing the 20thcentury cultural and racial prejudices of Assam, while the other representing the 16th century England.”, as commented by Ranjit Sharma, the screen play writer of the Assamese Othello.
Tina, a call girl, is an outcast amidst the so-called civilized people. She regards herself as Desdemona. Shakespeare’s Desdemona exhibited her courage to defy the society that largely rejects interracial marriages. Tina, like Shakespeare’s Desdemona, defies the so-called civilized society and openly accepts Mun as a lover who was an outcast in the civilized society for his leukoderma disease.
The Assamese film Jetuka Pator Dore (Enchanting, Challenging… The Life, 2011), directed by Jadumoni Dutta, presents the the Kaibartas (fishing community) and their quest for identity. Set at the backdrop of an interior village of Assam during the 1970s, the film narrates the story of Radha, a young woman who belongs to the fishing community. She fights for the rights of her community and against the exploitation of Jamuna Hazarika, a rich villager. Radha Das, a girl from the river side, was brought up by his poor maternal uncle. Having finished her schooling, she went for her college where she met a sympathetic English teacher, Jagannath Mahanta. On her request Jagannath Mahanta comes to her house, but his two collegues – Jadav Chakravorty and Prasanta Trivedi, refuse to go inside, rather wait for him in the car outside her house. Though he tried to hide the reason why they did not want to come inside, Radha understood the very reason. Radha says to Mahanta : “ I understand sir. They are hesitant to take tea at our place…Is there anyone who can value our emotions and feelings?” It resembles Shylock’s outburst in The Merchant of Venice :
“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands,
organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with
the same ……. If you prick us, do we not
bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not
And if you wrong us, do we not revenge?”
(The Merchant of Venice, Act 3, Scene 1, Lines -58-68 )
Similarly, Radha Das, like the subaltern who can speak too raises her voice in the village meeting, as she says: “ We are not a community but a class-working class. There is no caste and creed in the working class. Therefore, instead of our identity as a community, we have to establish ourselves as a class and we have to fight for it.” The film ends with the narrative : “ Only we have to struggle for our own dignity.We have to fight.” In the same way in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, initially Aaron remains silent, but he finally reveals his mind, as he says, “Now climbeth Tampora Olympus’ top, / Safe out of fortune’s shot, and sits aloft, / Secure of thunder’s crack or lightning flash, / Advanced above pale envy’s threat’ning reach” (Shakespeare 2.2.1-4). His sudden outburst shows his struggle to get an identity and not to remain a silent and obedient slave.4 Caste system and untouchability are deeply rooted in our culture, and many filmmakers of Assam have made films on those issues too. Unlike majority of the films based on the theme of caste system, the filmJetuka Pator Dore (Enchanting, Challenging… The Life, 2011), speaks more about the psychological and social position of the marginals and exemplifies how the Kaibarttas (the fishing community) struggle for their identity.
The Adivasis, also known as the Tea Tribe, is a minority community in Assam who had been brought by the British colonial planters as labourers during the 18th century. Assam boasts of being one of the largest tea-growing states in the world. The irony is that these people are still living in the tea gardens without their permanent land. The Assamese filmmaker Timothy Das Hanse has taken this as a theme of his film Ronga Modar (A Subdued Cry,1990) to speak of the Adivasis’ quest for an identity and liberation from their exploitative masters through Raghav, the leader of the labour union, his daughter Phulmoti and grandson Koliya. They leave behind the life of tea gardens in the quest of a new identity in a village provided by Janardan Kalita, Mouzadar of Morongi Mouza. The newly settled Adivasis become the victims of MLA Motiram Kalita and Janardan Kalita, the representative of the mainstream Assamese society. The struggle of Raghav, Phulmoti and Koliya are the symbol of identity assertion and a search for cultural roots and heritage. Raghav’s outburst, “What have we got working for Mouzadar since 15 yrs ?” and his regret “We don’t have schools, pure drinking water and permanent land documents” clearly reflect how they are used merely as labourers like the blacks in England who were slaves under the whites. Later, when Raghav continued protesting against Janardan Kalita, he was beaten up to death by his goons. The film shows that the Adivasis have continued to remain as the Other in the socio-political context of Assam as they are still unable to liberate themselves from the sense of dependence and a sense of inferiority. Their voice of protest has been subdued. Raghav, Phulmoti and Koliya, the representatives of the voiceless, are often considered as ‘brainless’ creature and as devoid of human qualities. Similarly, in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, Aaron, the moor, is also the symbol of black barbarism and malignity and is compared to a “swart Cimmerian” (Act 2. Scene 3. Line72);
In conclusion it can be that the filmmakers of the Assamese Parallel Cinema have tried to appropriate some Shakespearean themes in Assamese cinema specially by focusing on the issue of marginality. The Assamese filmmakers have taken Assam as the setting to dramatise the racial actions, while Shakespeare took diverse geographic locations, such as Venice for showing the enactment of racism.
Parthajit is a Guwahati based film scholar. This was first presented as a paper in London in 2016.