Omkara in Curriculum of Canada’s leading liberal arts university

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Vishal Bhardwaj’s masterpiece Omkara is being studied as an adaption of Shakespearean plays in a senior level English course at York University, a leading liberal arts university in Toronto, Canada. The course, Plays and Counterplays, taught by Dr. Elizabeth Pentland, studies adaptions from all over the world of five of the Bard’s plays. The course description reads, “Why have so many playwrights and film makers around the world chosen to adapt Shakespeare for contemporary audiences and what have they sought to do with his works? In this seminar we will begin to explore the complexities of Shakespearean adaptation by reading five of his best known plays— Othello, King Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth, and The Tempest—and considering them in relation to a selection of twentieth century stage and film adaptations that engage the originals from a range of cultural and political perspectives. Special attention will be paid to the cultural politics of producing Shakespeare in the twentieth century with respect to questions of race, gender, class, language, and colonialism. To what extent are Shakespeare’s plays or what some critics have called “the Shakespeare effect” problematic for these writers, and to what extent has “Shakespeare” provided a common language or meeting ground for larger cultural or political conversations?”

In an interview with BollySpice, Professor Pentland said, “I included Omkara in my course because I think it’s a wonderful adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello and I wanted to introduce my students (who come from many different backgrounds themselves) to some of the exciting work that’s being done with Shakespeare around the world. (We also study film adaptations by Akira Kurosawa and Grigori Kozintsev as part of this international focus, and we read plays not just from the UK and North America, but from Eastern Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean).”

As an adaption of Othello, Pentland says, “I think Omkara is a beautiful film and a tremendously interesting adaptation of Othello–one that helps to familiarize Western audiences with some of the conventions of Bollywood cinema, but one that I think also modernizes the story of Othello in some provocative ways. I’m particularly interested in the way Bharadwaj fills out the roles of Kesu (Cassio) and Billo (Bianca) in the film, setting their tragedy alongside that of Omkara and Dolly (Othello and Desdemona). And of course Billo’s dance sequences are wonderful–not what you expect in Shakespearean tragedy, of course, but very effective in this film in developing our sense of the characters and moving the plot along.”

She says that she really likes Hindi cinema and that her students enjoy studying Omkara. “I quite enjoy Hindi cinema, and am glad to see that its North American audiences are growing. My students really loved working on Omkara, too. I’ve always enjoyed international cinema, but until recently I haven’t had many opportunities to see Hindi films. Canadian film maker Deepa Mehta’s crossover work (Fire, Bollywood/Hollywood, Water) probably paved the way for me in many respects, but I’ve seen one or two other Hindi films at festivals here in Toronto, and my interest in international Shakespeare has brought me into contact with some exciting film makers like Bharadwaj (I first became aware of his work in 2004, when his film Maqbool was screened at a conference on Shakespeare in Asia at Stanford University).”

York University is the 3rd largest University in Canada and is known for its interdisciplinary arts program. The course is in the Department of English in Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, formerly known as the Faculty of Arts. Dr. Pentland is an Assistant Professor in the English department. Omkara released in 2006 and starred Ajay Devgan, Saif Ali Khan, Kareena Kapoor, Konkona Sen Sharma, Vivek Oberoi and Bipasha Basu.

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