Alexa Huang, Pennsylvania State University


The introduction to this collection of multimedia essays on Maqbool and The Banquet argues that close examination of the films through a truly global array of appropriative strategies and cultural contexts can help combat the tendency to report on rather than analyze non-Western works and thus can also prevent Asian films from being seen as merely exotic and disconnected from Shakespeare scholarship. Especially valuable for Shakespeareans are the ways in which the two films refashion Hamlet, Gertrude, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and other characters to shed new light on the visceral and political experiences enabled by these Shakespearean tragedies.

Asian Shakespeares on Screen: Two Films in Perspective, special issue, edited by Alexa Huang, Borrowers and Lenders 4.2 (Spring/Summer 2009).
The past decades have witnessed diverse incarnations and bold sequences of filmic re-imaginings that gave rise to productive encounters between the ideas of Asia and of Shakespeare in the global cultural marketplace. The beginning of the new millennium is for Asian cinematic Shakespeares (Huang and Ross 2009, 1-3) as the 1990s were for Anglophone Shakespeare on film — a "citationally rich intertextual environment" (Cartelli and Rowe 2007, 2). Shakespeare has been a part of the film and popular cultures of various Asian countries, with Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and Hamlet at the center of cinematic imaginations. Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood (Macbeth, 1957) and Ran (Lear, 1985) are far from the earliest or the only Shakespeare films from Asia.1
Among other locations, Shakespeare films have been produced in India, Malaysia, Tibet, Hong Kong, Singapore, China, and Japan. Around the time that Asta Nielsen's cross-dressed Hamlet (1921) was filmed, gender-bending silent film adaptations of The Merchant of Venice and Two Gentlemen of Verona were being made in Shanghai and marketed to the European expatriate and Chinese diasporic communities there and in Canton and Southeast Asia. Since 1927, the Indian cinematic tradition has engaged Shakespearean motifs in diverse genres ranging from silent film and theatrical cinematization to feature films that localize the plays. Films such as Angoor (dir. Gulzar, 1981; based on The Comedy of Errors) and The Last Lear (dir. Rituparno Ghosh, 2007) suggest that the cultural flows no longer travel unilaterally from the West to the "rest." In 2006, Chinese director Feng Xiaogang adapted Hamlet, Hollywood visual language, and the martial arts genre in his feature film The Banquet. Films such as Baz Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet and John Madden's Shakespeare in Love have also inspired creative reinterpretations of these films and of Romeo and Juliet in Anthony Chan's Hong Kong film, One Husband Too Many, and Cheah Chee Kong's Singaporean film, Chicken Rice War. A Tibetan film entitled The Prince of the Himalayas (Ximalaya wangzi, China, 2006) with an all-star cast, reframes Hamlet in terms of ancient Tibet and local customs. Following the success of Maqbool (Macbeth, India, 2003), the first Indian film adaptation of Shakespeare to gain international recognition, director Vishal Bhardwaj drew on Othello, caste politics, and gang culture to explore specifiable universals in human emotions in Omkara (2006). If the collapse of Shakespeare's status in mid-twentieth-century India in the narrative of the Merchant Ivory film Shakespeare-Wallah (1964) signals "the end of cultural colonization" (Singh 2008, 233), the advent of Bhardwaj's internationally acclaimed films suggests a renewed rivalry between Shakespeare's globally circulating text and local representational practices (Bollywood and beyond) in the post-national cultural marketplace.
The rash of new Shakespeare films from Asia may be the result of increasingly aggressive trans-nationalizing strategies since the 1990s (Burt 2009). Asian audio-visual idioms have been appropriated, along with Shakespeare's text, on stage and on screen. Therefore, we need to ask: On what terms do international Shakespeare films reframe the relationships between different geo-cultural or virtual localities? In turn, what is entailed in the cultural practice of screening, in both senses of the verb, Shakespeare in transnational audio-visual idioms in modern times? How does Shakespeare become a necessary signifier against which popular and world cultures define themselves on screen?
These are some of the questions that have inspired the present collection of essays on Asian Shakespeares on screen, a collaborative effort to bring into productive dialogue studies of Shakespeare and both Asian and Western forms of cultural production. A few words about the rationale and design of the collection are in order. In 2008, at the Shakespeare Association of America's (SAA) annual meeting in Dallas were screened two provocative, visually stunning Asian films from China and India, respectively, with contrasting approaches to Shakespearean tragedy. Despite the less than ideal screening conditions in a ballroom, the films impressed the conference delegates with deeply moving story-telling and astute reflections on Shakespeare's place in today's world.
The Banquet (Ye Yan, or Legend of the Black Scorpion, dir. Feng Xiaogang, China, 2006), a martial-arts film in Mandarin Chinese, gives Gertrude and Ophelia, traditionally silenced women characters in Hamlet, a strong presence, though the centrality of the Gertrude figure in the film's narrative has been seen as problematic by some critics (Hand 2008, 430-31). As a bold period epic, the film is informed by rich intertextual traces of diverse themes from Shakespearean and Chinese sources. Maqbool (dir. Vishal Bhardwaj, India, 2004), hailed as a "Macbeth meets The Godfather" film, defies convenient categorization because it combines Bollywood gangster film, Muslim social drama, ethnography, and postmodernist artwork. The set design in one scene in The Banquet evokes Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet (1968) and Hamlet (1990), while the closing scene in Maqbool is connected to Luc Besson's Léon (1994) through its visual strategies.
The Macbeths inhabit both the present-day Mumbai criminal underworld and India's film industry in an environment reminiscent of the world of the Scottish play. As national films with transnational networks of funding and artistic collaboration, The Banquet and Maqbool are self-conscious about their local as well as their international audiences. Both filmmakers engage productively with the inevitable tensions between different narrativized spaces and cinematic strategies. As a result, the films compel us to reconsider assumptions about the kinetic energy of Asian visual media and the textual foundation of English-language Shakespeare films. The screenings at the SAA set in motion a process of canonization by raising awareness and initiating debates about global Shakespeare. These two films were featured in the seminar on "Shakespeare and World Cinema" at the 2010 SAA in Chicago. Some of the most exciting conversations are captured in the thirteen essays in this collection.
Enhanced by film stills and clips, the multimedia essays in this special collection are also designed to be a teaching tool to advance the study of Shakespeare on film — informing, but also initiating, critical debate. Despite these two feature films' popularity, there is a dearth of open-access scholarly resources that do justice to the films as visual and textual feasts. Bringing together a film from India, a country with postcolonial entanglements with Britain, and a film from China, a country with a different, ambiguous relationship to the values represented by Shakespeare, enables us to ask new questions and to seek approaches that are attuned to the intricate dynamics between different localities. As an interdisciplinary forum that thrives on contrasting perspectives on The Banquet and Maqbool, the collection not only creates new pedagogical possibilities, but also demonstrates how the field can move beyond journalistic familiarity with new films. The contributors represent a number of different fields, including Shakespeare, English, performance, comparative literature, and Asian studies. As a corrective to the prevailing reportage mode that is often deployed when non-Western works are discussed, and to avoid relegating these films to predictably exotic objects that are newsworthy for their immediacy only (Huang 2009, 36), the collection offers concise, accessible essays on a truly global array of appropriative strategies rather than a review of each film. It opens with a comparative essay on both films by Mark Thornton Burnett, which is followed by seven essays on various aspects of The Banquet and six essays on Maqbool. While the cultural and historical contexts of Maqbool are readily available in English, the same could not be said of The Banquet, a film with equally rich allusions. Therefore, a glossary is provided for readers interested in exploring the imaginations of local history in The Banquet.

Cast of Maqbool

Irfan Khan   Maqbool 
Tabu  Nimmi 
Pankaj Kapur  Jahangir Khan (Abbaji) 
Naseeruddin Shah  Inspector Purohit 
Om Puri  Inspector Pandit 
Piyush Mishra  Kaka 
Masumi Makhija  Sameera (Abbaji's Daughter) 
Ajay Gehi  Guddu (Kaka's son) 
Abbas Tyrewala  Sadik Chikna 
Deepak Dobriyal  Thapa 
Gyanchand Rikki  Mughal 
Manav Kaushik  Asif 
Ankur Vikal  Riyaz Boti 
Pubali Sanyal  Boti's wife 
Raj  Boti's son 
Murli Sharma  Devsare 
Firdous Irani  Usman 
Vinod Nahardi  Chinna 
Vivek Mishra  Tavde 
Shammi Narang  Bhosle 
Mohini Mathur  Badi Bi 
Rakesh Pandit  Qawwals at Dargah 
Sabir Khan  Qawwals at Dargah 
Musharraf Khan  Qawwals at Dargah 
Jaywant Wadkar  Palekar 
Jitendra Shriamali  Palekar's PA 
Bhupinder Sharma  Mohini's secretary 
Jagdish Kansara  Producer 
Shweta Menon  Mohini 
Vinay Shukla  Professor 
Rajeev Acharya  Architect 
Anoop Joshi  Caterer 
Ramratan Sen  Ahmed 
Shankar Nihate  Kaka's Murderer 
Dibyendu Bhattacharya  Chinna's Killer 
Nadeem Khan  Badi Bi's Killer 
Sanjay Bhutiani  Custom Officer 
Richa Nayer  Doctor 
Daya Shankar Pandey  Masterji 

Director: Vishal Bharadwaj 
Screenplay: Vishal Bharadwaj and Abbas Tyrewala 
Kaleidoscope Entertainment Pvt. Ltd. 

Bobby Bedi  producer 
Puja Bedi  associate producer 
Rekha Bharadwaj  co-producer 
Laurens C. Postma  executive producer 

Original Music by Vishal Bharadwaj 
Cinematography by Hemant Chaturvedi 
Film Editing by Aarif Sheikh 
Casting by Honey Trehan 
Art Direction by Jayant Deshmukh 
Costume Design by Payal Saluja 

Cast of The Banquet (Ye Yan)

Zhang Ziyi  Empress Wan (Wan'er or Little Wan) 
Ge You  Emperor Li 
Daniel Wu  Prince Wu Luan 
Zhou Xun  Qing Nü (Master Yin's daughter) 
Ma Jingwu  Master Yin (Yin Taichang) 
Huang Xiaoming  General Yin (Yin Sun; Master Yin's son) 
Zhou Zhonghe  Chamberlain 
Zheng Qiusheng  Governor Pei (Pei Hong) 
Xu Xiyan  Ling'er 
Liu Yanbin  Messenger 
Ma Lun  Pharmacist 
Xiang Bin  Imperial Guard 
Zheng Chunyu  Imperial Guard 

Director: Feng Xiaogang 
Screenplay: Sheng Heyu and Qian Yu 
Huayi Brothers 

John Chong  producer 
Wang Zhongjun  producer 
Wang Zhonglei  executive producer 
Yue Woo-ping  executive producer 

Original Music by Tan Dun 
Action Choreographer, Yuen Woo-ping 
Cinematography by Zhang Li 
Film Editing by Liu Miaomiao 
Art Direction by Timmy Yip 

How to cite this article: Huang, Alexa. "Introduction." In Asian Shakespeares on Screen: Two Films in Perspective. Special issue, edited by Alexa Huang. Borrowers and Lenders: The Journal of Shakespeare and Appropriation 4.2 (Spring/Summer 2009). Available online:


1.   Throughout this collection of essays, Asian names are kept in their original order (family name first, e.g., Feng Xiaogang), except for names better known in other forms, such as Akira Kurosawa. Many actors take on single-word screen names in Indian cinema and are known as such (e.g., Tabu).


Angoor. 1981. Director Gulazar, performers Sanjeev Kumar, Moushumi Chatterjee. India. A. R. Movies.

Burt, Richard. 2009. "Mobilizing Foreign Shakespeares in Media." In Shakespeare in Hollywood, Asia, and Cyberspace. Edited by Alexa C. Y. Huang and Charles Ross. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press. 231-38.

Cartelli, Thomas, and Katherine Rowe. 2007. New Wave Shakespeare on Screen. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Chicken Rice War. 2000. Director Cheah Chee Kong, performers Pierre Png, May Yee Lum, Catherine Sng, Gary Yuen, Kevin Murphy. Singapore. Mediacorp Raintree Pictures.

Company. 2002. Director Ram Gopal Varma, performers Ajay Devgan, Mohanlal. India. Varma Corporation.

The Godfather. 1972. Director Francis Ford Coppola, performers Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan. USA. Alfran Productions.

Hamlet. 1990. Director Franco Zeffirelli, performers Mel Gibson, Glenn Close, Alan Bates, Paul Scofield. USA. Canal+.

Hamlet. 1921. Directors Svend Gade and Heinz Schall, performers Asta Nielsen, Paul Conradi, Mathilde Brandt. Germany. Art-Film GmbH.

Hand, Molly. 2008. "Review of Ye Yan: The Banquet (directed by Feng Xiaogang)." Shakespeare 4.4: 429-33.

Huang, Alexa 2009. Chinese Shakespeares: Two Centuries of Cultural Exchange. New York: Columbia University Press.

Huang, Alexa, and Charles S. Ross. 2009. Introduction to Shakespeare in Hollywood, Asia, and Cyberspace. West Lafayette: Purdue University Press. 1-14.

The Last Lear. 2007. Director Rituparno Ghosh, performers Amitabh Bachchan, Preity Zinta, Arjun Rampal. India. Planman Motion Pictures.

Léon. 1994. Director Luc Besson, performers Jean Reno, Gary Oldman. France. Gaumont.

Maqbool. 2004. Director Vishal Bhardwaj, performers Irfan Khan, Tabu, Pankaj Kapoor, Piyush Mishra, Ajay Gehi, Ankur Vikal. India. Kaleidoscope Entertainment.

Omkara. 2006. Director Vishal Bhardwaj, performers Ajay Devgan, Kareena Kapoor. India. Big Screen Entertainment.

One Husband Too Many. 1988. Director Anthony Chan, performers Kenny Bee, Anthony Chan, Cherie Chung, Anita Mui, Pat Ha. Hong Kong.

Prince of the Himalayas. 2006. Director Sherwood Hu, performers Purba Rgyal, Dobrgyal, Zomskyid. China. Hus Entertainment.

Ran. 1985. Director Akira Kurosawa, performers Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu. Japan. Greenwich Film Productions.

Romeo + Juliet. 1996. Director Baz Luhrmann, performers Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes. USA. Bazmark Films.

Romeo and Juliet. 1968. Director Franco Zeffirelli, performers Olivia Hussey, Leonard Whiting, John McEnery. USA. BHE Films.

Satya. 1998. Director Ram Gopal Varma, performers J. D. Chakravarthi, Urmila Matondkar. India.

Shakespeare-Wallah. 1965. Director James Ivory, performers Shashi Kapoor, Felicity Kendal, Geoffrey Kendal. USA. Merchant Ivory Productions.

Shakespeare in Love. 1998. Director John Madden, performers Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Judi Dench. USA. Universal Pictures.

Singh, Jyotsna G. 2008. "Afterword: The Location of Shakespeare." In Native Shakespeares: Indigenous Appropriations on a Global Stage. Edited by Craig Dionne and Parmita Kapadia. Aldershot: Ashgate. 233-40.

Throne of Blood. 1957. Director Akira Kurosawa, performers Toshirô Mifune, Isuzu Yamada, Takashi Shimura. Japan. Toho Company.

Ye Yan (The Banquet). 2006. Director Xiaogang Feng, performers Ziyi Zhang, You Ge, Daniel Wu, Xun Zhou. Huayi Brothers.

© Borrowers and Lenders 2005-2019