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Spring 2023

Zainab Shamim, "Of Race and Caste: Discrimination Across Cultures in Shakespeare’s Othello and Bhardwaj’s Omkara" [Article]

Abstract

Shakespeare’s Othello has long been the center of academic attention due to its characterization of Othello as a Moor. Racism against Othello drives much of the play’s action, leading to Othello’s own internalization of anti-Black sentiments. Given the popularity of Shakespeare’s works, adaptations of the Bard’s plays continue to grow in relevancy. These adaptations allow for Shakespeare’s classic stories to be retold, entertaining old and new fans alike. This paper examines Vishal Bhardwaj’s Bollywood adaptation of Othello, Omkara. In the film, Bhardwaj transports Othello into contemporary Indian society. I argue that Bhardwaj uses the film to explore issues of casteism and colorism within modern Desi culture, mirroring the prejudice that Othello faces in Shakespeare’s play. To make this argument, the paper explores how Othello depicts racial outsiders in sixteenth-century Europe before turning to an examination of how Omkara depicts the caste system in contemporary Uttar Pradesh, India. Comparing the adaptation to the original play helps us better understand how Othello and Omkara are characterized as members of discriminated groups within their respective communities.

Introduction

Shakespeare’s Othello depicts the tragic marriage of Othello and Desdemona, who, though filled with love for each other, suffered at the hands of lies and insecurity. One of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies, Othello focuses on the strife between its characters, while serving as a commentary on the racist and discriminatory environment of sixteenth-century Europe. The prejudice that Othello faces from those around him spurs his own insecurities and results in the tragic conclusion of his story: his murder of Desdemona. Shakespeare’s tragedies have spread worldwide,, and many of his works have inspired reiterations and retellings across cultures. One such retelling, Omkara, places Othello in the setting of contemporary India. Its director Vishal Bhardwaj is known in Bollywood for creating and directing many Shakespeare adaptations. Each are set in varying locations of South Asia and tackle issues that are embedded within South Asian culture. Omkara is Bhardwaj’s second film adaptation of Shakespeare’s works, in between Maqbool and Haider, adaptations of Macbeth and Hamlet respectively. Given the alternative setting of contemporary India, Omkara transforms Shakespeare’s theme of discrimination from that of racial intolerance to one of colorism and casteism.

Shakespeare’s Othello: Racial Discrimination

While Bhardwaj’s Bollywood adaptation of Othello is one of the most memorable in modern Indian society, Bollywood has long had a fascination with Shakespearean works. In Shakespeare and Asia by Jonathan Locke Hart, Hart writes “Bollywood adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays are as old as the industry itself, dating back more than a hundred years. In fact, the Indian film industry has adapted many works from Western literary traditions” (Hart 213). When speaking specifically about Omkara, Hart states that “the film makes Shakespeare accessible to local Indian audiences,” even if “the average viewer may, in fact, not be familiar with the original play” (Hart 2017). This accessibility of such a story, in addition to it being placed within contexts that cover deep, personal prejudices and experiences, lends itself to such adaptation. In an interview with Bhardwaj by WildFilmsIndia, he states “[Shakespeare’s] plays are 400 years old but those human traits are still the same and that’s why they are so contemporary and so relevant” (Bhardwaj). Bhardwaj demonstrates his adoration of Shakespeare and the literary tradition of sharing tales. It is this diverse and earnest characterization and storytelling of Shakespeare’s plays that inspire meaningful artwork, such as Omkara.

In Shakespeare’s play, Othello is mainly othered due to his race. As a man of color living within the biased and rather racist culture of sixteenth century Europe, he is often set aside for his appearance, despite being respected for his work as a general. Often referred to as “the Moor,” (1.1.42) or “his Moorship,” Othello’s racial and ethnic background is used to define him in more than one circumstance to demonstrate that the characters feel he is different from the rest of them, regardless of his accomplishments or the respect he’s earned (1.1.35). Othello is a very important man within his society, but is often alienated due to his race, as it is constantly brought up by his fellow characters as though he is abnormal or unusual. It is in this way that scholars feel “Othello’s initial appearance is thus framed by and within a social world distinguished by its nasty penchant for prejudice” (Bartels 13). As the play opens, Othello faces direct racism and microaggressions due to his marriage with Desdemona. One example of such disrespect comes from Brabantio upon finding out that Desdemona has run off with Othello. Brabantio confronts him saying, “O, thou foul thief, where hast thou stowed my / daughter?” (1.2.80-81). Brabantio’s reference to Othello being a thief, not only undermines the respect he earned as general, but diminishes him to the likes of  a common criminal. His statement also implies that there was no possibility Desdemona may have chosen Othello herself, which plays into the stereotypes that are established for Desdemona and Othello’s relationship by others around them.

Though lovingly married out of their own accord, Desdemona and Othello’s relationship is repeatedly brought into question throughout the entirety of the play, most commonly by Iago. As Emma Smith explains, “Whether or not Iago is explicitly racially motivated is difficult to judge, although his injunction to Cassio to drink ‘the health of black Othello’ (2.3.28-9) has more than a smack of racism” (Smith 36). While he might have had other reasons, Iago is still spurred on by some anti-Black sentiment, and makes it apparent from the beginning that he dislikes Othello. This is first revealed when he exposes the relationship between Othello and Desdemona to her father, Brabantio, to have Othello punished for what they believe is taking advantage of a European woman. “Zounds, sir, you’re robbed,” (1.1.94) states Iago to Brabantio, “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe” (1.1.97-98). Referring to Othello as an old black ram and Desdemona as the white ewe emphasizes the difference in their race and skin tone, whilst also insinuating that Othello, being a black man, is aggressive and hyper-sexual like a ram, and Desdemona, being a white woman, is small and fragile like a ewe. This oversexualization of Othello, as well as Roderigo’s reference to him as “a lascivious Moor” (1.1.141), emphasizes the stereotype forced onto Othello that “Black characters [are] already associated with stereotypical lust for sex and power” (Smith, 36). Iago discriminates against Othello based on his race, and clearly attempts to use his racial background to have others fear and look down upon him as well. This characterization of Othello as hypersexual is deeply rooted in the history of anti-Black racism, and Smith argues that “sexual predation of white women is seen as defining black masculinity” (Smith, 35). It is apparent that the main hatred Othello receives is spurred on by his interracial relationship with Desdemona and other characters feeling as though he is unworthy of her. Perhaps the extent of their disdain for Othello stemmed from “the idea that Othello may blacken—morally and racially—those around him” (Smith, 43). Either way, it is evident by those around him that many of the characters in the Shakespearean tragedy already looked down upon Othello for his racial background, while only becoming more fearful and wary of him following his relationship with Desdemona.

By taking advantage of this discrimination against Othello, Iago causes not only other characters to view Othello negatively, but plays on Othello’s own racial insecurities to his marriage to Desdemona.  Emily Bartels argues,  “Iago repeatedly reconfigures the meaning of ‘race’ and emphasizes the incriminating transparency of blackness to negatively color what the Moor perceives and how he is perceived” (Bartels 6). Manipulated by Iago into believing that she is cheating on him with Cassio, Othello regards Desdemona in a negative light. Othello overhears Cassio talking indecently about a woman he is led to believe is Desdemona, and is told by Iago, 

“In sleep I heard him say ‘Sweet Desdemona, 

Let us be wary, let us hide our loves.’ 

And then, sir, would he gripe and wring my hand, 

Cry ‘O sweet creature!’ then kiss me hard,” 

(3.3.475-478). 

This misunderstanding and blatant lie fabricated by Iago, in addition to the lie of the sentimental handkerchief Othello had gifted Desdemona being used by “Cassio [to] wipe his beard with,” leads Othello to confirm that his love was cheating on him with his right-hand man (3.3.498). As Smith suggests, “Othello is made jealous by an Iago who preys on his weakness, his feelings of insecurity as a foreigner marked out in a sophisticated and urbane city state such as Venice. Othello’s jealousy is thus part of the fact that he is black, but not because this is biologically determined but because it is culturally determined” (Smith, 45). As Othello spirals into a fit of rage and jealousy, he begins to unearth internalized racist thoughts that had been pushed onto him by sixteenth-century European society. “Look here, Iago,” Othello begins. “All my fond love thus do I blow to heaven. / ‘Tis gone. / Arise, black vengeance, from the hollow hell!” (3.3.504-507). Othello’s feelings are mainly caused by the external and internal effects of racism, and go on to result in horrible outcomes when he murders Desdemona.

The act of the murder is influenced by Othello’s anger, which comes from a place of insecurity based on his internalized racism, and further causes those around him to fear his presence and actions. His use of the words “black vengeance” implies that he has hidden the anger and aggression that is horribly associated with his race. The phrase marks a key turning point for Othello, after which he no longer questions Desdemona’s supposed infidelity. The racism surrounding Othello was internalized within him, and he begins to embody an angrier persona that he has been influenced to believe is his natural state. Othello also states, “Her name, that was fresh / As Dian’s visage, is now begrimed and black / As mine own face” (3.3.441-443). Othello’s internalized racism against himself is once again portrayed, as he claims he loved Desdemona when she was fair and beautiful as Dian—goddess of the moon—but now that she has broken his trust, she is no longer beautiful, but rather “begrimed and black.” Othello’s words imply that he does not believe those of darker complexion are as beautiful as those of a lighter one, which insinuates that his time in Venice has caused him to assimilate the racist ideologies that he was surrounded by, and which possibly caused him to view himself as unworthy of Desdemona’s love from the start.

Much of the racism depicted in Othello reflects real experiences of individuals with African descent within Europe in the sixteenth century. As Emily Bartels writes, asking the question of “what does Othello’s identity as a Moor, which he leaves out, have to do with anything?” is “to whitewash the story and bypass the issue of race” (Bartels 64). In the sixteenth century, Africa was referred to as “the dark continent,” placing all of the distinguishing attributes of its people solely on their skin tone (Bartels 48). In England specifically, much of the discourse was “already filled with stereotypes of Africans as embodiments of evil, blackened by sin, driven by lust, and hungry for murder and revenge” (Bartels 53). Shakespeare being an Englishman himself, it is no surprise that Othello fell victim to these prejudices from those in his social circle. While Othello was “integrated into Venetian society” as a general, he still fell prey to ideologies that he was violent, lustful, or simply beneath his fellow European folk (Bartels 61). To Europeans, “Africa became increasingly the object of exploitation” (Bartels 57). This ideology was deeply rooted within the culture and displayed itself through Shakespeare’s characterization of Othello. That disdain towards African society informs the prejudice and aggression against Othello in his play.

Bhardwaj’s Omkara: Casteism and Colorism

While the tragedy of Shakespeare’s Othello critiques early modern racial standards, adaptations of his work have been constructed to tell the moral of the story through the lens of other cultural bounds. One such adaptation is the Bollywood film, Omkara. There have been numerous Shakespearean adaptations throughout the world, each recreation either attempting to follow the script as closely as possible, or rather taking inspiration from the works and setting the story within a new time-period or cultural setting. Many of the Shakespearean Bollywood film adaptations follow the latter pattern by setting the plays within modern Desi culture. Amongst the numerous Bollywood film adaptations of the Bard’s works, director Vishal Bhardwaj has built a subculture from his modern reworkings of the plays. Bhardwaj has made a trilogy of Shakespeare-inspired movies, such as Maqbool being an adaptation of Macbeth, and Haider, an adaptation of Hamlet. Each tragedy set in the modern Desi stage focuses on issues within the culture that Bhardwaj wished to make a commentary on, from legitimacy and love within Desi culture, to political and military strife in Kashmir. Completing his trilogy, Bhardwaj directed Omkara, a modern-day adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello, set in the modern-day Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

In Omkara, Bhardwaj chose to focus on both the tragedy of the story and cultural issues that he felt would best relate to the racism that Shakespeare emphasized within Othello. Saksham Sharda argues that in this film, “[Bhardwaj] substitutes caste for race so that Othello is of a lower caste than Desdemona, setting the scene for the tragedy” (Sharda, 599). Setting Othello in India allowed Bhardwaj to discuss the negative effects of the caste structure on the lives of the characters, and in extension, the lives of his audience. By echoing Shakespeare’s commentary on the othering of Othello due to his race and title of “the Moor.” Sharda examines colorism within Desi culture stating, “in addition to being of a higher caste, Desdemona’s skin is lighter than Othello’s,” and “the film’s strong color hierarchy, mapped as it is onto caste hierarchy, is inescapably obvious” (Sharda, 599). Bhardwaj also highlighted the importance that colorism played as a parallel between Omkara and the original, in that Omkara (Othello) is gradually exposed to be othered for the color of his skin being darker than that of Dolly (Desdemona), Ishwar “Langda” (Iago), or Keshav “Kesu” (Cassio). 

This colorism stems from the prevalence of caste structure within Indian society, which impacts every aspect of Indian culture. To begin an analysis of Omkara, it is important to evaluate the effect that caste structure and colorism has on the main characters of the story. Established in the Indian subcontinent over 3,000 years ago, the caste structure split Hindu citizens into separate groups as part of a rigid social hierarchy. It was believed that they would move up or down a caste in their next life based on the amount of good or bad karma. As Sureshi M. Jayawardene  argues, “Colorism, or the process of discrimination that privileges light-skinned people over their dark-skinned counterparts, occupies a complex position within South Asian caste systems” (Jayawardene 14). Much of caste structure contributed to the rise of colorism within Desi culture, as those with lower castes who worked in the sun had a darker skin tone, and those within the higher castes had fairer skin tones. This meant that those with fairer skin tones were seen as more attractive based on their prestige and position in life. Arunoday Saha claims that the religious and color-based hierarchy “in all likelihood, evolved as the fair-skinned Aryan invaders endeavored to keep the original dark-skinned residents of the country in a state of permanent subordination” (Saha). Furthermore, notions of gender in Desi culture were influenced by caste structure as well. As Uma Chakravarti argues, “caste hierarchy and gender hierarchy are the organizing principles of the Brahmanical social order” (Chakravarti, 579). Throughout Indian culture, caste structures center economic, social, and political hierarchies, shaping all aspects of peoples’ lives. These structures from the caste system have bled into contemporary Indian society. As Saha writes, “caste prejudices, especially those involving the inherent inequality of human beings, repulsion among groups and specialization, are subtly introduced in a variety of ways” (Saha 35). For this very reason Bhardwaj attempted to portray these struggles of Indian society throughout his work in Omkara.  

In comparison to the character Othello, both Omkara and he have aspects of their character that are respected but remain ostracized due to their duality with another aspect of themselves that is seemingly “negative” to the characters in the play. Othello was a respected and knowledgeable general, but he was continuously discriminated against, causing him to internalize the insecurity. Likewise Omkara’s duality of respect comes from the castes of his mother and father. Omkara’s father was from the Brahmin, or priestly and academic caste, whilst his mother was from a lower caste. Throughout the film, Omkara is referred to as “half-caste” and “half-priest.” “The difference between the two terms is crucial since the first implies that Omkara is half-outcaste whereas the second implies that he is within the caste system but a mixture of the Priest caste and a lower caste” (Sharda, 599-600). The titles that refer to Omkara purely based on his ethnic background rather than his character or personality directly relate back to Othello being defined by his race as well through his title as “the Moor” (Sharda, 617). With this duality, Omkara is portrayed as a character that is both respected due to his background as half-Brahmin, but incredibly alienated as well, due to his mother’s lower caste.

Omkara’s mother, being of a low caste, established him as being of little respect. While women were subordinate to their male counterparts within the caste system, they “are regarded as gate-ways—literally points of entrance into the caste system” (Chakravarti, 579). This element implies that children were often given the same caste as their mothers due to the majority of child-raising responsibilities being left to the women. Given that Omkara’s mother was of a lower caste, it is understandable from a cultural perspective that he is also viewed as lower-class, as given that the caste you are born into is heavily based on your karma from the past life. This influence of caste further affects Omkara’s insecurity, just as Othello’s was affected. “Not only is [Kesu] of an upper caste but he is also fair-skinned and educated enough to be referred to as ‘civilized and educated,’” unlike Omkara (Chakravarti, 615). The emphasis on caste structure and social hierarchy can be related directly to opportunities that one gets, which explains Omkara’s insecurity that Dolly would be unfaithful to him for Kesu, a well-educated, upper-caste man. Dolly herself seems to be rather well-born, as her name “makes her seem foreign, being as it is an English nickname for what is probably a longer Hindi name,” and “her skin color and her education” set her apart from Omkara and more aligned with Kesu (Sharda, 616). 

Omkara’s characterization as lower-caste questions whether his portrayal as a gang leader and criminal politician is tied to the already negative association with his caste. Similar to Othello being compared to a thief when he married Desdemona, Omkara is quite literally within the criminal underworld. “Dolly thus ends up being betrothed to Omkara in an exogamous act that threatens the institution of caste” (Chakravarti, 610). Their love blooms, but the affinity of the discriminated-against characters in each respective play to be stereotyped as violent and brooding is a factor that they both share. 

Omkara’s skin tone is also brought in to characterize himself as lower-caste, as “Omkara and Dolly have a noticeable color contrast” (Chakravarti, 600). His darker complexion is related to Othello’s dark skin tone as well, the most jarring similarity between the two works being Iago’s comparison of Othello to a black ram and Desdemona to a white ewe, to the quote “a snowy-white sweet in the beak of a [black] cow” from Omkara (Bhardwaj). Although not concerning race exactly, the colorism spurred on within Desi society by the embedded caste system creates a wedge between those of darker complexions and those of lighter complexions, such as Othello and Desdemona, and Omkara and Dolly.

Conclusions

Throughout Othello and Omkara, there is a great emphasis placed on the racial and ethnic backgrounds of the respective main characters that cause them to be othered by the characters within the play. This spurs on the struggle within Othello and Desdemona’s relationship, leading to the subsequent end with her death. Othello was surrounded by racist stereotypes, which amplified claims that he had taken advantage of a poor, weak European girl. These racist aggressions against him began to be internalized, and while he was misled to believe that Desdemona betrayed him, Othello began to unearth some racist sentiments he had against himself as well. Similar themes were seen within the Bollywood adaptation, Omkara, where rather than a focus on racism, Bhardwaj chose to utilize the film as a commentary on the caste system within India, and all the aspects it manipulates, such as educational opportunities and colorism. Once again, Omkara begins to internalize much of his surroundings, driving him to believe that Dolly must’ve been unfaithful as he just wasn’t good enough. In the end, it was bigotry that killed Desdemona and Dolly.

Works Cited

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Omkara. Directed by Vishal Bhardwaj, Shemaroo Films, 2006.

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