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Bollywood reaches new heights with Brontë's classic

TELEVISION, stage, film – Emily Brontë's eternal love story Wuthering Heights has inspired about 30 adaptations. Each new version clamours to set itself apart from the rest.

Deepak Verma has found the perfect way to make his telling of the tragic love story stand out from the crowd. He has moved the story wholesale from the wilds of the Yorkshire Moors to the sun-scorched desert of Rajasthan.

Cathy becomes Shakuntala, Heathcliff becomes Krishan and song-and-dance numbers a la classic Bollywood movies become part of the script.

"People who love the novel understand that it's a universal story. To me it's about a kid with nothing brought up in a house where he sees the good life and where he meets the love of his life," says Verma.

"Reading the story, I found a real parallel, because of the social structures and all the other frameworks of the story, with today's India.

"It might seem strange to some people to relate Victorian England with modern India, but the issues of class and society and all those big things are there in the story and in today's India. I wanted to embrace that with this piece."

The project has been a labour of love for Verma, who has spent almost five years seeing his original idea go from concept to stage.

While he achieved nationwide fame with his role in EastEnders, Verma has always had ambitions to work in various different guises in film and theatre.

In 2001, he set Emile Zola's Therese Raquin in present-day Punjab in his play Ghostdancing. He also set up his own TV and film production company Pukkanasha Films.

So, while he's been away from the screen he has continued to work in the industry and his work has been well received.

But it takes some guts to bring a new version of Wuthering Heights to Yorkshire.

"I'm really excited about it coming to Yorkshire. It's the last venue on the nationwide tour and we're going to be really celebrating when it comes to an end next week," says Verma.

Not even a little nervous?

"It's been really well received and we're talking to people about it going into the West End. I think that helps, the fact that it has been so well received."

He doesn't seem to quite grasp the gravity of the situation. He has not just moved one of Yorkshire's greatest novels to Rajasthan, but has also, judging by early reports, fair butchered the story.

Verma's version features Catherine and Heathcliff and their love story, but does not follow the latter half of the novel and the story of their children.

"I took a long look at it and had to decide what story from all of this I wanted to tell in the two hours that I had on stage," says Verma.

"And it was clear to me that the story I really wanted to tell was the eternal love story between Cathy and Heathcliff."

Verma finally reveals the other reason he is confident that Yorkshire audiences won't simply be up in arms and see it as sacrilegious.

Bront's book, clearly, is the major source of inspiration for the new play.

But Verma has also returned to the classic age of Bollywood of the Fifties and Sixties for his inspiration.

"The stories from Bollywood of that era are about big emotions and big stories. It seemed a perfect fit for this story and particularly the way I wanted to tell it. I wanted to take the aesthetic of those classic movies and bring that to the stage as a part of this story. It just made sense to me," says Verma.

The musical has already secured a loyal – and culturally diverse – following at its London performances. Verma says that Indian audiences are fiercely loyal to shows that they enjoy, but the universal nature of the story has brought in people from all cultures.

The show has been developed and produced by Tamasha, one of the leading Asian theatre companies in the country.

Run by Kristine Landon-Smith and Sudha Bhuchar, who played Sanjay's love interest Meena in Eastenders, the company was set up almost 20 years ago. Its name is taken from the Punjabi word meaning commotion, and it was established to address the paucity of Asian work on British stages.

Verma says that it is recognised now not as a leading Asian company, but a leading "theatre company whose work has an Asian slant to it".

"The reason I wanted to tell Wuthering Heights on stage was because I have always felt a real connection to the character of Heathcliff," says Verma.

He says he was also always attracted to the darkness of the novel.

"I love the images of the dark moors, but for me, the key to Wuthering Heights is the love story that is at its centre. That's why it works perfectly as a Bollywood musical."

Wuthering Heights is at Harrogate Theatre, June 16 to 20.

Stars of stage and screen

1939: Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier starred as Cathy and Heathcliff, and the film was nominated for best picture Academy Award the following year.

1951: Bernard Herrman wrote an opera based on the novel.

1970: Timothy Dalton and Anna Calder-Marshall starred, but like the 1940 film, only half the story was told. In the same year, the BBC's Monty Python's Flying Circus featured a semophore sketch of the novel.

1985: In one of many foreign language film versions, including Japanese and Filipino, French director Jacques Rivette adapted Wuthering Heights as Hurlevent.

1992: Juliette Binoche and Ralph Fiennes starred in the Peter Kosminsky-directed Emily Bront's Wuthering Heights.

2002: Leeds-based Northern Ballet Theatre first staged David Nixon's ballet, Wuthering Heights, which the company is featuring on its tour. The BBC also screened a comedy take on the book, adapted by Sally Wainwright with the gender roles reversed.

2010: will see a new film, starring Ed Westwick and Gemma Arterton.

 
 
 

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