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The Bard goes to India – “Shakespeare Wallah”


Felicity Kendal and Shashi Kapoor, playing lovers in Merchant-Ivory's "Shakespeare Wallah." (Frame shots courtesy of Cohen Film Collection)


Blu-ray, DVD; 1965, Not Rated; streaming via Amazon Video, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu

Best extra: “Conversation from the Quad,” a recent interview with director James Ivory and actress Madhur Jaffrey.

THE TEAM of producer Ismail Merchant and co-writer/director James Ivory began their feature career with four films set in India. The second of these was “Shakespeare Wallah,” now available on Blu-ray thanks to Cohen Film Collection.

The screenplay was inspired by the unpublished diaries of Geoffrey Kendal, an Englishman who, with his wife Laura Liddell, lived in India and founded “Shakespeareana,” an itinerant acting troupe that specialized in plays by the Bard. The troupe performed in every sort of location from Maharajas’ palaces, to boarding schools, to movie theaters. They managed to stay employed during the years before 1947 when the British Raj ended, until the late 1950s when the Indian public showed preference for their own brand of entertainment, mainly in the form of Bollywood movies.

Costumed members of a traveling acting troupe, taking a break in Lucknow, India
A scene from Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra," performed by Geoffrey Kendal and Laura Liddell, who play fictional versions of themselves in "Shakespeare Wallah."
Costumed actors preparing to go onstage

Ivory co-wrote the screenplay with longtime collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and convinced Kendal and Liddell to appear as Tony and Carla Buckingham, fictional versions of themselves, in “Shakespeare Wallah.” In Hindi, “wallah” refers to someone who represents a particular thing, or sells something. The plot revolves around a romance between Lizzie Buckingham (Felicity Kendal, the real-life daughter of Geoffrey and Laura) and Sanju, (Shashi Kapoor, the Indian screen idol who was actually married to Jennifer Kendal, Felicity’s sister). Lizzie and Sanju’s love affair is set against the travels and travails of the acting troupe whose progressively sparser and less interested audiences convince the Buckinghams to think about retirement and sending their daughter to England for better opportunities.

Cohen Film Collection’s black and white Blu-ray 2K restoration looks pretty good, with some exceptions in which minor dirt or damage is visible and contrast is inconsistent. That noted, all important details are clear, and the occasional flaws don’t interfere with the overall appearance. The audio, in LPCM 2.0 mono, is fine with English dialogue (plus some subtitled Hindi) very intelligible. The lovely raga-inspired score, by legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray, provides just the right addition to the drama.

Tents, in which the members of the acting troupe spent the night, for one of their performances.
Madhur Jaffrey won a Golden Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival for her portrayal of a Bollywood star.

Extras include an enjoyable 2004 group interview shown in SD, with Merchant (who died in 2005), Ivory, Kapoor (who died in 2017), and Felicity Kendal, as well as a booklet with a 1973 essay by Ivory, and another by film critic John Pym.

The 2017 interview, conducted at New York’s Quad Cinema by Village Voice reporter Mallika Rao, is quite comprehensive. Jaffrey reminisces about the early days of working with Merchant/Ivory, which involved very little money, but plenty of “camaraderie and hope for the future … we just dived in and did what we had to do!” Ivory recalls the Indian crew of “Wallah” being initially disheartened by his casting of Jaffrey as the actress Manjula, because she looked nothing like the typical Bollywood star. Jaffrey, who grew up in India, had seen all the Bollywood films and knew exactly how to play her part. In fact, she won the Golden Bear award for her performance at the Berlin Film Festival.

Ivory explains the metaphor inherent in “Wallah,” in which the Shakespeare plays represent the British Empire and Western culture, since those Indians who frequented the plays tended to be upper middle class and spoke fluent English. Jaffrey notes that she, herself, had seen the Kendals perform: “That was a part of my life.” She says that Jennifer Kendal (who plays a bit part in the film) made costumes, props and backdrops for it, and helped with hair and makeup. Kapoor met his future wife when he was a part of the Kendal family troupe. Ivory says that Merchant’s dream had always been to make English-language pictures about India, in India, and then export them to the U.S. The two men met Ruth Jhabvala when they wanted to use her novel, “The Householder,” as the basis for their first feature, and then hired her to write the screenplay, something she’d never done before.

Jaffrey says that Merchant was “the energy behind all the films, the glue that kept everyone together.” Adds Ivory, “He was a sort of showman, with wonderful taste.” Ivory concludes that until he and Merchant made “A Room With a View,” “Shakespeare Wallah” had been their “best friend.” The two films bolstered their careers and “really brought us along.”

— Peggy Earle

Madhur Jaffrey as actress Manjula



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