Made in 1965, Shakespeare Wallah was the second collaboration from Merchant Ivory and the first to really garner some international attention. Written by regular Merchant Ivory scribe Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, the film was one of the earliest English-language speaking roles for acclaimed Bollywood actor Shashi Kapoor and marked the screen debut of a teenage Felicity Kendal, who went on to charm a nation of dads and bring about funny feelings in their pre-pubescent sons with her role as the perky and resourceful Barbara Good in the classic 1970s BBC sitcom The Good Life. The film is based on the experiences of Felicity and her parents (who also star) Geoffrey Kendal and Laura Liddell who, as the ‘Shakespeareana Company’, led a nomadic existence touring stage productions of the Bard across post-colonial India.
The actor-manager Geoffrey Kendal had fallen in love with India during his war years performing there with ENSA, and he would devote his most active and productive years to the country from the 1940s through to the ’70s. As the producer, director and star of the Shakespeareana Company, Kendal and his wife Laura, along with their eldest daughter Jennifer and their youngest Felicity, provided India and the children of the empire with an introduction to the works of Shakespeare and many other iconic English playwrights. Their life as a wandering theatre company abroad was certainly an eccentric and eclectic one; performing for the Maharajas and the Mountbattens one night and the peasant folk in schools and village halls the next. Their approach to theatre knew no class or caste system. Wherever an audience may be, Kendal and his company of actors were willing to perform.
It’s perhaps no surprise that the exploits of such wandering players could go on to make a movie, and the Kendal family take on the role here of ‘the Buckinghams’ to recreate for the big screen their passionate desire to give English literature a home in India long after the English had actually left the land. Shakespeare Wallah finds them, in post-colonial India, facing dwindling interest as the pull of homegrown entertainment in the shape of Bollywood cinema proves to be irresistible for their audiences. It is this sense of the troupe being somewhat out-of-time that allows the film to metaphorically explore the relics and legacy of the British Empire and Anglo-Indian relations. This is personified by the central relationship between prickly Indian playboy Sanju (Kapoor) and Felicity Kendal’s character, Lizzie Buckingham, who begin to fall in love (in reality, Kapoor was married to Felicity’s older sister, Jennifer, who has a small uncredited role in the film), despite Sanju’s relationship with Madhur Jaffrey’s Manjula who, as a gloriously arrogant Bollywood diva, represents the new allure away from the staid and mannered theatricals that the Buckinghams offer and that Sanju has nevertheless fallen for.
The film has much of interest to say about cultural identity. Part of the attraction that Sanju feels for Lizzie inevitably stems from the fact that she is a white-skinned, quintessential British girl and yet, in reality, Lizzie has never even seen England. Born in India, the only life that Lizzie knows is the itinerant and exotic one that her parents circumstances have given her. As a young woman she finds the daily experience of clinging to train carriages and sleeping on station platforms as they move from town to town one awfully big adventure, but it’s plain from her mother Carla’s desire for her to visit their home country that the hardships of such an existence, along with the dwindling audiences they face, are beginning to take their toll on the parents. It may be too late for them, but they know it isn’t for Lizzie and they want what is best for her, which makes her refusal to leave India for England all the more disappointing for them. This strand is especially affecting when you, of course, consider just how much of it may have possibly been true for the Kendal family.
Due to budget constraints, the film was shot in black and white, which means that some of the opulence that later shaped so many Merchant Ivory productions is somewhat missing here. Nevertheless, the great cinematographer, Subrata Mitra, conveys the heat and dust of his homeland beautifully, whilst the film’s score is provided by the legendary Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray. At two hours long, Shakespeare Wallah may have a few longueurs but there’s a beguiling tragicomic atmosphere and some great playing (Jaffrey won the Silver Bear at the 15th Berlin International Film Festival for her performance as Manjula) that keeps you watching this proto-Merchant Ivory effort. The production team would return again and again to the notion of Anglo-Indian relations throughout their film career, the next instalment being 1969’s The Guru which takes much of Shakespeare Wallah‘s notions of cultural identity and turns them on their head, having Michael York’s British rock star arrive in India to learn the sitar from Utpal Dutt’s master. This film, based on the experiences of George Harrison, was the first Merchant Ivory production to be made in colour and is so far unreleased to DVD or Blu-ray.
This release, however, is the usual treat from BFI. As well as the film itself, 2K restored and making its Blu-ray debut, there are also conversations with Merchant and Ivory from 1983 and Shashi Kapoor from 1994, as well as a more recent one featuring Ivory and Madhur Jaffrey discussing their work together. A couple of travelogues and trailers round up this release, which arrived on Blu-ray earlier this month alongside the release of Heat and Dust and is on iTunes from April 29th.
SHAKESPEARE WALLAH IS OUT NOW ON BFI BLU-RAY