SHAKESPEARE WALLAH (1965)
DIRECTION : JAMES IVORY
CAST : FELICITY KENDAL, SHASHI KAPOOR, GEOFFREY KENDAL, LAURA LIDDELL, MADHUR JAFFERY, PARTAP SHARMA etc.
Who said that the twain between the East and the West shall never meet? I have always maintained that the Merchant Ivory partnership is a global testimonial of creative entwining for the ages. I believe if not for countless tales set in post independent Commonwealth of India, a land brimming with voices and turning the tides of one dimensional outlooks with its sweeping diversity, the American filmmaker James Ivory would have never got a foothold over his own unique style of naturalistic storytelling that straddled worlds. With Indian producer and co creator Ismail Merchant, the love affair with India transmuted to a canonical, mythic entity in popular culture ( something I have been delighted to explore when writing about their later masterpiece THE REMAINS OF THE DAY on this blog exactly a month back) with works as THE HOUSEHOLDER, BOMBAY TALKIE, HEAT AND DUST, AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A PRINCESS, IN CUSTODY et al.
SHAKESPEAREWALLAH (1965) always fascinated me as it honoured the lifelong credo of the Kendals, an English family of traveling theatre masters excelling in the reenactments of Shakespeare’s plays all over the subcontinent, gaining a legendary status as an unit known for regaling audiences for years on end. They made India their home and this identity morphed into one of absolute national distinction, even earning them the prestigious Sahitya Akademi award (awarded by the deemed national institute of theatre, music and dance)
The screenplay is a fascinating inside look and behind the scenes distillation of their lives beyond the proscenium and outside of it.
With its eye on practical insights, subtle conflict zones are established between the stage and the silver screen, between old traditions and new, the celebration and erosion of the arts(particularly theatrical productions) , the colonial and post colonial. ‘End of an era’ is a poignant term that applies particularly to the Anglo – Indian community as to the fortunes of SHAKESPEAREANA.
The patronage among royalty, convent institutions and educated gentry keeps them afloat but the bookings are a pale shadow compared to yesteryears. The show must go on, they concur, and this artistic steadfastness is something that adds to their haloed status. No where would we have received the utter privilege of being inured to their inner workings. SHAKESPEARE WALLAH ably does that. If it was on the wane in the sixties then such cultural landmarks have all but disappeared from the best educational sources as of today. It makes this preserved recreation all the more important for discerning audiences.
It is a gentle love letter to a legacy and the romance that brews between Lizzie (Felicity) and the suave Sanju (Shashi Kapoor) is captured in silhouettes, hilly mists and amid the natural moments of its profession through looks and gestures. Sanju adores her as a performer and she falls for his charms even though there is the thread of ambiguity running through it owing to that East /West parallel . In a post colonial world, this strain was and still is relevant. So his genuine respect for these artists is an endearing trait. In casting Shashi Kappor’s sister in law Felicity as his love interest, the script ironically flips the dynamics of his own real life courtship with wife Jennifer Kendal who he was besotted by as she performed as part of the Shakespeareana troupe. We grasp the passionate evocation of real life relationship between them through this on screen iteration.
With this film, we are in the presence of pioneers. Pioneers who created a network of creative outpouring. Shashi Kapoor went on to name his fabled production company FILM WALLAH, in no small part due to his engagement in this work – essentially a familial coming together blurring lines between real and reel. Shashi Kapoor’s kids have carried forward the baton for the family run prestige of PRITHVI THEATRES, a cultural benchmark in itself.
Then there is multi talented Madhur Jaffrey, a culinary and cinematic pioneer. She is brilliant as a vainglorious matinee idol Manjula who gets carried around on a palanquin and calls pack up when she desires on her idyllic film set in the hills . The aesthetics of India’s erstwhile nobility and moneyed class has been a dominant theme in many Merchant Ivory films ; here the movie making behemoth that is the Hindi film industry gets subsumed within the iconographic tenets of royalty which is how it always has been. She deservedly won a Best Actress Award at the 1965 Berlin Film Festival.
The great Indian playwright Partap Sharma, whose great play A TOUCH OF BRIGHTNESS I have been privileged to read in my undergraduate years, is here as well as a native member of the troupe. It adds to its gallery of pioneers.
Of course the pivot is on the majesty of the Kendal family recreating its own life script. The majesty of true artists who do not persist for the sake of accolades alone. AND THEN ONE DAY, the memoir by iconic Indian actor Naseeruddin Shah was my proper introduction to the Kendals . He, himself, was enamored by them as they visited his alma mater Sherwood School in Nainital. Today he presides over his own MOTLEY THEATRE GROUP with his family of artistic stalwarts.
Here, the intimacy of their lives mirror that of the stage. They are custodians of the syncretic, diverse fabric that binds our nation with their repertory company SHAKESPEAREANA. As in one beautiful scene, Geoffrey admits to having the best audience in India, which laughs , cries and pauses at the right places and never leaves the performers disappointed.
It is also about the enduring legacy of the Bard. I long to go back to those times of rich cultural experiences. Today, all this seems like belonging to another world. The pithy scenes capturing the Kendals and co. on stage mesmerised me. As the tragedienne of yore Ophelia, Ms. Felicity is captivating in a rendition of HAMLET while her father conveys multitudes as Othello smothers Desdemona to death with a pillow, even as Manjula, the star, overtakes the performance with her sheer presence in the upper stands of the theatre and the seated audience goes into raptures diverting its attentions on her, which she reciprocates with pride and condescension.
The unforgettable music by Satyajit Ray and his virtuoso DOP Subrata Mitra further create magic. The opening shots capture the timelessness of my alma mater La Martiniere Boys College, Lucknow, a glorious, Gothic structure resembling a castle with the tower known as Laat opposite the Constantia, the central part of the building with the statues as seen here, sorrounded by greenery and the Gomti river. What a joy it is to behold it here and in sepia tones, it looks particularly evocative given the period details. The play by the company is being staged here in the beautiful open space as the tale begins.
As a complete portrait, misogyny is treated here in little, important snippets and the term ‘honour’ is peddled by Sanju in Lizzie’s presence . Excellent performances abound throughout and I loved Jim Tytler as the wise old man Bobby, whose very presence brings the past and present together.
Also great are Utpal Dutt as the prince and especially Praveen Paul as Manjula’s mute woman in waiting who communicates everything through claps.
For the Kendals, this is relaying their day to day concerns, authenticating their inner world to generations. SHAKESPEARE WALLAH is brilliantly lively and wistful but also a pensive work given the gifts of screenwriters James Ivory and Ruth Praber Jhabwala . Editing by Amit Bose adds to its impact and naturalism .
The ambiguous end to the union between Lizzie and Sanju, after confessing that she can give up everything for him, is realistic to the core. They are silent, have pensive looks and don’t feel the need to utter a word. Sanju probably doesn’t want the consummate artist in Lizzie he looks up to, to renounce her artistic prowess that moves audiences and realizes that he cannot let his love blind her vocation. The separation has to ensue in order to restore the balance. Lizzie sings DO RE MI while Sanju chimes in with SA RE GA MA, seven notes that spell a meeting of the twain.
SHAKESPEARE WALLAH is a once in a lifetime experience and in its humility of execution and real life imprints it is a global exemplar, among the treasure trove of world cinema and dear to the Indian ethos. Viewers must watch it as it is easily available on YouTube. The tug of identity crisis, passing of an era and the splendour of poetic images all complement its unique value for me.