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Shakespeare Wallah: Love in a Shakespearean troupe
There must be very few people in India who would not know James Ivory or his producer partner Ismail Merchant and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Together, they made several films about this country, and when they could not do that, they sprinkled their works with liberal references to India. And they told stories,
good gripping stories that set the three quite apart from most others who used gimmicks and star appeal to push thin plots. In fact, when one walks into a Merchant-Ivory production, one can be sure of being entertained with sophisticated imagery and exciting narrative.
One of the movies of this team that I cherish to this day is "Shakespeare Wallah" (made in 1956), where a young Shashi Kapoor woes and loses his real life sister-in-law, Felicity Kendal. There is Jennifer as well (Kapoor's off-screen wife) and her parents, Geoffrey Kendal and his wife, Laura Liddel.
The story is very simple, almost as straight as a straight line. As the British culture fades soon after Independence, Lizzie (Felicity), a member of her parents' roving troops of Shakespearean actors, falls in love with a rich Indian playboy, Sanju (Kapoor). Although the romance blossoms, the two separate,because Lizzie's parents feel that there is no future for the English in the new India.
"Shakespeare Wallah" would have never been frozen on frame if Geoffrey Kendal -- whose group of English players, "Shakespeariana", was touring India -- had not shown his diary to Ivory; the pages had volumes to say about the troupe. When Ivory showed it to Jhabvala, she knew she could weave it into a great script, a great picture that would serve as a metaphor for the last days of the Raj.
"Shakespeare Wallah" was made all right, but on a lean budget that allowed only black and white. This was a blessing in disguise, for the images turned out to be arresting, and Ivory's training as a documentarist enabled him to capture the finest of details of the theatre family, Buckinghams as they were known in the film. Yet, director's ability to distance himself from his subject wherever he felt the need -- yet another aspect of his earlier training -- gave the movie a rare punch.
More important, one cannot miss Satyajit Ray's influence on "Shakespeare Wallah": the humanity of the characters and the magnificent physical textures of India remind one so much of the Bengali auteur. In fact, when the picture was cut, Ivory took it to Ray with a request that he provide the musical score. Ray's
contribution naturally gave the film an added dimension.
Shakespeare Wallah" went on to win an award at Berlin, and it attracted rave reviews at New York. However, American distributors were wary of touching it till, of course, they saw a favourable audience response. In time, "Shakespeare Wallah" attracted wider appreciation and larger crowds. Today, it is certainly considered a classic.
(This story/review appeared in The Hindu dated February 5 2000)