Shakespeare Wallah: The Bittersweet Story of Merchant Ivory on Bollywood and the Bard | James ivory



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TActor Geoffrey Bragg was born in the Lake District in 1909 and later adopted the name of his hometown of Kendal but in schools and theaters across India in the 1940s and 1950s he was simply recognized like the “Shakespeare Wallah”. The adventurous troupe of artists he led in classic piece productions included his wife, Laura Liddell, daughter Jennifer and youngest daughter Felicity Kendal, who first worked as a stage hand and then made her debut. acting at the age of nine as Macduff’s son to Macbeth.

Geoffrey Kendal and his family star together in the film Shakespeare Wallah (1965), produced by Ismail Merchant and directed by James Ivory as the second feature of their young team Merchant Ivory. In the film, the Kendals’ theater ensemble, which was called Shakespeareana, transforms into a troupe called the Buckingham Players. In this motley company, Geoffrey and Laura play the parents, trying out the big tragic and comedic roles on stage while saving the books for their winding third-class journeys across the subcontinent. Felicity, 18, plays their daughter, Lizzie, giving her Desdemona and Ophelia the night away while having a romance with playboy Sanju (Shashi Kapoor). Jennifer Kendal, who was Kapoor’s offscreen wife, has a small supporting role and has designed costumes for the film.

Shakespeare Wallah is set in a rapidly modernizing India whose pop culture overshadows English traditions and makes the Buckingham Players an anachronism. The burgeoning local film industry is represented by Bollywood star Manjula (played by actor-turned-chef Madhur Jaffrey) who also has a relationship with Sanju. Lizzie finds herself in direct competition with a glamorous screen icon, just as the scene sees the cinema as a rival.

Madhur Jaffrey, right, with Shashi Kapoor at the theater.  The presence of Jaffrey's character distracts the audience from the play.
Madhur Jaffrey, right, with Shashi Kapoor at the theater. The presence of Jaffrey’s character distracts the audience from the play. Photograph: Merchant Ivory / Kobal / Rex / Shutterstock

Although the film is rooted in a specific socio-cultural moment for India, the threat posed to the theater by on-screen entertainment remains as universal today as it was then. In his Guardian obituary for Geoffrey Kendal in 1998, Ivory wrote about the tensions during production with the veteran actor: “He let me know how much he despises the cinema – that the cinema is his enemy, provoking the empty rooms and tours. canceled. “But Kendal – who has ease in front of the camera despite his lack of cinematic experience – has come to recognize that thanks to Ivory” it is the despised cinema that has told the world about my existence and to some extent my combat ”.

And the despised cinema here is undeniably beautiful. Shot in black and white (for budgetary reasons) by Subrata Mitra, the film has a majestic beat, is sensitively written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and is accompanied by music by esteemed director Satyajit Ray. The bumpy journeys of theater groups often result in bittersweet comic escapades as in Fellini’s Variety Lights (1950) or George Cukor’s Heller in Pink Tights (1960). But Shakespeare Wallah has a clear vision of the traveling life of society as she moves from private performances in palaces to audiences in distant schools, the thrill of acting outweighed by countless card games and windows that look in between.

When the company puts on an adapted version of Antoine et Cléopâtre at the request of a Maharajah, he quips: “we are all obliged to make cuts to the text that fate gives us”. The delicate art of adaptation – whether it’s Shakespeare or your personal situation in changing times, with limited means – is at the heart of the film. Returning to a school where they have triumphed in the past, the players find themselves squeezed out of a busy schedule dominated by sport. The actor-director of Kendal takes the rejection personally, as he does when his audience at the theater is distracted one evening by Manjula’s starry presence in the auditorium. Like the British owners of the declining Gleneagles guesthouse where the troop remains, now outmatched by a shiny new hotel, he wonders if he should have returned to England by now. Belonging is a key theme of the film – especially how different generations are trained between different continents.

We see snippets of Shakespeare classics performed by the Buckingham players – strawberries are recycled for different roles, powder and paint are generously applied, and the same dusted backdrops for scenes that sometimes reflect the personal dramas in the lives of the people. characters. It’s during a production of Romeo and Juliet that we realize just how much Sanju loves Lizzie: a balcony drama takes place in the auditorium itself as he fights a group of onlookers who have her. harass.

While some of these scenes provide invaluable insight into what it might have been like to watch one of Shakespeareana’s countless performances, they are ironically offset by the powerful episode in which an energized Sanju, who just left their performance of Shakespeareana. Hamlet, tell Manjula everything. this. His eyes dance as he struggles with the plot of the play, considers Hamlet’s delay and Ophelia’s sadness, and describes the staging with a sense of wonder. This theatrical film, despite its authentic performances and appealing production design, burns the most when it simply describes the thrill of an art form that by its very nature is always fading but not will never go out.

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