I usually love Merchant Ivory films, so I was interested in this early production called Shakespeare Wallah from 1965. It’s based on a real-life group of actors called Shakespeariana who roamed through India in the 1940s-1960s, offering Shakespearian plays to anyone who would watch. (“Wallah” means someone who sells or provides something, so in this case, they are selling Shakespeare.) They would act in theaters, schools, outside, anywhere. The group was led by the Kendal family, originally from England, and members of the Kendal family play their fictional alter-egos, the Buckinghams, in Shakespeare Wallah.
I watched the directors’ notes on the DVD and was interested that while the Kendals play essentially themselves in this film, it’s quite a fictional take on things, and they weren’t entirely happy with the final version. They saw themselves in a very positive light, offering culture to anyone, and enjoying the wonderful Indian audiences over the years. It was their life’s calling, and they felt they had done something important. In the film, this group is portrayed at the end of their era — the audience for Shakespeare has dwindled to nothing, and the troupe has trouble getting gigs and making a go of it. It’s rather bittersweet.
Interlaced with the plot about the Shakespearean players (and the film includes the group performing a number of plays including Hamlet, Othello, and Romeo & Juliet), is a rather inane subplot involving the youngest daughter, Lizzie (Felicity Kendal), falling in love with a dashing Bollywood actor Sanju (Shashi Kapoor, who was married to Felicity’s older sister Jennifer in real life). There’s a love triangle situation because Sanju is simultaneously romancing famous Bollywood diva Manjula (played by Madhur Jaffrey of cookbook fame). I found the intrigue here a bit trite, but I guess it keeps the plot moving along.
Also, Manjula personifies the future of Indian entertainment here — the culture that once appreciated Shakespearean tragedy has moved firmly toward the escapist song and dance of Bollywood at this point in history. Manjula attends Othello and her (late and noisy) arrival in the theater box causes such a stir in the crowd that Othello (Geoffrey Kendal playing his fictional character Tony Buckingham) has to stop performing and ask for silence.
Manjula pays little attention to the play during the five or so minutes she stays in the theater (constantly signing autographs, waving to fans, and eating bon-bons fed to her by her servant). She finds the violence and drama of Othello distasteful, and it’s clear that her fans (the Indian masses) agree. The players finish Othello while mayhem erupts in the theater (Sanju fighting with people he feels are disrespecting the actors on stage with their attention to Manjula). The era of the traveling Shakespearean players is over in India.
I enjoyed this film, all in all. I think I may watch it again after I have read through the tragedies (just to appreciate the plays within the movie a bit more), but it’s enjoyable and gives you a feel for an exotic time and place… now long gone.
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