Saturday 9 December 2023

Shakespeare Wallah [1965]

Shakespeare Wallah – the sophomore Merchant-Ivory collaboration that earned them international fame – was a rare example of exceptional films focused on travelling performers, alongside the likes of La Strada, Floating Weeds, The Travelling Players, The Puppetmaster, Arekti Premer Galpo, etc. It was loosely based on English thespian Geoffrey Kendel’s diaries, who’d toured throughout India in the 1940s and 50s – along with his wife Laura Liddell, and daughters Jennifer and Felicity – with their travelling theatre troupe “Shakespeareana”. In a fascinating blurring of lines between memoir and fiction, it starred Geoffrey and Laura themselves as ageing Shakespearean artists Tony and Carla Buckingham, and Felicity as their teenaged daughter Lizzie, who, as “The Buckingham Players”, criss-cross through post-Colonial India staging the Bard’s plays – from private performances for wealthy royals (Utpal Dutt) and at boarding schools, to public shows for paying audiences. The rapidly changing social climate and landscape of the newly independent country – intent on leaving behind the shadows of British Raj – has meant a sharp decline in the demand for classical English theatre and therefore the Buckinghams’ finances, further exacerbated by the swing towards popular cinema. While the parents are alternately cynical, nostalgic and resigned, an affecting romance brews between the naïve ingénue Lizzie, and a wealthy playboy (Shashi Kapoor, who was married to Jennifer Kendal), albeit complicated by a fiercely jealous Bollywood star (Madhur Jaffrey). This ravishingly beautiful, bittersweet and evocative representation of an era fading out in the mists of time – embodied by brilliant, nomadic artists converting into fossils – was made particularly memorable by a magnificent and rapturous soundtrack by Satyajit Ray, gorgeous cinematography in hypnotic B/W by Subrata Mitra, and a sensitive script by Merchant-Ivory regular Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.

Director: James Ivory

Genre: Drama/Romantic Drama/Period Film/Film a Clef/Road Movie

Language: English

Country: USA

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