Shakespeare Wallah Review
Not being a costume drama adapted from a classic work of literature, it’s tempting to see Shakespeare Wallah, an early Merchant Ivory film from 1965, as a more personal film from the director/producer team and their screen writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, that holds the key to themes that they continue to explore in their films.
The Buckinghams are an English family who travel around India with their acting company, performing Shakespeare for Indian royals, for schools, for anyone who will put them on, but times are changing. Contracting engagements is getting more difficult, the company finding schools crowding English out of the syllabus with more emphasis on sports and the public being more interested in the growing popularity and glamour of the Indian movie industry. With actors to pay, some difficult decisions need to be made, particularly regarding their youngest daughter Lizzie (Felicity Kendal), who is involved romantically with an Indian man she has met, Sanju (Shashi Kapoor).
Their first major success, Shakespeare Wallah has all the hallmarks we have come to expect from the Merchant Ivory team. As in many of their films from this through to The Europeans to their latest film Le Divorce, the theme of cultural differences is explored. The Buckingham’s daughter Lizzie was born in India and lived her whole life there, so what does national identity mean if you have never seen the country of your nationality? The cultural differences between English and Indian attitudes are also explored, between those who are thoroughly English – the Buckinghams, those who are thoroughly Indian – the Indian movie star Manjula, and those who don’t fully belong to either tradition – Lizzie and Sanju, who create a new identity that draws from both cultures.
The film is clearly inspired by the real-life circumstances of the Kendal family’s touring acting company, who all appear in the film as the Buckinghams – Geoffrey Kendal, Laura Liddel, Felicity Kendal and her sister Jennifer Kendal – and the circumstances of the Buckingham family (is the royal sounding name just a co-incidence?) mirror the wider political and social changes going on in India, a country moving away from imperialist rule towards finding its own identity. Merchant Ivory’s take on the situation appears to be somewhat unfavourable or pessimistic towards India’s capacity for self-determination, seeing in the rejection of ‘The Buckinghams’ the loss of a more civilised tradition – turning its back on a great culture that gave birth to Shakespeare, that seeks to educate and reform and replacing it with what is portrayed as the rather vulgar popularity of colourful Bollywood musicals and sport and a rather boorish attitude towards high-culture. It’s a very old-fashioned and somewhat elitist attitude, but entirely in-line with the rather reactionary tenor of later Merchant Ivory productions.
But there may be some degree of compromise or mutual understanding reached in the characters of Lizzie and Sanju. Yes, perhaps the Buckinghams have had their day and perhaps the new India is vulgar by comparison, but there appears to be hope in a newer generation, the promise of a mutual attraction between the demure, simple charm of Felicity Kendal’s English Rose with the passionate spontaneity of Shashi Kapoor’s Sanju that could lead to something grander. The film however stops short of delivering any such optimistic realisation, indicating that Kipling’s maxim that “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet”, may well be true.
Shakespeare Wallah is already available to buy on its own from Odyssey, but it has now been collected as part of the Merchant Ivory Collection in their Merchant Ivory in India boxset.
Considering the budget restrictions – the film was made for $80,000 – any problems with the picture are more likely to be inherent in the original material rather than the DVD transfer. However the black and white 1.85:1 anamorphic image is quite good, with strong blacks, clear whites and a good range of greyscale tones. There is evidence of some minor edge-enhancement, but it’s not obvious. There are no real marks, scratches or damage to speak of during the body of the film, just the occasional flicker of brightness and roughness around the ends of reels. Overall, the image is clear, sharp and often very impressive looking.
The audio is mostly clear with no real background noise, but is a little dull and flat in tone, depending on the scene. Again, this is likely to be down to the conditions in which the film was made. There seems to be some post-production dubbing in places.
There are no subtitles for a few lines of Indian dialogue and there are no English hard of hearing subtitles on either the feature or the extra features.
Like other titles in the Merchant Ivory Collection, there are a number of text based extras. About the Film and More Facts about Shakespeare Wallah provide some brief facts on the film’s inspiration, its making and the acting careers of the cast. Insight into Shakespeare Wallah (6:15) features brief interview snippets from The Wandering Company documentary – Felicity and Jennifer Kendal, Shashi Kapoor, James Ivory and Ismail Merchant reflect on the making of the film. Principal Cast & Crew and Cast Biographies text pieces are also included. The Trailer (0:53) is made up of stills and review quotes. About Merchant Ivory provides background information on the company and its productions. Other Merchant Ivory Trailers looks at other titles in the collection – A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries, Quartet, and a dizzyingly awful trailer for Bombay Talkie.
For fans of Merchant Ivory, Shakespeare Wallah is an interesting early, more personal film that sets the tone for many of their more famous later productions, handled with customary attention to period mood and detail and with strong acting performances. Anyone else is likely to find it a bit dull and overlong. The DVD, as part of the Merchant Ivory in India boxset is well up to the usual standards, with good image and sound, although the extra features are rather perfunctory and not terribly in-depth.
Last updated: 23/04/2018 23:29:05