Thursday, November 25, 2010

Shakespeare Wallah (The Shakespeare Vendor)

James Ivory, 1965, English, 122m

This is a film with the delicacy of a gauze of muslin. In the guise o a sensitive love triangle, it chronicles the transition from the British culture to the Indian, from Shakespeare to Bollywood. The Buckhinghams--the father Tony (Geoffrey Kendal), mother Carla and daughter Lizzie (Felicity Kendal) are a troup of travelling actors who travel all over the subcontinent giving performances of Shakespeare plays. After independance, they choose to remain behind instead of returning to England, but find the audience for their considerable talents dwindling. They have a hard time making ends meet. During a performanceof Othello, as the performers strain every nerve during the murder episode, the play is interrupted by whistling and catcalls and a riot breaks out. This is the heartbreaking climactic scene, though it is located in the middle. Not least among the delights of the flm are some vignette Shakespeare performances, mostly performed i the Gaiety Theater, Shimla.

The British in spite of centuries of presence remained aliens in India. They cultivated the difference and remained a small island that emphasized their perceived cultural, educational an economic superiority, insulated from the masses by a thick layer of brown sahibs with all shades and gradations of English affectation. They were the most exclusive of the castes, cultivating a unique brand of semi-apartheid. Knowledge of English language and ways was by and large the determinant of status among the Indians.

The film is an improbable but perfect concoction, a genre of one. The cast is English and Indian, the director is James Ivory, an American and the musical score is by Satyajit Ray. The film is set in the misty nostalgic heights of Shimla, the summer capital and mountain retreat of the British. Felicity Kendal and Shashi Kapur as the romantic pair give a marvellously nuanced performance in their brief, torrid and doomed affair. Madhur Jaffrey plays a Bollywood starlet and the remaining vertex of the triangle, a role which fetched her an Oscar. The parents, Geoffrey Kendal and Laura Lidell portray the sadness of their situation in a few deft and bold strokes. Encased in this very human story are vistas of Indian history like distant mountains enshrouded in mist.

The film is based on a script by the Booker Prize novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabwala, a German who acquired British citizenship, married an Indian and lived in India for many years..She is quoted to have said that her books about Indiawere less about India than about herself in India. At one level, the movie is a touching picture of the experience of being a lone alien.

Bosley Crowther


Nathanael Hood said...

Wow. I never had much of a taste for Merchant/Ivory films, but I think I may have to check this one out.

Oh! By the way, would you do me a huge favor and email me at

I want to ask you for a favor...

S M Rana said...

Sure. I've sent the mail.