Screen

Switcheroo Month: Shakespeare-Wallah

For Switcheroo Month, we were given basically infinite freedom to write about something outside our usual beat OR something reputable (rather than disreputable) OR both, and I barely knew what to do with myself. At first I thought I should tackle an Indian art film—parallel cinema, it is often called—but the thing is, although I’ve watched some of the parallel cinema films that everyone says I’m supposed to, but I don’t have anything noteworthy to say about them. Great acting? Check. Investigation of social and political themes handled with more nuanced than in mainstream cinema, if they’re touched at all? Sure. Fewer “interruptions” by musical numbers, long-lost relatives, and fights with foam crocodiles? Yes, but thumbs down.

And then I thought maybe I’d try a reputable film by a director who also did something disreputable that I’ve covered here, so I watched Mahesh “were-tiger” Bhatt’s Arth (1982), a drama about marriage and women’s self-determination. Arth is inspired by Bhatt’s infidelity with Bollywood star Parveen Babi. Babi is an actor I like very much, and I just read a great biography of her. Armed with a protective attitude and facts about how the film industry and media treated her, especially her schizophrenia, I was in no mood to put up with a now-powerful man’s depiction of her. I also didn’t feel like working through my repulsion at the role Arth played in building Bhatt’s reputation as an important filmmaker, when his career would go on to flourish while Babi would soon be lost to mental and physical illnesses.

(Parveen Babi deserves better than Arth. Image via mdsrk.tumblr.com)

Instead, I want to revisit a real-life-inspired, not-exactly-parallel, not-exactly-Indian film that does work beautifully for me: Shakespeare-Wallah, a 1965 Merchant Ivory production about an English and Indian traveling Shakespeare troupe in mid-century India, a time when interest in the culture of the colonizer, even as a mark of erudition and class, was decidedly on the wane. Starring English actor Felicity Kendal, the film loosely reflects aspects of her family’s experiences. She and her sister Jennifer spent much of their childhoods with their parents’ traveling Shakespeare company in India. The real Kendal parents (Laura and Geoffrey) play versions of themselves in the film as well.  

In the film, the Buckingham family is barely making a living or, more importantly, finding an audience for their work in 1960s India. What’s the point of actors if nobody wants to see them act? Lizzie (Felicity Kendal) meets and falls in love with the dashing Sanju (Shashi Kapoor, real-life member of the Kendals’ troupe and husband of Jennifer), who is unfortunately embroiled with preening Bollywood diva Manjula (Madhur Jaffrey). Sanju is the pivot point between the crumbling but tender world of the Buckinghams and the modern, slicker world of Manjula and, by extension, the versions of itself that India creates through its own films.

It hurts to watch Sanju vacillate between these two women. As someone who loves the escapism that Bollywood tends to wrap around its emotional earnestness, this is a sad, sad film. The romance between Sanju and Lizzie is sweet but probably fleeting, whether we take it to be sunk by challenges stemming from differing expectations or by just run-of-the-mill personal inertia. Are Lizzie and Sanju doomed by “can’t” or “won’t”? And since the effect is the same, does that distinction even matter? I get really worked up by what I perceived to be laziness in some of the characters, not because it’s unrealistic but because it hits a nerve that runs to my own experiences of giving up and of being given up on. After all, if you truly care about something, you should put effort into it, right? Or is love not supposed to need effort?

Every time I watch Shapeskeare-Walalh, I wonder why affection alone isn’t enough? After all, the same musical notes that go by different names can still be played together, especially when sweetness and good humor are involved…can’t they?

Can we ever really love, really relate to, people who are from different cultures? Sweet-talking and fast-loving Sanju is genuinely drawn to both Lizzie and to Manjula, but he shares an understanding with one of them that the other isn’t able to build. Starlet Manjula is worldly, glamorous, very pulled together, Indian, and a part of Sanju’s history, and young Lizzie simply is not.

There are several other love stories in this film beyond Lizzie-Sanju-Manjula, including the Buckinghams’ love of India and their own history in it serving as the ultimately declining arc within which the interpersonal relationships are set. There’s also Indian anglophilia at play, with different characters showing different attitudes towards it. 

The profession of most of the major characters also puts a spin on these affections. Who are these actors as people, exactly, and what are they really feeling? Do Lizzie and Sanju really love each other? Or is each just playing a role for a little while with no grounded expectation that what they’re doing will exist long-term? Questions about the roles we play, our personal performance spaces and backstages, and the lines we say to each other seem pretty obvious in a story about actors, but they’re handled so carefully here and nothing feels heavy or trite.

Shakespeare-Wallah is a very finely crafted work. There are so many little elements to mull over. For example, under the opening credits, the Shakespeare troupe is dressed in 18th century outfits and discusses a play called The Spanish Armada (which are historical references that…don’t align). Either way, the actors in their ridiculous get-ups are in contrast to the majestic and comfortable-looking architecture and landscape. They stick out and are stared at, maybe to imply the increasing disconnect between European drama as they’re performing it and their potential audiences. (Aside: Shakespeare turns up in Indian cinema quite a bit, and a quick Google can point you to some discussions and lists.) A few minutes later, we see Indian members of the troupe reading Lolita and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. There are tons of details that suggest the sweep of history, of the changes that India had undergone and was continuing to address.

There are also some gentle pokes at mainstream Hindi cinema. Manjula is a temperamental, shallow movie star, but she knows how to attract a crowd and fling thorns into Sanju’s affections for Lizzie. Lizzie herself is fresh-faced and rough-and-tumble, but she’s stuck playing classic parts to empty rooms. When provoked, Sanju tells Manjula she’s not a “real actress” and that Lizzie’s work is so honest and philosophical. When we first meet Manjula, she’s dancing down a wooded road, which fans of Indian cinema know is a song sequence long before we see her singing or the director shouts “Cut!” and the playback music is turned off.

When they’re being Shakespearean, real-life Shakespeare-wallahs Laura Liddell and Geoffrey Kendal come off as theatrical to a point of hard to watch. After multiple viewings, I’ve decided they’re doing it on purpose to show how out of touch their characters are. Or maybe this is how people did Shakespeare in 1965, especially if they haven’t been around any other performers for decades. But they’re great when they’re offstage, being the actors when they aren’t acting. 

Do Merchant Ivory’s India-related films count as Indian cinema? I really don’t know. Their films still feel more genuinely interested in and engaged with Indian people and ideas than newer films like The Darjeeling Limited, Viceroy’s House, or Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Some of them dig into multicultural complexities in a part of the world that has long been very diverse. Ismail Merchant is a Muslim Indian of the same generation of some of Bollywood’s revered mainstream directors who explored the trauma of Partition and importance of communal acceptance in their work. Their films also feature dozens and dozens of Indian performers on screen—most notably Kapoor and Jaffrey, who worked with them in multiple films for over 35 years—and in music, as well as technicians. They worked with Satyajit Ray (who scored this film) and Ray’s frequent cinematographer Subrata Mitra. However, the major writing voice for the India-based films is Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, a white European woman who married an Indian and lived much of her life in India. As knowledgeable about and sympathetic to Indian cultures and stories as director Ivory and writer Prawer Jhabvala may be, they aren’t Indian. 

Wherever it sits, Shakespeare-Wallah has much to say and still feels relevant in form and content. Stage vs screen is one of the many pairs of contrasts the story presents that echo into today’s global cultures; the film also explores naivete/sophistication, struggle/ease, earnestness/artifice, past/future, familiar/unknown, and colonizer culture/independent nation. It demands much of your brain and heart, but you will be richly rewarded. It is currently available on Amazon Prime and for rent on Youtube/Google Play. And if the context of this story intrigues you, have a peek at Felicity Kendal’s autobiography White Cargo (published in 1998; its title has not aged well). 

~~~

Beth Watkins believes Shakespeare would appreciate a fight with a foam crocodile.

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