Movie Wallah Rob Lineberger yearns for days past. Fortunately, that is precisely what this early Merchant Ivory film provides.
"Everything is different when you belong to a place. When it's yours."—Carla Buckingham
Shakespeare Wallah is about acting (specifically, acting for unreceptive audiences), Bollywood film stars, and the cultural clash between British and Indian youth growing up on the same soil. The subject matter makes Shakespeare Wallah interesting to theater buffs, but tone and subtext really drive this film. A pervasive sense of loss gives Shakespeare Wallah form. We witness the characters' dawning comprehension of an awful truth—that their understanding of their entire lives has slipped through their grasp—and the subtle power of cultural difference comes home.
Facts of the Case
James Ivory and Ismail Merchant have been making movies together for decades. This is their earliest hit, a success that ensured a lifetime of subsequent films.
The Buckingham Players are a troupe of Shakespearean actors who have been touring India for decades. The troupe is led by Mr. Tony Buckingham and Mrs. Carla Buckingham, British citizens who have devoted their lives to Shakespeare. Their daughter Lizzie was born and raised in India in the company of the troupe. (An interesting parallel: The parts are played by Geoffrey Kendal and Laura Liddell, actors who performed plays in India. Lizzie is played by their daughter Felicity Kendal, also part of their troupe.) When Lizzie encounters the Indian playboy Sanju (Shashi Kapoor), she falls fully under his spell. This disturbs Manjula (Madhur Jaffrey), a manipulative Bollywood film star who loves Sanju. As Lizzie copes with her taxing new love, her parents question their lives and their decision to raise Lizzie on foreign soil.
The faint odor of decay follows the actors as they traverse postcolonial India. Shakespeare Wallah is persistently melancholy, alluding to a heyday when rapt audiences hung on the Buckingham Players' every gesture and word. We never see this heyday directly; we are left to wonder whether the highlights of the past were colored by youthful enthusiasm, whether India ever really embraced the entertainment being offered by these British Shakespeareans. Clearly, the India we see does not embrace the performances.
According to Felicity Kendal's account in the featurette, this negative spin disturbed her father. He never questioned his own devotion to theater; an actor's actor, he would set up on a soapbox and perform for a scarce audience if the situation called for it. Felicity seems no worse for her childhood experiences. It is clear that the film alters the facts of their lives somewhat to enhance the dramatic message of the film.
Whether or not the heyday was rosy is actually immaterial, because the real issue is Tony and Carla's struggle with their legacy. As times get harder and more doors close to them, the Buckinghams are forced to wonder what purpose they are serving in India. Young Indians care little for the sound and fury of Shakespeare, preferring the flash and dazzle of Bollywood musicals. The allusions to British Imperialism cannot be ignored. Is Shakespeare Wallah really about acting?
Amid these life-retrospective ponderings blooms a story of young love and lust. The love is from Lizzie, while the lust is from Sanju. Lizzie is radiant in the performances, just as Felicity Kendal is radiant in the role. Though it feels like an ensemble cast, a case could be made for Lizzie as the main character. Her fate is the crux of the film. A rose among so much decay needs proper tending. We never have to wonder about Sanju. Even if his love is genuine, his comfort in India and the arms of Manjula are clear signs that he could survive losing Lizzie. Thus, we watch her fate more closely.
It is always confusing to comment on the acting when actors are playing actors. The actors in the film play their parts, but for much of the film that part is playing a part on stage. When the snippets of Shakespeare are being performed, we must judge the Buckinghams' facility with the material. But we also know that we're watching to see how the actor portrays an actor acting for an unappreciative audience. Watch Geoffrey Kendal's shoulders hunch and his jaw set when Tony Buckingham realizes that the play is being interrupted. Fortunately, the camera frequently aids us by giving us a side stage perspective, as if to say "don't pay attention to the Shakespeare, pay attention to the people performing it." In general, the acting in Shakespeare Wallah is good: After all, it is semiautobiographical. There were times when scenes lulled, and I couldn't be sure whether the lull was created on purpose or whether the scenes just weren't engaging.
Madhur Jaffrey plays Manjula with zeal. Some of Shakespeare Wallah's most startling moments come from her machinations. Jaffrey uses the subtlest clues to flesh out her character, such as powdering her feet before donning a golden sandal, or expressing nonchalance at her calculated disturbance of Lizzie's play. We can readily believe that she is a Bollywood star and a conniving woman. She may be neither for all I know, but she sold her performance here.
The cinematography, which is a hallmark of later Merchant Ivory films, is rough but captivating. One memorable scene has lovers embracing in the fog, which rolls over and obscures them. The fog later lifts to show them still embracing. The image is powerful, even if we later learn that yellow smoke was behind it all.
Shakespeare Wallah's biggest strength may be intimate and powerful messages about cultural misunderstanding. Though he has lived among them for decades, Mr. Buckingham still has difficulty communicating with his Indian coworkers and customers. Lizzie has been born and raised in India, but we feel that she is still an outsider. Indian troupe members desert in uncomfortable meetings, where the miscommunications are almost palpable. The Indians also do not fully understand the Buckinghams, a fact that is present but not emphasized. The documentary The Delhi Way provides another angle on this theme, showing startling juxtapositions between Eastern and Western culture.
As these themes intertwine, viewing Shakespeare Wallah becomes a cerebral experience. If you buy into the characters, there is a world of potential to sort through.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
By now, we have some idea of what we're going to get with Merchant Ivory: epic cultural themes, lush cinematography, and a somewhat ponderous tone. Throughout the mental puzzle of tracing Shakespeare Wallah's message, I never got swept into the story. It was only at the end, when I became apprehensive about Lizzie's fate, that I became invested in the story. That means that nearly two hours had gone by without truly drawing me in. I hate to invoke the watch test, but honesty rules: At a couple of points I checked the "Time Remaining" display and felt dismay. Count me in with the young Indian audiences on this one.
As drama, Shakespeare Wallah is unstable. It is often hard to follow what is occurring, because so many layers are operating at once. While I was trying to tie the current scene to previous scenes, I overlooked subtle cues that would have told me what people were feeling. Entire conversations went by and I was unsure of the intended message.
Criterion and Home Vision Entertainment partnered to deliver a high-def transfer of the film, but there are still some problems with the image. The stock is badly scratched in many places. Nothing to be done for it. There is both horizontal and vertical edge enhancement, which causes halos around people and objects. It isn't the worst edge enhancement, but it is readily noticeable. There is minor crawl in the highlights (probably grain), but it does not detract from the experience of watching the film. The contrast is good and the blacks are deep.
Monaural sound is hard to jazz up. The track is relatively clear of pops and hiss. Some phrases do not come through clearly, but we can hardly fault Home Vision Entertainment for that. The soundtrack is used to great effect in most scenes, dubious effect in some. Master composer Satyajit Ray did not have much time, so a handful of themes feel overused. Those same themes feel plaintive and exotic in other scenes.
A love of India and respect for acting shine through this picture. The love story is not as compelling as the themes of lost purpose and decay, which makes Shakespeare Wallah a less emotional and more intellectual film. Fans of Shakespeare will have a field day with dissecting the context of the scenes with the film's plot. Fans of classic film move forward: Others should proceed cautiously.
Who can argue with a lifetime of successful filmmaking?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
• The Delhi Way, a Documentary by Director James Ivory
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