Shakespeare Wallah Comes to New York

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Shashi Kapoor in Shakespearewallah

Shashi Kapoor in Shakespeare Wallah

Shashi Kapoor & Madhur Jaffrey in Shakespearewallah

Shashi Kapoor & Madhur Jaffrey in Shakespeare Wallah

Shakespeare Wallah Comes to Town – New and Improved

Many, many moons ago a little-known Shakespeare troupe used to travel to Indian boarding  schools, many  up in the hills, to impart to the captive students mandatory culture  – Shakespearean plays. This small traveling theater group from England was helmed by Geoffrey Kendal and his wife Laura – and their two daughters Jennifer and Felicity. Indian actor Shashi Kapoor was a part of this troupe and went on to marry Jennifer. This little troupe fought a losing battle with the unmatched lure of Bollywood as a post-colonial India found its own voice and taste.

A Trailer of the 1965 Film

In the 60’s this bitter-sweet story about changing times and a changing India became a screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and was made  into ‘Shakespeare Wallah’ – a winsome little gem of a film by the intrepid team of James Ivory and Ismail Merchant – just their second venture after ‘The Householder’.

‘Shakespeare Wallah’ went on to become a classic and was internationally acclaimed. It is also still warmly remembered by many of those who actually witnessed the Shakespeare dramas in their schools. It is about nostalgia, about a bygone time, the mist of the hills and life in a changing India.

Madhur Jaffrey in Shakespearewallah

Madhur Jaffrey in ‘Shakespeare Wallah’

Now 40 years later Shakespeare Wallah is back and – it’s new and improved! The film is now presented by -Cohen Media Group in a brand new 2K scan and restoration from the original camera negative and magnetic soundtrack. It features a new 5.1 audio mix from the stereo 35mm mags, all approved by director James Ivory. In fact, the good news is that we may be seeing a lot of Merchant Ivory movies soon as ‘Shakespeare Wallah’ is now part of the Cohen Film Collection which includes 30 films directed and produced by the James Ivory-Ismail Merchant team.

Madhur Jaffrey & Aroon Shivdasani at the preview of 'Shakespeare Wallah'

Madhur Jaffrey & Aroon Shivdasani at the preview of ‘Shakespeare Wallah’

Before its opening, the film was shown at a preview by Indo-American Arts Council  (IAAC) at the Quad Theater where the audience also got to eavesdrop on a delicious conversation between Madhur Jaffrey and Aroon Shivdasani of IAAC about life with the iconic Ismail Merchant and James Ivory and amusing tales from the set. The film had been accepted for the Berlin Film Festival and thanks to the enterprising Ismail Merchant,  the actors and crew of this small film landed up there amongst all the frenzy of a European film festival.

Jaffrey recalls receiving a note in her hotel – ‘Will you have lunch with me?” and it was signed Gina Lollabrigida.

“There’s no way that woman wants to have lunch with me. There’s a mistake!” thought Jaffrey. Since Madhur could be a man’s or a woman’s name, she surmised it was intended for her handsome co-star Shashi Kapoor, who was in the same elevator ride with her and the’ Italian Bombshell’. So Madhur went over to Shashi and handed him the note. We don’t know the ending to that story though!

Jaffrey shared many other back stories about the making of ‘Shakespeare Wallah’ on a budget with the resourceful and notoriously frugal Ismail Merchant. She was asked to bring in her own clothes for the shooting and mostly wore those in the movie. The other challenge was to look like a voluptuous, giddy Bollywood actress when in real life she was skinny and wore glasses. When she walked in on the sets the first day nobody seemed to believe she was capable of that transformation. Yet she drew her reserves and inspiration from an unlikely source – Anna Magnani, the powerhouse in ‘The Rose Tattoo’ whom she had admired since her student days at the Royal Academy of the Dramatic Arts in London:  “She was a great, great inspiration for me all the time.” Jaffrey certainly managed to make believers of the skeptics, going on to win the Best Actress Award at the Berlin Film Festival for her role, the only Indian actress to ever do so.

‘Shakespeare Wallah’ has certainly withstood the passage of time and in fact has come back enhanced. So this is a very pleasurable watch, clean as a whistle. I had seen it originally as a teenager so it was a delight to see parts that I had forgotten. Shashi Kapoor was everyone’s big crush at that time and in this,  a starting film in his career, he looked both cute and adorable as Sanju the handsome playboy whom both Manjula the manipulative Indian movie star (Madhur Jaffrey) and  Lizzie, the young Shakespearean actress  (Felicity Kendal) desire. While there are sterling performances from both Jaffrey and Kendal, watch out for Jennifer Kendal, Shashi Kapoor’s wife, in an un-credited cameo role of the guesthouse owner, Mrs. Bowen. This understated actress gets under the skin of the character and captures the nuances of a community in flux beautifully.

Besides the great performances and the direction by James Ivory, there is the wonderful music by Satyajit Ray which gives the film so much of its character and also the remarkable cinematography by Subrata Mitra.

Shashi Kapoor and Felicity Kendal in Shakespearewallah

Shashi Kapoor and Felicity Kendal in Shakespeare Wallah

It’s a bitter-sweet tale about life and how it changes, how we try to fit in and when we cannot,  we move on. As The New York Times wrote back in 1966: “For this out-of-the-ordinary picture, which was made in India with a fascinating cast of British and Indian players, under the direction of an American, James Ivory, tells a sweetly romantic little story that softly suggests, in a minor key, the poignancy of the passage from India of the British colonial set. It is a gentle presentment of transition reflected in a narrow mirror of the past.”

It is wonderful that we still get to review the past, thanks to the availability of films. It’s a great opportunity to catch this black-and-white beauty on the big screen and watch it in a cinema hall  as it was meant to be seen. So check out this little gem before it’s repacked into its  jewel box!

(You can see it from Nov 10 at the Quad Theater in NY – Quad Cinema.com Shakespearewalla )

A rare video of James Ivory and Ismail Merchant talking about Satyajit Ray’s music in ‘Shakespeare Wallah’

The Music of Shakespeare Wallah by Satyajit Ray

If you’re as fascinated by ‘Shakespeare Wallah’ as I am, here is an interesting background read: And once there was a Shakespeare Wallah

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Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who writes for several international publications. Twitter@lavinamelwani & @lassiwithlavina Sign up for the free newsletter to get your dose of Lassi!

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