Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Making a Ruckus for “Shakespeare Wallah”

What could the word “Wallah” possibly mean? I was once told it’s the kind of nonsense syllable that background extras use to suggest general crowd noise on stage or in a film. It’s also a Hindi suffix implying someone who performs a particular task: thus a chaiwallah might be a young man who serves tea. Both senses of the word seem apt for the 1965 film Shakespeare Wallah, the story of an acting troupe, led by a family of English expats, who tour the sub-continent, bringing Shakespearean productions to Indian audiences.

 Shakespeare Wallah is an early film of the celebrated duo Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, in collaborator with screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Given Merchant’s roots in Indian culture, the team had wanted to explore a touring troupe of Indian performers, seen against the recent political and social changes within the country.. But the discovery of an unpublished diary by an English actor, Geoffrey Kendal, took them in a slightly different direction. Kendal and his family, including wife Laura Liddell and two daughters, had devoted their lives to touring India with the plays of Shakespeare. Ultimately, the Kendals played versions of themselves in Shakespeare Wallah, though the film hardly reflects their precise circumstances. The film’s accent is on the family’s struggles to continue promoting their art in a newly independent country where Shakespeare is less revered than team sports and Bollywood.

 Making her film debut is nineteen-year-old Felicity Kendal, playing a version of her older sister. (Kendal has since had a distinguished acting career, including a personal and professional relationship with playwright Tom Stoppard.) In Shakespeare Wallah she is Lizzie, the troupe ingenue, sensitively portraying Ophelia and Juliet. But her love of the stage is shaken by an unexpected romance with an Indian playboy, portrayed by handsome Shashi Kapoor (in real life her sister Jennifer’s longtime husband).

 Unfortunately for Lizzie, Kapoor’s character already has a mistress, the Bollywood prima donna Manjula (Merchant-Ivory favorite Madhur Jaffrey). Hers is the role that made the biggest impact on early audiences, leading her to collect the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival. Manjula is a monster, though a wholly entertaining one. Loving public attention, she makes a stir wherever she goes. She’s introduced in an amusing scene wherein she’s filming a Bollywood-style musical number, full of stylized pouts and gestures that couldn’t be more distinct from the classical technique of the Shakespearean troupe. When she’s persuaded to watch the English thespians perform Othello, she makes the moment all about herself, signing autographs and posing for photos in the middle of the climactic scene of Desdemona’s murder. Then, while Othello is still bemoaning his lost love, she makes her exit, only to be swarmed by fans in the theatre lobby. It’s a key indication of how the arts scene is evolving in mid-century India: veneration for English tradition is quickly going out the window.

 It’s a shame that the film’s budget was only $80,000, not nearly enough to film in color. India is a land of vivid visuals, and the monochrome palette doesn’t do it justice. Ivory has admitted, “If we had made the film in color, the love scenes in the mist would have looked very strange, as some shots were done with smoke bombs given to us by the Army, which make a bright yellow smoke.” One technical detail fascinates me: the film’s eclectic score was created by none other than Satyajit Ray, the Bengali director of such masterpieces as 1955’s Pather Panchali and the rest of his Apu Trilogy. It doesn’t get much better than that.







  1. Good morning Bev, Hope all is well with regards to you and yours in Calif., all’s good here in Mamaroneck, NY with my apt windows overlooking sailboats and speedboats covering Long Island Sound, we’re grateful for the view. No comment on your essay, no knowledge on the topic, but I did want to send some notes regarding my readings of 2013/2014 essays. 1) I’m glad you like Terry Gross as much as I do-She/NPR & WHYY are priceless. 2) Happy that you like libraries as I do. Hope you read Susan Orlenes’ “The Library Book,” extensively about the arson in LA’s main branch in’86 but really about the importance of
    libraries and those who staff them. 3) The changed stature of Harvey Weinstein since the early 2000- from “Visionary” to venom. I’m gonna keep reading and delighting in your essays(got one pending on Punctuation Day). Peace, Bob

  2. I do indeed know Susan Orleans' The Library Book. She's a brilliant writer, and I was one of the facilitators leading discussions on this book as part of our annual Santa Monica Reads event, now approaching its 20th year. I trust you know how she was portrayed by Meryl Streep in
    "Adaptation" -- clearly she has a sense of humor, or she wouldn't have tolerated that! I do love the Downtown L.A. Library, which I've known since I was a small child, pre-fire.

  3. WOW, the facilitator for THAT book at The Read event, must have given you goosebumps. And, yes, Ms Orleans must have a good sense of humor, OR thick skin to have endured Meryl’s portrayal, but, then again, not too many folks GET to be portrayed by her so one has got to have count ones blessings in creative ways. Knew we we library loving “twins.” Just got one from the Brooklyn system, just for sentiments purposes, though I DO borrow on-line using it. See ya at the reference desk. Stay safe, Bob

  4. Thanks, Bob. My own local library is now open (sort of) but not with the kinds of hours and services I rely on. Fingers crossed that things will improve soon.

  5. Beverly, Just an aside that I’ve been thinking about since reading your enrapturing “Seduced by Mrs. Robinson.” Paul Simon wrote another perfectly appropriate song that could have been used in “The Graduate” but it was way too late, but right on theme, “America,” in 1973 (“Rymin’ Simon,’ I think). He’s on the road, in a bus, with a girl he likes, and, even now, nothing makes sense to him. And he can’t even communicate with a lover. He says, “ Kathy I’m lost,” though i knew she was sleeping.” Benjamin, a little older, with Elaine? Maybe. Keep writing. And I love your older views too. Bob.

  6. Great thoughts about the Paul Simon song, Bob. I wonder if The Graduate had a subliminal impact on "America." thanks!