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 But the discovery of an unpublished diary by an English actor, Geoffrey Kendal, took them in a slightly different direction.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.






Friday, September 17, 2021

The Girl-Power of Cinderella

Cinderella, especially the French version by Charles Perrault, might be the most popular fairytale of all time. I think we all respond—especially if we’re female—to the story of a poor girl who rises above adversity to capture the heart of a prince. In the world of Cinderella, it all seems so simple. If you’re both pretty and virtuous, you can escape your dysfunctional family, improve your wardrobe, and live happily ever after.

 Walt Disney, of course, became a major Hollywood player in 1937when he released a full-length animated version of another classic tale, Snow White. This Disney heroine was practically unique in that she (in accord with the template introduced by the Brothers Grimm) had dark hair, “as black as night.” But by the time the Disney folks got around to Cinderella in 1950, they had reverted to the familiar image of a light-haired heroine, one who eventually switched from rags to a magical azure gown at the wave of her Fairy Godmother’s wand. This animated Disney Cinderella was a major international hit, one that pulled the Disney company out of its post-war doldrums and provided an visual image (the Cinderella castle) that still serves as the company’s logo.

 Naturally, the Disney version tempered the romantic story with comic sidekicks and cute animals, including two talking mice who serve as the heroine’s pals. There was also music; both sappy ballads (“A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes”) and lively character songs (“Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo”). But the most appealing musical version of the Cinderella story is probably that which debuted on live television in 1957, with Julie Andrews in the title role and a full score’s worth of classic tunes (“A Lovely Night,” “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful,” “In My Own Little Corner”). A black-and-white kinescope is all that survives of this big TV event, but the show was revived with Lesley Ann Warren in 1965. Over thirty years later, it re-emerged in a racially diverse version, starring Brandy, Whitney Houston (as the fairy godmother), Bernadette Peters (as the stepmother), and Whoopi Goldberg (as the queen). In 2013, Broadway finally came calling, and Cinderella was re-launched as a stage show with a brand-new book that emphasized her kindness as well as her beauty. It also gave her a meet-cute with the prince, disguised as a commoner, so that their love would seem more organic and less the result of his exalted status. Everything came full circle with a Kenneth Branagh extravaganza (2015), starring Lily James in long blonde tresses and a gorgeous blue gown.

 Leave it to Amazon Studio to launch its own musical Cinderella, which has just appeared on Amazon Prime. It’s written and directed by Kay Cannon of the Pitch Perfect movies, and seems to be directed toward tweens who believe in grrrl-power as well as romance. There’s some funk in the score, and this Cinderella (despite her quasi-medieval surroundings) is looking for a career as well as for love. Lots of dance and music fill the screen, though many of the songs are familiar pop standards. Like the stepmother, explaining why she expects her girls to marry for money, belting out Madonna’s “Material Girl.”

 Pop star Camila Cabello is a sassy Ella, and the racially-diverse cast includes Idina Menzel, Pierce Brosnan. Minnie Driver, James Corden (who also produced), and Billy Porter as a thoroughly swishy fairy godperson wearing a fabulous golden coat. Clearly this a production for girls who dream of being loved but also want to run kingdoms and start their own clothing lines. The upshot: Cinderella as the first influencer? 




Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Heading into a Cul-de-Sac

Roman Polanski and the American film industry have had an unusual relationship. Polanski has been a Hollywood hero (for directing such major hits as Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown), and a Hollywood victim (for losing wife Sharon Tate and their unborn child to the Manson murder ring). In 1977 he evolved into a Hollywood fugitive, the result of a lurid sexual escapade with a thirteen-year-old girl at Jack Nicholson’s Bel-Air home. Though he continues to win acclaim, even in Hollywood, for such deeply moving films as The Pianist (2002), he is still today considered a fugitive from the U.S. justice system. It’s not my place here to either condemn or excuse Polanski’s behavior. Suffice it to say that he’s an extremely talented director, and one whose childhood traumas probably influenced his distinctive taste for the perverse. After all, as a six-year-old Jewish child in Krakow, he witnessed his parents being hustled off to Nazi death camps, then lived for years in foster homes, pretending to be part of the Roman Catholic majority.

 Before Polanski arrived in Hollywood, he shot much-acclaimed films both in Poland (Knife in the Water) and the United Kingdom. The psychological horror of Rosemary’s Baby was preceded by Repulsion, a British film starring Catherine Deneuve as a beautiful but sexually stunted young woman obsessed with a fear of men’s desire for her. Repulsion was Polanski’s first film in English. A year later, he made another film he had co-scripted. Called Cul-de-Sac, it was something he once declared was one of his proudest achievements.

 Cul-de-Sac is both very simple and very odd. Set in and around a centuries-old castle-like structure on a Northumberland island, it is in some ways a tone-poem that focuses on ancient stones and the lapping of the sea.  In this stark setting, we come to know three people. One is a middle-aged man, apparently retired from a successful business career, who has retreated to this castle to paint, raise chickens, and enjoy the good life. He’s played by Donald Pleasence, the bald-headed British actor often cast in sinister roles. (See, for instance, his portrayal of a villain in a James Bond flick, You Only Live Twice; he also played the psychiatrist in Halloween) Here he’s not sinister so much as weak, a man physically and emotionally incapable of defending hearth and home. That home includes his second wife, the young and beautiful Fran├žoise Dorl ac (Deneuve’s sister in real life), who seems to like stripping off her clothing in the presence of other men. This oddly-coupled pair hardly expects the arrival of a two-bit gangster hiding out after a botched robbery. He’s played by Lionel Stander, a refugee from Hollywood in the blacklist era, after years of playing sidekicks in films like  Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and A Star is Born. Stander was a big man, broad of shoulder and deep of chest, whose trademark was a distinctively gravelly speaking voice. In his presence the diminutive Pleasence shrinks to nothing, and the interplay of the trio (punctuated when a few more unexpected guests turn up) is sometimes funny but always ominous.

 Cul-de-Sac, which won top prize at the Berlin Film Festival, will not be to everyone’s taste. Though one trailer I saw promised that it would be “fun” for moviegoers, I doubt that most Americans looking for a good time at the cineplex would find this their cup of tea. It reflects the era’s nihilistic sense of alienation, as seen in the work of playwrights like Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. But if you like the macabre, this one’s for you.