Before A Room With a View, the Merchant and Ivory filmmaking team covered the clash of cultures in Shakespeare Wallah (1965), the second feature by Ismail and James, the producer from Bombay and the Oregon-born director. It was the film that started to make their reputation.
In Hindi, wallah signifies a tradesman -- one who is thoroughly identified with the marketing of his product. Geoffrey Kendall and his wife Laura Lidell really did tour India "from top to bottom" in the '50s producing Shakespeare, seeing their audience decline after India's 1947 independence made the imperialists' classics less alluring than the flash of Bollywood.
Though some regard Shakespeare Wallah as a classic, it turns out that the film isn't memorable as one of the earliest Merchant-Ivory commentaries on Anglo-Indian culture or even for its recording of mid-century Shakespearean acting styles. It's worthwhile in cinematic terms, though, as an example of montage narrative, chiaroscuro lighting and the reflection of the political in the personal.
Ivory and screenwriters Ruth Prawer Jhabvala prefer jump cuts and disconnections: a ragtag bunch of players arrives at a rundown resort in a downpour; one by one, the Indian members of the troupe beg off, lured by better employment back in Bombay; the actors' elder statesman waltzes with the ing & eacute;nue until his energy flags, much as the pedestal beneath Bard's monument has crumbled.
We get to witness a half-dozen snippets of the troupe's Shakespearean scenes, done with plenty of greasepaint and harrumphing, and there's a clashing cultures plot, too. An Indian playboy, Sanju (Shashi Kapoor), is torn between his Bollywood celebrity mistress (Madhur Jaffrey) and this little slip of an English girl (Kendall's daughter Felicity) who enacts Ophelia and Desdemona so well. His internal conflict encapsulates India's cultural choice between highbrow theater and lowbrow movies. (Guess which brow wins.)
Felicity Kendall is best known to Brits as a '70s sit-com star and erstwhile love interest for playwright Tom Stoppard. But when she meets Sanju for the first time, the emotions that cascade over her face -- attraction, bashfulness, consternation, curiosity -- are lessons in screen acting from an 18-year-old newcomer.
The finale of Wallah still packs a wallop: Symbolically, that's the British Raj floating away from the Mumbai coastline, never to return.
Publication date: 05/20/04