Feature:Shakespeare Wallah, the movie
Mabel Pais
Lizzie Buckingham (Felicity Kendal)
James Ivory's Shakespeare Wallah (1965)
“Shakespeare Wallah,” the restored version of the 1965 movie is being released in New York on November 10
Watching the restored-version recent screening of 1965’s “Shakespeare Wallah,” brought back fond memories of the real life story of the Kendal family: Geoffrey Kendal, wife Laura Liddell, daughters Jennifer and Felicity staging scenes from Shakespeare works in the school auditoriums of India. In the late 1960s mine was one such school in Bangalore, India at the performances of which we were prompted to learn and sing in unison, Shakespeare’s songs, as “The Wind And The Rain” from “Twelfth Night.”
Shashi Kapoor with Madhur Jaffrey
Shashi Kapoor with Madhur Jaffrey in a scene from Shakespeare Wallah
Accompanied by his wife Laura and, in later years, by his daughters Jennifer and Felicity, Kendal’s troupe toured India performing not only Shakespearean plays but also those of Sheridan, Shaw and Wilde from shabby village halls to opulent maharajas’ palaces, often joined by a variety of young local actors who later earned international cinematic acclaim, according to the British newspaper Independent.

Shakespeare Wallah, the 1965 Merchant-Ivory Productions film story and screenplay are by Ruth Prawer Jhabwala about a traveling family theatre troupe of English actors in India, who perform Shakespeare plays in towns across India, amidst a dwindling demand for their work and the rise of Bollywood. Madhur Jaffrey won the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the 15th Berlin International Film Festival for her performance. The music was composed by Satyajit Ray. The film was shot in black and white, and the Kendal family play their own fictionalized counterparts, “the Buckinghams”.

Shakespeare Wallah, James Ivory’s second feature film following 1963’s The Householder, is directly inspired by the diaries kept by actor Geoffrey Kendal of the experiences of the Shakespeareana Theater Company, a traveling troupe of actors in India founded and led by both British born Kendal and his wife, Laura Liddell, during 1947, the year India achieved independence.

Ivory had met the Kendal family when he was making The Householder and he was very interested in making a film with them. After he read Geoffrey’s diaries, Ivory knew he had found the right project, casting Geoffrey Kendal as troupe leader and director Tony Buckingham and Laura Liddell as his wife, actress and partner Carla Buckingham. The pair are, of course, portraying fictionalized versions of themselves: British stage performers who have made a life for themselves and their family in India, which they thought of as home. In this case the Buckingham’s daughter, Lizzie (Geoffrey and Laura’s real-life daughter Felicity Kendal, in her film debut), who was born in India and grew up in the company. Over the years, Lizzie graduated from stage assistant to supporting actress and occasional leading role in the troupe’s repertoire of Shakespeare plays that they would stage anywhere from village parks and school auditoriums to private manors and palaces.

Loosely based on the real-life actor-manager Geoffrey Kendal family and his “Shakespeareana Company” of travelling theatre, which earned him the Indian sobriquet, “Shakespearewallah,” the film follows the story of nomadic British actors as they perform Shakespeare plays in towns in post-colonial India. In this story, Tony Buckingham (Geoffrey Kendal) and his wife Carla (Laura Liddell) oversee the troupe. Their daughter, Lizzie Buckingham (Felicity Kendal), falls in love with Sanju (Shashi Kapoor), who is also romancing Manjula (Madhur Jaffrey), a Bollywood film star.

In real life, Shashi Kapoor fell in love with Felicity’s elder sister Jennifer Kendal. Their marriage would provide an important contribution to the Indian film industry until Kendal’s death in 1984.

In the 1960s post-colonial India, Tony Buckingham (Geoffrey Kendal) and his wife, Carla (Laura Liddell), are the British actor-managers of a troupe of English, Irish and Indian actors who travel about the country mounting stage performances of Shakespeare’s works.

One night, after visiting a maharajah for a “command performance,” the troupe heads off in two crowded vehicles for their next engagement. Along the way, one of the cars breaks down, and the company is stranded for some time before being rescued by a wealthy passerby, Sanju (Shashi Kapoor). He takes the troupe to his estate, where they all camp out in their tents on his lawn. While there, Sanju finds himself immediately attracted to Lizzie Buckingham (Felicity Kendal), Tony and Carla’s daughter, and he promises to attend Lizzie’s next stage performance. But instead, Sanju goes to watch a Bollywood film shoot in the countryside, where he observes the glamorous but self-centered actress Manjula (Madhur Jaffrey), with whom he has a relationship.

As Tony deals with the ongoing financial struggles of keeping his company afloat, Sanju woos Lizzie, though he remains involved with Manjula. He soon becomes enthusiastic about the seriousness of Lizzie’s theater work, particularly when he contrasts it with what he sees as the shallow nature of Manjula’s Bollywood films.
Laura Liddell with Felicity Kendal
(Left) Laura Liddell with Felicity Kendal in a scene from Shakespeare Wallah
Photos / Courtesy Cohen Media Group
Manjula’s mute servant reports to her in sign language that she has seen Sanju and Lizzie embracing, prompting Manjula to angrily inform Lizzie that Sanju belongs to her and that although he flirts with other girls, he always comes back to her.

Later, Sanju takes Manjula to see the Buckingham’s company perform Shakespeare’s Othello. While there, the vain Manjula intentionally disrupts the performance by making a scene with the usual Bollywood-obsessed autograph hounds. Sanju angrily tells Manjula to leave without him, and though Sanju’s relationship with Lizzie appears to be ruptured, he sincerely apologizes to her for what happened at the performance and she forgives him.

Noting the intensifying relationship between Lizzie and the Indian playboy, Tony and Clara grow concerned about their daughter’s future—along with the diminishing demand for their craft as the English theatre in India is being supplanted by Bollywood entertainments. The couple makes a life-changing decision and urges Lizzie to go back to England with them.

Meanwhile, Sanju notes how Lizzie is growing in popularity, attracting autograph hounds and leering comments from the audience and even inciting a fistfight at a performance. In the aftermath of the fight, Sanju tells Lizzie he doesn’t like her public lifestyle and that his izzat (an Indian sense of male pride) has been offended. He declares that if she is to be his love, she must be “his property” and be kept in line with his izzat. Lizzie tells Sanju that she would give up anything for him, including her way of life, if he asks her to. When Sanju does not respond, Lizzie senses that his love is not unconditional…and that another life in England is still beckoning.

Shakespeare Wallah’s popularity grew in the USA and across the world after that, and the film later became regarded as the feature that put Merchant Ivory Productions on the international movie map.
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