Salient. Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Volume 31, Number 18. July 30, 1968
The forces of circumstance
The forces of circumstance
I don't know how many were deterred by the title Shakespeare Wallah, but let it be said that this is no Eng. Lit. verbosity. "Wallah" is Hindi for "pedlar", and refers to a troupe of English and Indian actors who travel around India performing excerpts from Shakespeare. First released in 1965, it has been brought to New Zealand by 20th Century-Fox. and good on them for letting us see one of the most truly moving and beautiful films for some time.
The Shakespearean wallahs, the Buckinghams, play before dwindling and apathetic audiences. The twilight of Empire also means the eclipse of the English literary heritage and its most celebrated exponent. The underlying theme concerns the reality of the situation viewed sympathetically with nostalgia and sadness. The tone is perhaps summed up at the beginning when an impoverished Indian prince remarks in a droll monologue at dinner that "Sooner or later we have to come to terms with reality". As the film concerns people of the theatre, that reality takes some coming to terms with.
The theatre is its own world, a world where the only privacy' is the dressingroom. It is a "sacred" world which must not pass merely because it appears that the world outside ignores it. But decay brings with it a reality for each character. The Buckinghams realise that movies have replaced the theatre as the chief source of edification and enjoyment. and although the troupe must disband, the two of them must continue to do Snakespeare-that only do they know. Their daughter Lizzie must go to England, possibly to continue her Shakespearean career at Stratford with the Greats. She knows that her lover, Sanju, cannot sacrifice himself to the demands of a life with someone born in the theatre. The oldest member of the troupe, Bobby (Jim Tytler) laments the passing of the old days when the wine racks were well-stocked and the ballroom full of music and dancing.
Each finds the basis of their lives in decay, but none can escape it. We see real people on the screen, not just "actors" in the conventional sense, yet they are actors in life. This may sound confusing, but confusion is dispelled once we know that, if not already guessed, the extremely high quality of the acting could only be done by a group of intimate people. The Buckinghams are played by Geoffrey Kendal and his wife Laura Liddell, Their younger daughter, Felicity, is the delightful Lizzie Buckingham, Shashi Kapoor, the handsome young Indian matinee idol (seen recently in his first non-Indian film A Matter of Innocence), is the suave playboy Sanju (Shashi, incidentally, is married to the Kendals' elder (laughter, Jennifer, who plays the proprietress of the boardinghouse, Gleneagles, where most of the action is set).
The glamorous Indian actress Mandjula is perfectly portrayed bv Madhur Jaffrey (and I hope we see more or her, too). All the actors are admirably suited to character, re-inforcing the high regard I have for the acting in the few films by Satyajit Ray that have been seen here, All the characters, no matter how idiotic, embarrassed or stupid they may feel or look, are presented sympatheti-cally, even affectionately. We believe in them, feel with them, and become emotionally involved with them.
The structure of the film is surprisingly complex, and the sorting out of time sequence was made clear only on a second viewing. It appears that incident follows incident, but in actuality tne film is built around one Single day with many cuts back and forward in time Lizzie's first meeting with Sanju chances to a deep involvement which we do not at first fully comprehend.
Once Mandjula sees the threat to her life of glamour from the friendship between Sanju and Lizzie we are abruptly plunged into the full passion of their love But Sanju can never fully throw over his easy, exulted position-he sits in the director's chair during the filming of one of Mandjula's corny pieces of nonsense later expressing his ambition to make a film about the history of rhythms. The contrast between the rather sordidin the material not the moral sense-setting of the theatre and the glitter and narcissim of the film world, there is a chasm that not even love can bridge. In Hollywood schmaltz this would be so. The truth is much different. In the cinema the theatre is generally seen as depraved and decadent; this film is in love with the theatre, an only too rare thing.
We cannot, of course, forget James Ivory's contribution as director. His control and mise en scene is superb, capturing the essence of each individual scene (without tedious overshooting) despite the film's gradualismalleged "slowness" doesn't come into it: No films are "slow", it's just that bad films say very little and take a long time saying it. I haven't seen Jean Renoir's Indian film, The River-the first good film made in India by a European-but I imagine that Ivory has continued in that great director's tradition. Characterisation, lyricism and charm also recall Renoir It was Renoir, too, who inspired Satyajit Ray to make his first film, the masterpiece Pather Panchali.
Ivory wrote Shakespeare Wallah in collaboration with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, an American writer married to an Indian. This script, with Ray's delightful music and Subrata Mitra's clear, clean black-and-white photography (Mitra is Ray's cameraman) indicates all too clearly that India has developed a unique kind of cinema which stands with the world's best. I wonder if this is only the tip of an iceberg and whether there are other masterpieces awaiting discovery.
It would only he splitting hairs to attempt to pick out points to criticise. I usually fail to see the reason for this. If a film's minor weaknesses upset for a little while, doubts are swept awav in a few minutes. I enjoyed what I remember of Ivory's first film. The Householder, shown here few and I look forward to seeing it again and also to his film, The Guru. Written by Ivory and Mrs Jhabvala it stars Rita Tushingham and Michael York (they were together in Smashing Time). Ismail Merchant is again producer his first production directly for 20th Century-Fox. We should see it soon.