“Shakespeare Wallah” - James Ivory (1965)

Shakespeare Wallah (1965) was the second feature film of the emerging Merchant-Ivory production team (Ismail Merchant as producer, and James Ivory as director), whose initial goal was to produce English-language films in India.  Their first film, The Householder (1963), sensitively portrayed romance in an Indian cultural context, and Shakespeare Wallah presented a more expansive social scope of these issues.  Both films were in my view outstanding, although the latter film was a bigger commercial success.

Like The Householder, this second Merchant-Ivory production was considerably assisted by the support and counsel of Indian cinematic master Satyajit Ray, who also again loaned his great cinematographer, Subrata Mitra, to the production team [1]. And Ray again also composed the haunting musical score, which subtly and crucially contributes to the film’s melancholy theme.  In fact all the production values are superb, including Amit Bose’s editing.

In addition, as with most of the top Merchant-Ivory productions, including The Householder, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s scriptwriting was a key ingredient (although on this occasion, James Ivory was co-credited with Ms. Jhabvala for both the story and the screenplay).

The story of Shakespeare Wallah revolves around the activities of an English family’s theatrical troupe which travels around India giving stage performances of Shakespeare’s plays. It is inspired by the real-life experiences of the Kendal family, whom Ivory met while making The Householder and whose “Shakespeareana” theatrical company toured throughout India for several decades [2].  What is shown in the film is a fictionalized account, but the separation between fiction and reality is blurred in this instance by the fact that many of the principal roles in the film are taken by members of the Kendal family and their associates:
  • Shashi Kapoor (who also starred in The Householder) plays the role of Sanju, a wealthy playboy.  As a youth, Kapoor had toured with his father’s touring theatrical and after meeting and marrying the Kendal family's daughter, Jennifer, toured with the Shakespeareana company, too.
  • James Kendal, the leader of Shakespeareana and the father of Jennifer Kendal, plays as Tony Buckingham, who is similarly the leader of the acting troupe shown in the film.
  • Laura Liddell Kendal, the wife of James and the mothere of Jennifer, plays a corresponding role as Mrs. Carla Buckingham.
  • Felicity Kendal, the Kendals’ younger daughter, plays the role of the Buckinghams' daughter, Lizzie.
  • Madhur Jaffrey, who was not connected with the Kendals but who was instrumental in introducing Ivory and Merchant to each other [3] and later became famous as a travel and food writer, plays the role of Bollywood actress Manjula.
  • Jennifer Kendal, the older daughter of James and Laura Kendall as well as the real-life wife of Shashi Kapoor, has a small role as Mrs. Bowen, the English proprietress of a hotel in India.  Like her sister Felicity, she went on to have an acting career of her own, for example appearing in Satyajit Ray’s The Home and the World (1984).
  • Utpal Dutt, who later became a famous actor, writer, and director, was early on a performer for the Kendals’ Shakespeareana.  He plays the role of a maharaja in the film.
The main features of the story concern the cultural face-off between East and West, as represented by English and Indian cultures [4].  This is reflected in two spheres: the declining fortunes and narrowing horizons of the Buckinghams’ theatrical company and the romantic relationship between Sanju and Lizzie.

Most commentators have focused on the first of these two spheres [4], which shows the high-minded Buckinghams trying to deliver the wonders and majesty of Shakespeare to various elements of Indian society that are willing to financially support their performances.  This ranges from special performances before the privileged classes, such as landlords and maharajas, to auditorium-filled shows presented at schools and colleges where English is taught. But times are changing in postcolonial India, and Shakespeare is less and less revered as a cultural icon, as popular interests shift to Bollywood movies and sporting events.  While the British may have often been imperious and patronizing in colonial times, the Buckinghams find themselves forced by their declining income into humiliating supplications for chances to put on extra shows to cover their expenses.  They had come to India decades earlier as idealistic adventurers, but now they are starting to wonder if they shouldn’t return to the world they know – their ancestral home in England.

The irony here, of course, is that the once-dominant English, as represented by the Buckinghams, almost have to grovel and beg in order to present the opportunities for cultural enlightenment to their Indian audiences. Their only real supporters are the upperclass landlords, who put on airs of aping the  English in order to demonstrate what they feel is their innate superiority, but who are themselves without a future. Nevertheless, Tony Buckingham is philosophical about all that is happening and tries to adjust to a changing world. It’s just that he is reluctant to abandon the idealistic vision that he had in his youth.  On the other hand his daughter Lizzie has grown up in India and sees it as her home.  She has no close connections in England and no desire to go "back" there – and besides, she is in love.

Lizzie has fallen in love with a young Indian, who is equally attracted to her.  The two come from different cultures, though, and again it is East confronting West.  I think many viewers see the first sphere – the declining fortunes of the Shakespeare wallahs ('wallah' meaning ‘specialists’, in Hindi) – as the main story of the film. The nascent love affair between Lizzie and Sanju is then viewed as a reflection or subtext of that main theme.  However, I look it the other way around.  To me the love story offers the main theme, and the theatrical company’s struggles is a reflective backdrop.

The story is told in roughly four main sections.
1.  Introducing the Shakespeare wallahs
The opening section introduces the Buckinghams theatrical company and how they live.  They visit a maharajah, who wines and dines them prior to their “command performance” presented just to him.  Then they head off in their two crowded vehicles for their next scheduled appointment.  On the way, one of their cars breaks down, and they are stopped for some time before being rescued by a wealthy passerby, Sanju.  He takes them to his estate, where they all camp out in their tents, as is their frugal custom, on his lawn.  Sanju is immediately attracted to Lizzie Buckingham, and he strikes up some flirtatious conversations with her.  He promises to come and view Lizzie’s next stage performance, but he punts and instead goes to watch a Bollywood film shoot in the countryside, where they are filming a pretty actress, Manjula, dancing to lip-sync music.  From the outset Manjula shows herself to be a vain, self-centered poseur, but she and Sanju are shown to have a close relationship.

2.  Sanju and Lizzie
The next section portrays the developing relationship between Sanju and Lizzie.  Sanju is sincerely romantically attracted to Lizzie, but it is also clear that he has an established romantic relationship with Manjula.  Anyway, in between scenes showing the ongoing financial struggles of Tony Buckingham to keep his company afloat, Sanju continues to woo Lizzie.  He becomes enthusiastic about the seriousness of her theater work and contrasts it with what he sees as the triviality and shallow nature of Manjula’s Bollywood films.  Finally he and Lizzie go for a walk down a wooded path, and they kiss passionately (an act that was not permitted to be shown by Indian government censors of Indian films at that time).

3. Manjula intervenes
Manjula’s mute servant reports to her in sign language that she has seen Sanju and Lizzie embracing, and Manjula decides to take immediate action.  She gets Lizzie almost coercively dragged to her apartment and informs the girl that Sanju belongs to her – though he sometimes flirts with other girls, he always comes back to her.

Later Sanju takes Manjula to see the Buckinghams perform Shakespeare’s Othello, but the vain Manjula intentionally makes such a scene with the usual Bollywood-obsessed autograph hounds that it disrupts the stage performance.  Sanju angrily tells Manjula to leave without him, but the damage has been done, and the relationship between Lizzie and Sanju appears lost.

But the thing is, Lizzie loves Sanju, and when he comes to apologize to her for what happened at the stage performance, she cannot help forgiving him.  They then spend the night together, and their relationship is firmer than ever.

4.  Cultural breakdown
Seeing that relationship between their daughter and an Indian playboy, Tony and Clara Buckingham are concerned about their daughter’s future and decide to urge her to go back to England with them. 

Meanwhile Sanju comes to watch Lizzie rehearse at an auditorium, and when he tries to kiss her during a break, he finds himself bothered by the noise and lack of privacy. Shortly thereafter when it is Lizzie this time who is approached by a couple of autograph seekers, Sanju gets angry with people approaching his “property”. Later during an actual performance of the stage company, the uncouth whistling at Lizzie by crude male audience members makes Sanju so angry that he starts a fistfight, and the show has to be suspended. 

Afterwards, Lizzie lovingly attends to him, but Sanju tells her he doesn’t like her public lifestyle. He says that his izzat was offended, and that, he claims, is fundamental to who he is.  Izzat (from ‘izza’ in Arabic) is a deep sense of honor and revenge that pervades the male gender in India and Pakistan, and it runs across the Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh communities. Although he really has a passion for Lizzie, he cannot overcome his egotistical feelings of pride, dignity, and honor that has been infused in him by the senseless and pernicious notion of izzat.  If she is to be his love, then he demands that she be his property and must be kept in line with his izzat.

She then embraces him and movingly tells him, in the most touching scene in the film, that she would give up anything for him, including her way of life, if he asks her. Sanju stiffens slightly and says nothing, and with that Lizzie senses that his love is not unconditional.

The final scene shows Lizzie getting ready to depart alone on a boat to England.  As she looks out from the deck, she sadly, but resignedly, remembers Sanju and their tender moments.
Though there is indeed the larger backdrop of how English and Indian cultures try to interoperate, to me, the real issue in this film is love.  Love involves an unconditional embrace and sense of oneness with one’s beloved.  There are inevitably many things about one’s beloved that one doesn’t know or understand – or even approve of.  But if one is truly in love, it doesn’t matter, one loves one’s beloved unconditionally.  This is what Lizzie did.  And this is what Sanju did not.

Tony and Clara Buckingham had come to India on an adventure, without really knowing what to expect.  Now they had given up, and they convinced their daughter to give up, too.  But it shouldn’t be that way, and those final melancholy moments of Shakespeare Wallah hit home to us. They remind us of the beautiful possibilities of love – a universal feeling of compassion that can transcend any cultural boundaries. Indeed, some of the purest loves arise when two people from different cultures embrace each other unconditionally. Their backgrounds are so different that all attempts to come to specific terms with them are abandoned, and love rules.  This is what Lizzie had done, and we are left with the sadness that such a wonderful opportunity with Sanju was lost.

  1. Marie Seton, Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray,  (1971), Indiana University Press, p. 291.
  2. Sean Axmaker, “Shakespeare Wallah (1966)”, Turner Classic Movies, (4 May 2004).
  3. Mel Gussow, "Telling Secrets That Worked For a Gambling Life in Films", New York Times,  (2 January 2003).
  4. Parmita Kapadia, “Bollywood Battles the Bard: the Evolving Relationship Between Film and Theater in Shakespeare Wallah”, in Bollywood Shakespeares, Craig Dionne and Parmita Kapadia (eds.) (2014), pp. 45-60.

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