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Shakespeare Wallah

Shakespeare Wallah(1966)

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If you only know Ismail Merchant and James Ivory as the creative team behind such sumptuous latter-day films as Room with a View and Howard's End, you'll be surprised by the rawness of Shakespeare Wallah (now available on DVD from Home Vision Entertainment.) The rough edges aren't intentional, however. Shot in 1965, on a miniscule budget and in black and white, Shakespeare Wallah holds up on its own while suggesting far more polished Merchant-Ivory successes to come. It's a solid, moving little film, but you can't help wondering how it would have turned out had the budget been, oh, several million dollars higher.

Movies about the British Empire relinquishing control of India have virtually become their genre over the years. Shakespeare Wallah is a mournful entry, with the modern world's lack of interest in higher art serving as its allegorical bedrock. As is so often the case in a Merchant-Ivory production, a social order is collapsing under the unavoidable weight of change. The narrative follows a small Shakespearean theater group, The Buckingham Players, as they perform plays throughout post-Colonial India. (It's interesting to note that, in real life, many of the actors in the film really did travel throughout India, performing Shakespeare.) Several key Buckingham Players are also family members: a father, Tony, (Geoffrey Kendall), his wife, Carla (Laura Liddell), and their adult daughter, Lizzie (Felicity Kendal.)

The troupe members live and die by Shakespeare, almost literally. They've devoted their lives to the Bard, and they're not prepared to accept that their audiences simply aren't that interested anymore. Motion pictures have taken over the Indian public's imagination, and the Buckinghams may soon be out in the cold. In a strange way, however, the glamour of cinema causes even further problems for Lizzie.

Though Lizzie nurtures a flirtation with a wealthy playboy named Sanju (Sashi Kapoor), Sanju is also drawn to a passionate Indian movie star (Madhur Jaffrey.) Screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, a Merchant-Ivory fixture who still writes their scripts, exploits these set-ups for the richest possible metaphorical impact. Strong performances aside, Shakespeare Wallah is loaded with subtext. In these days of flashy Spider-men and latex-covered Catwomen, that alone makes it worth your attention.

Home Vision presents the film in as close to perfect form as possible, although its age and the tight-budget are still apparent in the print. It's presented in its original 1.78:1 ratio, anamorphic widescreen. The blacks and grays separate nicely, but don't expect to be staggered by the cinematography. The soundtrack (including evocative music scored by Satyajit Ray) has been remastered from a 35mm optical track. Again, it gets the job done, within the given limits.

Extras include the original trailer, and interviews with Merchant, Ivory, Kapoor, and Kendal. There's also a nice documentary about the evolution (or lack thereof) of the city of Delhi, called The Delhi Way. Shot by Ivory in 1964, it's a welcome addition to an often powerful film that will surely be embraced by thoughtful cineastes and casual Merchant-Ivory fans alike.

For more information about Shakespeare Wallah, visit Home Vision Entertainment. To order Shakespeare Wallah, go to TCM Shopping.

By Paul Tatara