Ivory met the Kendal family when he was making The Householder (1963) and was determined to make a film with them. When he read Geoffrey's diaries, he found his project, casting Geoffrey Kendal as troupe leader and director Tony Buckingham and Laura Liddell as his wife, actress and partner Carla Buckingham. They are fictionalized versions of themselves: British stage performers who have made a life for themselves and their family in India, which they now think of as home. Certainly their daughter, Lizzie (Felicity Kendal in her film debut), does; she was born in India and grew up in the company, graduating from stage assistant to supporting actress and the occasional leading role in the troupe's repertoire of Shakespeare plays. These they would stage anywhere from outdoor parks to school auditoriums to private manors and palaces, wherever Tony can book their next engagement.
Though inspired by the diaries, the story itself is fiction. Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala drew ideas rather than specific incidents from the memoir. They also made one major change from Geoffrey Kendal's remembrances: they moved the story from 1947, when his company's success was at its peak, to the post-colonial era of the early sixties, when the interest in British culture was being eclipsed by the growing indigenous Indian entertainment culture, notably Bollywood cinema. Kendal's real life success story became a bittersweet drama of the twilight of a theatrical way of life.
Shakespeare-Wallah focuses on the teenage Lizzie and her romance with a handsome young playboy, Sanju (Shashi Kapoor), who takes a fancy to her after "rescuing" them from a breakdown on the road. The educated Sanju is attracted not just to Lizzie's freshness and mix of confidence and naïveté but to the culture she represents: a genuine stage actress steeped in the official classics of western civilization. Lizzie's rival is Manjula (Madhur Jaffrey), a Bollywood starlet and a cousin to Sanju who has claimed Sanju for herself. Ivory admits that the petite actress lacks the traditional physical characteristics of the usually voluptuous and curvy Bollywood starlets. "The crew particularly was disappointed on the first day of shooting with the appearance of Madhur Jaffrey; she wasn't a buxom or curvaceous Indian movie goddess the way they were used to," he confessed in an interview. "But of course Madhur gives a smashing performance." Indeed, her performance in Shakespeare-Wallah earned her a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.
Though she had plenty of stage experience, this was Felicity Kendal's first film and she had never worked with a director other than her father when she was offered the lead in Shakespeare-Wallah at age seventeen. She was, however, surrounded by family and friends. In addition to her parents there was rising star Shashi Kapoor, who was married to her sister Jennifer (who briefly appears in the film), and Madhur Jaffrey, who plays the imperious Bollywood starlet onscreen but was in fact a close friend off-screen and, like Felicity, new to the movies. Ivory himself had become a family friend. Felicity, who had spent time on the sets of Bollywood films, embarked on the project thinking that it would be "such fun." By her own account it was, and she has been a busy actress on stage and television ever since. Shashi Kapoor, who had starred in the first Merchant Ivory feature The Householder, went on to become a major star in India and earned international recognition in Stephen Frears' Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987) while Madhur Jaffrey followed her career to Britain and the United States.
Shakespeare-Wallah was shot on a tiny budget, most of it funded from the sale of The Householder to Columbia. Ivory shot on location in black-and-white to save money and he relied on his documentary background to direct the film with a naturalistic approach that gives the film a texture of realism and immediacy. Satyajit Ray wrote the score (in a mere ten days, according to Ivory). The film earned glowing reviews but Merchant Ivory couldn't find a distributor in the U.S. so they took it upon themselves to open the film in New York. The film's modest but solid early success finally found them a distributor. The film's success only grew after that.
According to Felicity Kendal, her father had mixed feelings about the finished film, which was inspired by his memoir but took the story into a very different direction. He was, in Kendal's words, "cautious about the sadness of it." His long and quite successful career in India is absent from the film, which chronicles the passing of an age and the decline of a theater company. "One of the passions of his life, apart from Milton and Shakespeare, was India, and he didn't think the film showed his love of India." But she also recalls that he saw the film many years later, when he wasn't so close to it, and found it "wonderful."
Producer: Ismail Merchant
Director: James Ivory
Screenplay: James Ivory, R. Prawer Jhabvala (both screenplay and story)
Cinematography: Subrata Mitra
Music: Satyajit Ray (original), Ludwig van Beethoven (non-original)
Film Editing: Amit Bose
Cast: Shashi Kapoor (Sanju), Felicity Kendal (Lizzie Buckingham), Geoffrey Kendal (Mr. Tony Buckingham), Laura Liddell (Mrs. Carla Buckingham), Madhur Jaffrey (Manjula), Utpal Dutt (Maharaja), Praveen Paul (Didi), Prayag Raaj (Sharmaji), Pinchoo Kapoor (Guptaji), Jim Tytler (Bobby).
by Sean Axmaker