Saturday, March 16, 2013

Shakespeare Wallah

Last night I watched Shakespeare Wallah, an Merchant-Ivory film from the 60s.  One of the best movies I've seen in a long time!

It is the story of a British family who have a small traveling theater troupe in India, who perform Shakespeare plays in various places around the country.  Felicity Kendal plays the daughter, Lizzie, who has lived her entire life traveling around India (though, I couldn't help but notice, her character doesn't speak anything but English).  Her love triangle with Shashi Kapoor's Sanju and Madhur Jaffrey's Manjula (a glamorous Bollywood actress) is the main focus of the story, while in the background her family contemplates returning to England as their fortunes fade in their adopted home.

Interestingly, the story is loosely based on Felicity Kendal's actual family, who were traveling theater performers in India (her parents in the movie are played by her real life parents).  One needn't know that fact to enjoy the movie, but it definitely added a layer of melancholy watching the characters discuss their uncertainty about their own futures, knowing how personal that discussion really was.

The other very interesting aspect of the movie was the dialogue between British and Indian cultures, colonial India and independent India, and traditional theater versus modern films.  The theater troupe is, of course, a remnant of India's colonial history, and 20 years after India's independence, their audience is dwindling - both because British residents in India are progressively fewer in number, and the Indian audience is progressively less interested in their work and more interested in Bollywood films (a symbol of modernity as well as India's independent cultural production).  There is a scene where Lizzie's mother is attempting to convince her to go to England to visit (a place where she's never been), and tells her how wonderful it is to be in a place where one truly belongs.  Lizzie was born in India and has known no other country, but she is simultaneously not a part of it.  At least part of that, I have to think, is that their mode of life and their vocation (never settling down, performing the plays of that utmost symbol of British culture) precludes Lizzie from ever becoming a part of the only country she knows.  She was born in India, but she and her family are British.  Their way of life makes less and less sense, both in India and in the modern world.  Eventually Lizzie must decide to what world she wishes to belong.

An absolutely beautiful movie.  5 STARS!  TEN THUMBS UP!


  1. Where did you find it?!
    (which is to selfishly say, of course, where can I find it?! :D)

    1. I have it on my external hard drive. I'd be happy to watch it again with you sometime!