Blu-ray Review: Shakespeare Wallah (1965)

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Although initially intended to serve as a metaphor for the disappearance of western (or more specifically) British culture from India in the mid twentieth century, 1965's understated Merchant Ivory offering Shakespeare Wallah has become even more thematically significant today on a global scale, considering the rate at which the arts are vanishing more than fifty years later in the twenty-first.

Of course, that's not to say that the work itself is overly heavy. Created at the intersection of fact and fiction, this lush yet free flowing collision of art and life was born when the diaries of traveling theatre troupe head Geoffrey Kendal provided James Ivory with the authentic perspective that he and co-writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala needed to get Ivory's idea for an story about Shakespearean actors in India off and running.

The second Merchant Ivory production after The Householder, Shakespeare Wallah was also the second of nine works to star their Householder lead, popular Bollywood actor Shashi Kapoor. In an against-type role as one third of the film's love triangle Kapoor's local Indian man Sanju finds himself caught between the guileless and naturally gifted, Indian born British stage actress Lizzie Buckingham (played by Kapoor's real life sister-in-law Felicity Kendal) and Madhur Jaffrey's glamorous, vain, and self-involved rising Bollywood star, Manjula.

A crowd favorite, for her turn Jaffrey garnered a well-deserved Best Actress award from the Berlin Film Festival. And further foreshadowing Merchant Ivory's future strength in attracting marvelous talent, as the daughter of director James Ivory's offscreen turned onscreen source Geoffrey Kendal (who stars in the picture alongside his wife, daughters, and son-in-law), Felicity Kendal does a marvelous job serving as the production's Shakespearean muse.

While unfortunately her parents were unhappy with the metaphorical direction the film took because it was in stark contrast to their experiences traveling through India in the late 1940s, teenage actress Felicity Kendal was better able to differentiate between the offscreen reality of their memories and the onscreen drama of the film, given her largely secondhand knowledge of the events that had occurred nearly twenty years earlier.

Keeping things light and playful as much with a look as she does with the film's subtle – at times perfunctory – dialogue, which builds in waves for the moments it reaches a dramatic fever pitch, Kendal gives a performance that's doubly impressive when you consider both her status as a newcomer as well as someone juggling such complex family loyalty dynamics on both sides of the lens.

Given a budget low enough to necessitate that the film be shot in black-and-white, Wallah wound up benefiting from what most would consider a financial misfortune. Not only did the lack of funds inspire additional creativity but it also ensured that the behind-the-scenes movie magic used to generate some of the film’s most sumptuous sequences (such as the bright yellow smoke bombs needed to produce scenic romantic mist) would stay marvelously hidden from view.

Paying off beautifully, in this exquisite 2k digital restoration of Wallah made from the George Eastman Museum archive’s 35mm composite fine grain master, our senses are dazzled from start to finish. And while I’m obviously glad that the yellow smoke was kept out of sight, as a movie geek nearly blind from years of subtitle/closed captioning overload, I do wish some of the yellow color had stuck around to be used in place Wallah's small white font. All too frequently the words vanish into the white background similar to the way that theater audiences vanished from the Buckingham's performances in favor of Bollywood movies throughout the course of the film.

Nonetheless, from its instantly charming opening credit sequence to Satyajit Ray's affecting score, the film – which amazingly failed to find an American distributor in its initial release – went on to set the stage for the dozens of Merchant Ivory productions that would follow. And devotees of their movies are sure to appreciate the fact this new high definition restoration has arrived on disc just after James Ivory took home his first screenwriting Oscar for Call Me By Your Name after a lifetime of marvelous work.

Offering arthouse fans much in which to delight, the Cohen Film Collection Blu-ray includes two informative essays as well as a handful of special features salvaged from the title's earlier Criterion Collection release, which gives you the opportunity to hear the filmmakers breakdown their work in every stage.

Unlike other Shakespearean referential titles (including the lovely '98 Oscar winning Best Picture Shakespeare in Love as well as any number of terrific adaptations), Shakespeare Wallah does much more than romantically celebrate the Bard. Thanks to the film's stellar cast and crew as well as its use of art and cultural metaphor in building its own narrative through-line steeped in authenticity, Merchant Ivory's Wallah has grown that much more topical with each passing year.

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