Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Merchant-Ivory: Shakespeare Wallah

Alas, Tony Buckingham is on the wrong side of both a generational divide and a cultural divide. There was a time when Indian audiences flocked to see his traveling Shakespearean company, but they find themselves out of favor in the mid-1960s. At least they will scuffle with class and culture in the freshly 2K restored early Merchant-Ivory production, Shakespeare Wallah (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Lizzie Buckingham was born in India, straight into her father’s acting troupe. Over the years, she has graduated from stagehand work to featured roles, like Ophelia. Unlike her parents, she has no memory of those salad days, so performing in any old venue feels natural to her. They represent an end of an era, just like the maharajah, for whom they give a private command performance in the opening scenes.

Fatefully, engine trouble while on the road to their next gig introduces the Buckinghams to their sort of rescuer, Sanju, a well-heeled playboy. He rather makes an impression on Lizzie and vice versa. However, she makes it clear she will not tolerate his usual gamesmanship. Indeed, he is rather impressed with her spirit and dazzled by the high culture she represents. Eventually, Manjula, his Bollywood star cousin, back-handedly acknowledges Ms. Buckingham could be a threat to the stake she claimed in Sanju.

Wallah is directly inspired by the experiences of Geoffrey Kendal’s thespian family, who essentially play fictionalized versions of themselves. In the years prior, they extensively toured the subcontinent, happily performing Shakespeare for appreciative audiences. This was the screen debut of his daughter, British TV star Felicity Kendal, who is probably most recognizable to American audiences for playing the wife of the bulky sweater-wearing Richard Briers on the 1970s Britcom Good Neighbors, which was in regular rotation on 1980s PBS stations. Although it probably helped type-cast her in “cute” roles, she is in fact, quite forceful and nuanced as Lizzie Buckingham.

Ironically, Kendal’s close friend Madhur Jaffrey portrayed her arrogant rival Manjula with flamboyant cattiness. It is a wonderful Bette Davis-kind of turn that heralded the start of a long association with Merchant and Ivory. Shashi Kapoor flashes the charm as Sanju, but he is more memorable for darker, more chauvinistic moments. Of course, it is Geoffrey Kendal and his off-screen wife Laura Liddell who supply the film’s bedrock grace and dignity as Tony and Carla Buckingham.

There is a free-and-easy vibe to Wallah that does not seem very Merchant-Ivory, but it is definitely in keeping with the swinging sixties. The black-and-white cinematography also stands in stark contrast to the lush look of their 1980s breakout films. In a weird way, it would make a fitting double bill with such radically dissimilar films as Olivier’s The Entertainer and A Hard Day’s Night. Highly recommended, Shakespeare Wallah opens this Friday (11/10) in New York, at the Quad Cinema.