A lark, a fling, a protean evocation of life between cultures, 1965’s Shakespeare Wallah, the second Merchant-Ivory production, remains a breezy and beguiling study, comedy, romance, elegy. There are even elements of documentary in the film’s depiction of a traveling British theater troupe that performs Shakespeare across India. That company’s principals are played by Felicity Kendal, Geoffrey Kendal and Laura Liddell, a daughter, father and mother from the real-life Shakespeareana Company that served as inspiration for James Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who shares with Ivory a screenwriter credit. Just when you think you’ve pinned down what precisely Shakespeare Wallah is, it becomes something else before your eyes. (And your eyes are in for a treat, as this new restoration is gorgeous.)
In that, it’s something like its leads, who themselves continually favor different aspects of self: A British citizen who has never been outside of the subcontinent, young Lizzie Buckingham (Felicity Kendal) rejects the insistence of her mother (Liddell) that she must visit England someday. But her white Britishness is part of the allure for the man she’s fallen for, the prickly gentleman Sanju (Shashi Kapoor), who comes to see Lizzie play the bard’s tragic women. Lizzie stars as Ophelia and Desdemona, women undone by their love for dangerously erratic men, and, of course, Sanju proves inconstant himself. He, too, is caught between cultures. He’s also wooing a Bollywood star played by the commanding Madhur Jaffrey.
But this love triangle only takes over the film in the final reels. For much of its running time, Shakespeare Wallah examines, with a resolute lack of sentimentality, the troupe’s somewhat out-of-time existence proselytizing the great genius of a country that’s been given the boot. Their crowds are dwindling, the empire has ended and the movies have come, lavish untoppable musicals, even to the hinterlands. The people they perform for have their own culture to enjoy, and the Buckinghams — their very name a suggestion of Anglo self-importance — can only find as their patrons the occasional Indian swell who still buys into the belief that the Brits are in some way superior.
The Merchant-Ivory partnership between Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant was itself formed with the goal of producing English-language movies in India. And Shakespeare Wallah, like their first film, The Householder, found the duo working with Subrata Mitra, the cinematographer best known for his world-class work with Satyajit Ray. Savoring the dust-choked roads, the peaks and mists, the palaces and stages, the subtle shadows of the nighttime and the stubbornness of the Buckinghams makes sense. Lizzie declares with pride that sometimes they just sleep right at the train station, a deprivation that she makes sound like an adventure but speaks to the increasing weariness of her parents. Ivory is painstakingly attentive to the everyday grind of the life.
Sometimes, though, he dares the fantastical, echoing (as does the romance plot) the Shakespearean comedies we never see the Buckinghams attempt: As one pair of lovers kisses in the woods, fog sweeps in and covers them completely, as if they’re dissolving together into their own shared moment. The vignettes are varied and arresting, the climax comic and the final moments sweetly sad. This early Merchant-Ivory effort might not offer the catharsis of their mature work, but it is in some ways more inimitable.