Deepak has unwittingly launched me on a summer exploration of Merchant Ivory films (which I sometimes mistakenly, but somehow more fittingly, refer to as Ivory Merchant films). Last night Shakespeare Wallah was up- a stunningly artistic black and white movie exploring the decline of British influence in India against the rise of Bollywood cinema. Shashi Kapoor plays an Indian playboy pursuing his dual interests in a popular but conniving Bollywood star (Madhur Jaffrey, yes, that rani of Indian cookbooks) and a naive English Shakespearean actress (Felicity Kendal). Shashi Kapoor gets to do what he does best- woo beautiful women. He never broke a sweat the entire movie, and why should he, with women swooning over his gorgeous good looks?
The film itself is Shakespearean- plays within plays and films within films. My tragedy class in college came through big (scenes from Othello, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and references to King Lear- check). But I certainly should have taken its companion about Shakespearean comedies, because all the comedic references went straight over my head (Twelfth Night what?). As a scrappy group of Shakespearean actors travels their regular circuit around India, they increasingly find audiences uninterested, performances disrupted, and runs cut short. Lizzie (Felicity Kendal) finds herself in a no-woman's land. Although born and raised in India, her family has no future there. She must choose between the fickle affections of Sanju (Shashi Kapoor) and a trip home to a country she's never seen. Felicity Kendal looks all of about sixteen in the film, and pulls off her childlike experience of love convincingly.
But Madhur Jaffrey takes the cake in her role as Manjula, slyly manipulating Sanju while causing an absolute ruckus with her own star power during one of Lizzie's performances (perhaps the best scene in the entire movie). I found surprising parallels between the character of Manjula in this movie and Mala, the wife of another Shashi Kapoor character in Bombay Talkie. Both women are stuck with a philandering partner, choosing with forlorn forbearance that "he will come back, because he always does when he loses interest." Before I condemn the portrayal of Indian women in Merchant Ivory films I should at least make sure this is a theme in more than two movies! But I found it striking that in both movies English women have freedom of movement and sexuality (however young or washed up they may be), while Indian women live only in the shadows of the men they belong to. The final scene between Sanju and Lizzie in Shakespeare Wallah takes this film to the next level- the discussion of honor and the idea of a actress revealing herself to the public eye laid bare the gaping chasms of cultural understanding and expectations between the two characters.