Thursday, June 28, 2018

SHAKESPEARE WALLAH: early Merchant-Ivory collaboration gets 2K Blu-ray/DVD restoration

Made in 1965 and released in U.S. theaters the following year, SHAKESPEARE WALLAH, though not the first collaboration between producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory, was the film that put the two on critics' and the art film circuit map. TrustMovies was too young and untutored to nearly appreciate the movie back then (he found it dull and weird), and he knew little about Britain's long-term "adventure" in India.

Seen now, more than a half-century later, the movie shimmers and glows with typical Merchant-Ivory (the pair is shown above in a 1983 photo by Lord Snowden) subdued wit and a crisp and glorious transfer of its black-and-white cinematography in this new restoration via the increasingly important Cohen Film Collection.

The film follows an itinerant group composed of a British family (father/mother/daughter) and their native helpers (you'd have to call them lackeys, as they barely get paid for their work), as it travels about the provinces of India putting on scenes from (or entire but heavily cut-down) plays by Shakespeare. If the actors are not great, neither are they bad. They do their art as best they can under increasingly difficult circumstances.

Ditto the actors who play these actors -- Geoffrey Kendal (dad, above, center left), Laura Liddell (mom, above, center) and Felicity Kendal (daughter, above, center right) -- a real family, the parents of which actually toured India for decades doing exactly this, while their daughter, Felicity, who was born in India, went on to make quite an important career for herself in British film and television.

When their barely-making-it automobile breaks down between stops, they are helped and befriended by a local man (a young and so sexy Shashi Kapoor, above) who immediately sets his sites on the daughter.

Trouble is, this fellow is also the boyfriend of a top Bollywood star of the day, played to perfection by Madhur Jaffrey (above, right). Complications ensue, and sure enough, they're handled with the usual flair for irony, subtle wit and entertainment provided by the Merchant/Ivory combo and their oft-times writing collaborator, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.

Along the way, we're treated to scenes that show how change is always with us, then as now -- and, as usual, just as difficult to accept. While politics don't seem to matter much here, economics certainly do, as do the usual themes of class and race where India and Britain are concerned.

Overall  though, this remains a mostly light-hearted, romantic entertainment touched with a melancholy that grows ever more pronounced as the film moves along. In the years since Shakespeare Wallah arrived, Mr. Ivory has proven enormously assured in his skills (he won an Oscar this past year for his adapted screenplay to Call Me By Your Name). Of the filmmakers and major actors on view only Ivory, Ms Jaffrey and Ms Kendall are still with us. Thankfully, their movie is, too.

From the Cohen Film Collection and running two hours and two minutes, this newly restored treat arrived on DVD and Blu-ray this past April -- for purchase and/or rental.

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