At the start of the early James Ivory film Shakespeare Wallah (1965), filmed in a long tracking shot over a beautiful, ornate table laden with food, a Maharajah (Utpal Dutt), at ease amongst the riches of his palace, relays to a travelling troupe of British Shakespearean actors his memories of England and its theaters. Pausing at one point in his story of meeting a famous actress, he inquires of his guests, the Buckinghams, if they know her. They don’t, and he continues, evoking a sense of England for his English guests. After all, he’s probably been there more recently than they, he knows the culture and the language just as well, knows the politicians and the celebrities better. Sitting in his palace in Indian royal attire, later fanned by his servants as he watches their mixed-race production of Cleopatra, ironically opening with a long speech about her unspeakable riches, echoing amongst the elaborate beauty of his palace, he seems as, if not more, English as they do, but something else entirely. This is a fascinating introduction to the ironic dialectic of this film, sorting out artificial differences, shown to be immaterial, but all too real.
Following the troupe, Ivory’s film concerns their efforts to earn a living in an India now free from British rule, which is increasingly less interested in old English productions, as they compete against the rise of Bollywood and try to sort out a future for their young daughter, Lizzie (Felicity Kendal), for whom this Shakespearean India is all she’s ever known. Departing the Maharajah’s palace, their vehicle breaks down and they ask for roadside assistance from a travelling Indian playboy, Sanju (Shashi Kapoor), who takes them to stay at his uncle’s home nearby. Lizzie catches Sanju’s eye and vice versa and a romance blossoms. However, he’s banked a future film star in the new Indian cinema, Manjula (Madhur Jaffrey), his mistress, a beautiful, talented, jealous woman. As the troupe continues to lose out on jobs and their prospects in India dim, while her relationship with Sanju develops, Lizzie has to consider what future is possible for her in an India that no longer must accommodate British rule and culture, or in a Britain that can never accept her Indian roots.
Ivory’s film moves at a languid, almost stately pace, allowing the increasingly difficult circumstances of the troupe to develop while the characters enjoy the kind of high society their profession allows them access to, in one of the film’s more pointed juxtapositions. Here, nearly the dregs of British society, a troupe of actors exiled to India, living paycheck to paycheck, hobnob and swap theater stories with some of the wealthiest people in the world. Colonialism has collapsed their differences in terms of respect and place, but not in terms of sustenance or leisure. Sanju lazes throughout the film, coming and going largely as he pleases, while getting scolded by Lizzie’s mother, Carla (Laura Liddell) for interrupting their work. The troupe is nearly always at work of one kind or another, fixing cars, securing jobs, working on their plays, of which we see many excerpts performed; then they’re eating dinner with Maharajah’s and performing for rich playboys, all while the increasingly faint memory of British rule lingers in the background.
Shakespeare Wallah doubles back on itself constantly, creating strange mirror images amongst these characters—Sanju’s relationships with Lizzie and Manjula doubling his love of the theater with his ambition in film; the film itself mirroring back on Bollywood and the theater through its own lens. The disdain for film amongst the travelling actors is palpable (one character refers to Bollywood pictures as baubles) and the irony of capturing their experiences on celluloid is not lost here, the fact that their performances are fractured into close-ups and reaction shots of the audience, not underestimated. Even in the film itself, theater cannot gain any meaningful foothold and the single Bollywood sequence we get, filmed as if for the genre itself, is quite seductive. European technology and film technique, now reclaimed by Indian directors and actors, is cannibalizing the culture it came from, and not kindly. For one performance in particular, a darkly ironic rendering of Othello, played by the troupe leader and Lizzie’s father, Tony (Geoffrey Kendal), all darked up in shoeshine, gripping Lizzie as Desdemona, dressed scandalously in a nightgown, played before an audience entirely made up of brown-skinned Indian people, the ironic fracturing can’t be overstated. Then the film again doubles upon itself, as Manjula shows up late, having come at Sanju’s insistence, stealing the attention of the audience and even having her photo taken in the middle of the performance, before leaving in shock and disgust as Othello stabs his Desdemona. The layers of incestuous racial and cultural power dynamics spool out like thread, each character caught inevitably in a system of confusion and humiliation, like Othello, except now a perverse and grotesque mirror on both performer and audience alike.
The various stabbings and, as Manjula puts it, “bellowings” on stage are as violent as the film gets and as far as it goes in referencing the extremely brutal occupation of India under the British empire. It’s hard to say how far the film should have tipped its hat in reference to the lived reality of British occupation, now past, and the film itself largely set amongst those who benefitted, to varying degrees, from the system. Even so, as various character bemoan the lost days, symbolized by wine, cars, and performances of Shakespeare, Ivory is careful to always include an Indian character in the mise en scene, usually Sanju, who looks on with a tight, bemused smile. He never questions or challenges their reminiscences and figures like the Maharajah clearly share their rose-colored view of the past but there’s always a lingering sense of violence and upheaval just underneath the marble floors and just past the palace walls.
On the other hand, the film deals frankly with an interracial sexual relationship, a pretty daring move in 1965, which is treated seriously and without hysterics or even disapproval. Instead, like the rest of the film, it occupies a strange between places, like Homi Bhabha’s concept of “hybridity,” a union between colonizer and colonized that is both inevitable and impossible, unstated but undeniable. Ultimately, this is the beating heart of Shakespeare Wallah, meaning both a person who does Shakespeare and an inhabitant or native of Shakespeare – or is Shakespeare native to India? Performed there, it must be, yet is not. So it is for the troupe, for Lizzie, for Sanju, for the Maharajah, and even for Manjula. They are all products of an impossible but inevitable union, a free India passed through the body of colonial Britain. But for Lizzie and Sanju in particular, like the Maharajah mentally trapped in the in-between space, there really is no way out nor ever will be.