Shakespeare Wallah [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - British Film Institute
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (5th May 2019).
The Film

"Shakespeare Wallah" (1965)

The Buckingham Players are a traveling acting troupe specializing in the works of Shakespeare. Led by Tony Buckingham (played by Geoffrey Kendal), the troupe also includes his family with his wife Carla (played by Laura Liddell) and daughter Lizzie (played by Felicity Kendal). Performing throughout India over the decades for both the middle class at theaters as well as private performances for the maharajahs at their lavish palaces, there has been a steady decline in turnout for their acts over time. After their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, the Buckinghams luckily encounter Sanju (played by Shashi Kapoor) who helps them and offers guidance. He is immediately infatuated with the beautiful Lizzie, even though he is not much familiar with stage acting or Shakespeare except for the basics. Lizzie slowly but surely starts falling for the young man, but this infuriates Manjula (played by Madhur Jaffrey), a young Bollywood actress who already has a relationship with Sanju.

After the success of 1963's "The Householder", the Merchant Ivory production team consisting of director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala looked for ideas for their second feature length production. Ivory had an idea of an Indian traveling acting troupe. But after reading the published diaries of actor Geoffrey Kendal about his years in India leading an acting troupe performing Shakespeare, the ideas were merged together. In a fateful form of casting and also autobiographical, Kendal was cast as the leader of the troupe along with his real life wife and younger daughter to play his wife and daughter, as they would be playing more or less a version of themselves on screen, as well as the portions of Shakespeare performances within the film. In another form of family casting was with Kapoor, who was at the time married to Jennifer Kendal, the older daughter of Geoffrey Kendal who did not appear in the film. It was said there was awkwardness on set as Kapoor had to have flirtatious scenes with his real wife's younger sister, which is no surprise even if it was only "acting".

The film was made with independent financing like their previous film and the final cost was at about $80,000. Shot in black and white by cinematographer Subrata Mitra, it was decided not to be in color because of the budget and also because they feared the Indian labs were risky for processing and would not be able to get the color right. With a tight budget and schedule, the practice would be something all too familiar with Merchant Ivory films from thereon. But making "Shakespeare Wallah" was a loving tribute yet also a bittersweet memory for the Kendal family. As the film celebrates the family's years on the road in the "Shakespeareana" theater company as they toured India throughout the years, it also illustrates that it was a dying artform in the region. With India's independence from Britain in 1947 it was phasing out the Englishness and embracing its own cultures. In "Shakespeare Wallah" the clash between the old styly of acting and the new converge with the characters of Lizzie and Manjula. With Manjula she signifies the Bollywood star - one that demands as much as she can for perfection even if it means stopping an already behind schedule production. Singing, dancing, her performance is taking Indian traditions and transforming it to the screens for the masses. It's not about multiple performances and perfecting the art like the Buckinghams and their old fashioned ways. The clash can be seen easily as a metaphor for the country's changes taking place after its independence. And caught in the middle is the charming man that is Sanju.

The love triangle aspect of the film is not particularly the strongest point, though it is one that bridges the gaps and also tears them apart. The Kendal family are excellent in their performances as well as Kapoor and Jaffrey, who won the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1965 where it premiered. The film opened in the UK in late 1965 and in the US in early 1966 where it received fairly good reviews, though its Indian reception was fairly low. Sure it was an art film rather than a musical hybrid that Indian cinema was and still is known for, though its reputation and reception only gained over the years. The film was not a massive hit, relegated to arthouse cinemas worldwide, but still proved that the Merchant Ivory team would have much more up their sleeves, as the next few decades would show. An early start for the production team, but their trademarks can be seen even in this early film. In 2017, the film received a 2K restoration from Cohen Media Group which re-released the restored version theatrically as well as on Blu-ray the same year. Two years later, the BFI has now released the 2K restored version on Blu-ray in the UK for the first time.

Note this is a region B Blu-ray

Video

The BFI presents the film in the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1, in 1080p AVC MPEG-4. The film was restored in 2K by Cohen Media Group, using a composite fine grain master from the George Eastman Museum Archive, and the final grading of the digital restoration was approved by James Ivory. The film opens with the Cohen Media Group logo. The fine grain is a generation away from the original negative which seems to be lost, and unfortunately it has its limitations. There are cuts, specs, and stains that are still visible after the restoration, some instability and grey level fluctuation, and instability in the image. On the positive side the image quality is fairly on the consistent side, with a good amount of grain visible on screen and detail being very clear. It is a step up from the previous DVD editions, though one would have hoped for a cleaner and more stable restoration.

The film's runtime is 122:16.

Audio

English LPCM 2.0 mono
The original audio track is given an uncompressed treatment. Although labeled "English" there are a few portions in Hindi which are left untranslated throughout. Like the image, the sound also has its limitations due to the original source. It's fairly clear though there are some indoor scenes that sound too echoey, and dialogue can sound a little on the flat side. The music score which was composed by legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray is wonderful if also on the flat side of the mono track. On more positive notes, hisses and pops and other anomalies have been removed.

There are optional English HoH subtitles for the main feature in a white font. The track only captions the English portions and leaves the Hindi portions untranslated. They are well timed and easy to read.

Extras

The Guardian Lecture: Ismail Merchant and James Ivory (82:15)
In this Q&A following a screening of "Shakespeare Wallah" in 1983, critic David Robinson moderates a chat between Merchant and Ivory. They discuss the genesis of Merchant Ivory productions, reactions to their works from the west in comparison to India, working in America for the first time for "Savages", their relationships with various actors, and much more.
in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

The Guardian Interview: Shashi Kapoor (54:02)
In this 1994 Q&A, Kapoor talks about his relationship with Merchant Ivory, his early career struggles, the start of his own production company, the changes in the Indian film industry over the years, and more.
in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

"Conversations from the Quad" with James Ivory and Madhur Jaffrey (47:28)
Mallika Rao from Village Voice interviews Ivory and Jaffrey in this piece, as they discuss "Shakespeare Wallah". They talk about Jaffrey not looking like the typical Bollywood star at the time but still cast in the role of a Bollywood star, the shooting of the film, the changing India, acting troupes, the music, and more.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.78:1, in English LPCM 2.0 with no subtitles

Stills Gallery (2:30)
A series of posters, behind the scenes stills in a slideshow form with no music or narration.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4

"A Road in India" 1938 travelogue short (9:50)
In this United Artists Technicolor short directed by Hans M Nieter and shot by Jack Cardiff on location in India, it's a travelogue with narration featuring the streets with every day people in the hot climate country, as well as the rich on elephants and yogis practicing their prayers. It's certainly not in the best of shape with scratches and damage and faded colors, as well as a hissy sound with a bit of warping as well.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1, in English LPCM 2.0 with no subtitles

Original Trailer (0:57)
A short trailer featuring quotes and stills rather than scenes from the film.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.78:1, in LPCM 2.0 with English text

2017 Restoration Trailer (1:49)
Featuring scenes from the restored version of the film and showcasing the great soundtrack. This is the US Cohen Media trailer. The trailer has been embedded below.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.85:1, in English LPCM 2.0 with no subtitles

Booklet
A 28 page booklet is included with the first pressing. There first is an introduction by James Ivory written in 1973 that contains quite a few spoilers for it to be an "introduction". Discussed are some of the making of points as well as the film's themes and its reception. Next is an overview of the film by writer John Pym, a lengthy conversation with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala conducted by John Pym, and a review of the film from Sight and Sound from 1965 by Richard Roud. There are also credits, stills, transfer information, and acknowledgements.




As stated before, Cohen Media Group in the US released their own Blu-ray in 2017. The "Conversations from the Quad" interview as well as the two trailers are included, but it also includes the "Conversations with the Filmmakers" interview from 2004 which includes Ismail Merchant, James Ivory, Shashi Kapoor and Felicity Kendal as participants. This extra, produced by The Criterion Collection is not available on the BFI release.

Overall

"Shakespeare Wallah" is a classic Merchant Ivory production that works on multiple levels and featuring an excellent cast of characters. While it may be on the slow burning side, it is a great drama that shows the clash of cultures in metaphorical form. The BFI Blu-ray has good video and audio of the restored version with a great selection of extras making this highly recommended.

The Film: B+ Video: B- Audio: B- Extras: B+ Overall: B

 


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