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Khalid Mohamed revisits Ismail Merchant & James Ivory's Shakespeare Wallah

There’s something so heartbreakingly romantic about “Shakespeare Wallah”. Shot in chiaroscuro black-and-white by Satyajit Ray’s regular cinematographer Subrata Mitra, enhanced by a background music score by the maestro Ray himself and scripted by the eminent litterateur Ruth Prawer Jhabavala, the elegiac masterwork was released, to scant audiences though, 56 years ago.

How time doth fly. If its hello-hi-profile producer Ismail Merchant were alive, he would have surely reminded the world of its pure gold pedigree today. Never the sort to rest on his laurels, here was a merchant from Mumbai’s middle class mohalla on Mohammed Ali Road, who morphed into the face of India’s first film production company to attain crossover status.

His ally in arms, James Ivory, the creative one of the two, was tetchy by comparison. Crisper than a toast, he wouldn’t suffer fools (read journos) gladly. How do I know that? Simply because as soon as I’d darted an impertinent question during an interview, he had shot a disdainful look at me, almost banishing me to the dungeons of the multi-star hotel where he was residing in Hyderabad. This, incidentally, was during the shoot of “Heat and Dust” (1983), which like “Shakespeare Wallah”, also touched upon the altering conditions in post-colonial India.

Troubleshooter Merchant had apologized swiftly, “Oh, Jim is just going through a bad mood day. Sorry, sorry.” For sure, the Tweedledee and Tweedledum pair, Ivory-Merchant never did receive the hosannas they deserved with their initial batch of films. Beginning with “The Householder” (1963), “Shakespeare Wallah” (1965), “The Guru” (1969) and “Bombay Talkie” (1970), their film ethic was neither rabidly profit-oriented nor stubbornly experimental.

In retrospect their collaboration on 40 projects in 44 years, epitomizes unshowy elegance, not the best calling card to spark an immediate impact in the blingy-zingy world of Bollywood. Consequently, Ivory-Merchant remained the proverbial outsiders.

Globally, of course, they became factors to reckon with when their adaptation of E. M. Forster’s novel, “A Room with a View” (1985), was feted with an armful of Oscars for the Best Adapted Screenplay (for Ruth Prawer Jhabvala), Best Costume Design and Best Art Direction. Mumbai’s Merchant and Ivory, born in California, had had the last laugh on the Bollywood Wallahs. No National or Filmfare Awards, huh? Big deal, their romantic drama set in Florence, had made a splash at the Oscar and how. Incidentally, the only Oscar which James Ivory snagged personally was for the Best Adapted Screenplay for “Call Me by My Name” (2018).

If you ask me, though, "Shakespeare Wallah" deserved to be featured in the nominations for the Best Foreign Film category at the Academy Awards. It’s quite a jewel of a film, which has survived the test of faddish trends. The Rotten Tomatoes site garlands it with four stars. Its DVD is a part of the prestigious Criterion Collection, and Ray’s elegiac soundtrack continues to be imitated to this day and age. Plus, for me, an abiding Shashi Kapoor fan, there’s a backstory.

The Shakespearana troupe, helmed by Geoffrey Kendal, was to perform “As You Like It”, at the Cathedral and John Connon School. Kendal and his wife who retained her birth name Laura Liddell, were in a classroom touching up their make-up. Shashi Kapoor was unloading props and costumes from a car. He hadn’t joined the movies, then, but even school kids were aware that he was the younger brother of Raj and Shammi Kapoor. Startled by my request for an autograph, he laughed, “I’m nobody, I’m just a backstage worker.”

So, were the rumors that he would follow the Kapoor tradition of stardom, true, at all? “Ha, ha!” he had flinched, signed the scrap of my text-book paper awkwardly. “No one would look at me. I’m not handsome enough,” the sure shot hero-material had responded.

The Shakespearana was on its last leg, Geoffrey Kendal who proselytized the Bard in the metros and small towns of India since the 1940s, was about to return home to England. Bollywood’s glamour world had nudged out every form of competition in the 1960s, its influence strengthening especially in the first half of the next decade.

Marvellously, this in essence, was the subject for “Shakespeare Wallah”, a blend of fact and fiction, with the Kendals renamed as the Buckinghams (for a touch of royal irony?). By now, Shashi Kapoor who was climbing up the ladder of stardom, albeit reluctantly, portrayed a playboy who breaks the heart of the theatre activist’s daughter, Lizzie, enacted by his real-life sister-in-law Felicity Kendal. Madhur Jaffrey, as the archetypal movie heroine Manjula, snagged the Silver Bear Award for the Best Actress at the Berlin film festival.

Wikipedia will tell you that. What it won’t is that Ivory-Merchant had, by a wonderful sleight of mind, fashioned a homage to the spirit of the Kendals, whose regard for classic theatre, has been unequalled.

The Merchant-Ivory duo went on to bank on Shashi Kapoor as the star attraction of their films located against the backdrop of India. Subsequently, the actor had even joked on national television, “Ismail is a dear friend, but I wish he would pay me the amount of money he promises for a film.”

Yet, there wasn’t a rift. The testament to that is Shashi Kapoor’s entirely unusual and quirky performance as a corpulent, quirky Urdu poet. This can be savoured with a re-look of “In Custody” (1993), an ongoing attempt by Ismail Merchant to wear the suit of a director. The actor’s performance fetched him the Special Jury National Award.

Quite clearly in a business where loyalty is extinct, Shashi Kapoor could well have been expressing his gratitude for “Shakespeare Wallah”.

Khalid Mohamed is a well known film critic, screenwriter, director.

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