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(Apr 03, 2018)
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One of the first Merchant-Ivory productions, Shakespeare Wallah establishes the tone for so many of their collaborations to come: the deft, multi-layered screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, luminous cinematography, a wry sense of humor, and a cast of characters rich in their very human complexity. The true story of Geoffrey Kendal and his family of traveling theatrical players is used as a fascinating lens into the ever-evolving colonial relationship between Great Britain and India. With music by the legendary Satyajit Ray and a memorable performance by Madhur Jaffrey (which earned her the Silver Bear award for Best Actress at the 15th Berlin International Film Festival). A 2K restoration.
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When the daughter meets a handsome young Indian, there is a connection between them that is wonderfully realized through natural dialogue and superb performances. Their motivations and pursuit of each other is realistic without being sentimental. This has always been a strong suit in Merchant/Ivory films; the feelings between their characters evoke such deep realistic emotions. Unfortunately in most cases such observations are lost with commercial, desensitized and shallow audiences. This is a movie which celebrates language, literature, actors, cinema, India and innocence.
Merchant & Ivory feel an obvious tinge of regret that the old ways are being replaced by new ways but the regret is tempered by the realization that old culture never vanishes altogether but is simply transformed under the pressures of new material conditions and social forces.
The world does not remain the same; but then it never has.
There are two social groups being studied here. There is the English family of traveling Shakespearean actors held together by national, familial and vocational bonds (as well as the shared sense of adventure of living in a foreign land). Then there is the Indian group who are held together by national, familial, and class bonds. Interestingly enough, artists and patrons of the arts communicate quite easily across national and class lines. In fact art seems to remove all barriers between peoples. Art is therefore a great ambassador; it builds understanding and respect between peoples. Art also provides a certain continuity to life for Shakespeare is relevant in all times and all places. The family of Shakepeare actors have been living in India and performing Shakespeare plays since before Indian Independence. The radical social changes of the 1960's do not make Shakespeare irrelevent but the availability of new media like film make live theatre seem like a thing of the past. Obviously Merchant and Ivory are lovers of literature AND they are filmakers so they are perhaps in a very unique position to appreciate both the old social realities and practices and the new social realities and practices; as well they are in a unique position to take a reading of what is being lost as old social realities and practices are replaced by new social realities and practices.
The beauty of the film and the beauty of many Merchant/Ivory films old and new is in their precise evocation of a time and place and a way of life. But even more than that their films are attractive because there is a largeness of spirit in their films that embraces life as it is. They find beauty in traditional cultures and peoples but they also find beauty in those who embrace new identities and they find beauty in those people who do not know exactly where they belong in the world. In this film there are many things that unite and divide people. Among the Indian population there are devotees of old Indian ways and morals and expectations and there are devotees to contemporary ways and morals and expectations. And there are some like "Sanjo" played by Shashi Kapoor who do not know exactly where to locate themselves along the cultural divide. For much of his youth Sanjo thinks that he is dedicated to the new but when he least expects it he surprises himself with the acknowledgment that he is perhaps more attached to the old ways than he thought. Merchant and Ivory are brilliant at capturing these moments of self-definition. Among the English population there are those who embrace a life of adventure and those who long for a more settled life. Interestingly enough its the older generation who embrace adventure and the younger generation who long for a more settled life.
Merchant and Ivory have a very intimate & elegant way of telling very literary stories in a cinematic way; in this way they can be seen to be bridging the gap between the old and the new. Looking at their films is like looking at history through the eyes of a literary and a cinematic artist because they are always looking back and forward at the same time. Their images (like the image of two elegantly attired artistes riding a bicycle that begins the film) are full of nostalgia for a lost time and era but also full of the spontaneity and possibility of a new time and era. In the same way the ending of the film is full of longing and regret for one set of vanished possibilites but it is also full of the promise that a brave new world (and another faraway country) still might hold.