Sunday, December 30, 2007

Shakespeare-Wallah

Brain-type place: Wow, that was a fantastic movie. What wonderful performances by Felicity Kendal (Lizzie Buckingham) and Shashi Kapoor (Sanju)! What beautiful scenes! What lovely writing! What interesting questions it raises!

Heart-type place: Oh my gosh, I don't know if I can write about this without gushing personal emotions all over the place.

BTP: You poor thing. Here, take my hankie.

HTP: [snuffling and blubbing] Thanks. I'm trying to pull it together but I'm not quite there yet.

BTP: Merchant and Ivory movies used to affect you like that in college, remember?

HTP: I know, but I'm 33 now - I'm so embarrassed. Shouldn't I be able to get a grip?

BTP: Ah, that's one for the ages. I'm glad it's not really my line of work. Don't worry too much about it, though - all things must pass, all in good time, etc. Anyway, I'm feeling pretty stupid, too, for not knowing more of the Shakespeare references.



This was a sad, sad movie for my filmi-escapism self. The romance was so cute but so ill-fated, whether we take it to have been sunk by challenges stemming from differing expectations or by personal inertia that would have had to have been overcome for the relationship to have had a real chance. Why isn't affection enough? The same notes that go by different names can still be played together, after all, especially when sweetness and good humor are involved...



...can't they? Can we ever really love, really relate to people who are from different cultures? [The Beth Loves Bollywood official stance on this question is: I sure hope so!] Sweet-talking and fast-loving Sanju is (I think) genuinely drawn to both Lizzie and to Manjula (Madhur Jaffrey), a film star, but he shares an understanding with one of them that the other doesn't seem to be able to build. Starlet Manula is sophisticated, glamorous, very pulled together, Indian, and a part of Sanju's history, and young Lizzie is...not.


Are Lizzie and Sanju doomed by "can't" or "won't"? And does that distinction matter much since the effect is the same? I got really worked up by what I perceived to be laziness in some of the characters - not because it was unrealistic but because it hit a nerve that runs to my own experiences of giving up and of being given up on. After all, if you truly care about something, you should put effort into it, right?

I really shouldn't have said "the romance." There are several, including the Buckinghams' love of India and their own history in it serving as the ultimately declining arc within which the interpersonal romance is set. There's also Indian anglophilia at play, with different characters showing different attitudes towards it.

The profession of most of the major characters, acting, puts a spin on these relationships. Who are these people, exactly, and what are they really feeling? Do Lizzie and Sanju really love each other? Or is each just playing a role for a little while with no grounded expectation that what they're doing will exist long-term? Questions about the roles we play, our personal performance spaces and backstages, the lines we give each other seem pretty obvious in a story about actors, but trust me that they're handled carefully here and nothing feels heavy or cheesy.

My notes from this movie go on and on and on, and I'm having a really hard time deciding what to comment on. It is a very finely crafted work. There were tons of moments of "aha!" or "oooh!" but also many of "I wonder what that means!" For example, under the opening credits, the Shakespeare troupe is dressed in Louis XIV-ish outfits and discusses a play called The Spanish Armada.


I don't know what that was about at all. Is it to imply they don't really know their (own?) history? Or is something else going on with these mismatched historical references? Either way, the actors in their ridiculous get-ups are in contrast to the majestic and comfortable-looking architecture and landscape - they stick out and are stared at - maybe to imply the increasing disconnect between Shakespeare as they're performing it and their potential audiences? Or, a few minutes later, we see Indian members of the troupe reading Lolita (this is the second film from 1965 I've seen that book in, interestingly - the "modern" heroine of Jab Jab Phool Khile has it too) and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. There are tons of details that suggest the sweep of history, of the changes that India had undergone and was continuing to explore.

There are also some gentle pokes at mainstream Hindi cinema, with the movie star Manjula as a shallow but crowd-attracting and calculating thorn in Sanju's affections for Felicity Kendal's fresh, rough-and-tubmle stage actress. When provoked, Sanju tells Manjula she's not a "real actress" and that Lizzie's work is so honest and philosophical. When we first meet Manjula, she's dancing down a wooded road, which we know is a song picturization long before see her singing or the director shouts "Cut!" and the playback is turned off. Temperamental Manjula gets in a huff about something and yells "Pack up!" and stomps off, just like in Om Shanti Om.

It would be terribly irresponsible of me not to mention that there are several very satisfying, very scrummy kisses between Felicity and Shashi. These are the kinds of kisses I always want in Hindi cinema and very rarely get. They hit that perfect balance of steamy and sweet, of real world and private space.

On the flip side, it must also be said that when they're being Shakespearean, real-life Shakespeare-wallahs Laura Liddell and Geoffrey Kendal (parents of Felicity and Jennifer) chew the scenery with shameless abandon. I hope they're doing it on purpose to show how out of touch their characters are, because all I could think is "No wonder nobody wants to come to your plays." Or maybe this is what people did in 1965. But they're great when they're offstage, being the actors when they aren't acting. I also had a serious problem with Sanju's outrage at his honor being insulted when some goondas harass Lizzie; I understand that some men, particularly fictional, historical men in cultures in which women are generally on less equitable footing, hold this attitude, but it repulses me.

So much for trying to condense my notes. I have a ton more to say and ask about the movie, so please share your thoughts. I'd feel dishonest if I didn't try to express how downright gut-wrenching it was for me, so kindly excuse HTP her autobiography; a week later I'm over the pain but far from finished thinking about the movie. (It also has some moments that are very funny or tap into some other emotions that aren't crying, so it's not as though I was sobbing the whole time.) I'll leave you with a whole-hearted recommendation to rent Shakespeare-Wallah right away. It demands much of your brain and heart, but you will be richly rewarded.

Oh, and just another reminder that your love life is probably not as good as the good moments of movie romances.



(Yes, I am jealous.)

And for the "And lo, he is a beautiful Shashi!" files.




He makes the best FPMBF.

10 comments:

goofy said...

Felicity Kendall? This sounds like a real interesting film.

a ppcc representative said...

She's reading Lolita in Jab Jab Phool Khile?! How fascinating.

Look at Shashi's 60s pudge! For that, and for the strangely new and foreign non-Bollywood Shashi too, the PPCC would watch this film.

And yet, the PPCC is incapable of watching any of these Merchant-Ivory films where Shashi courts a Kendall daughter, be it Jennifer or Felicity. The PPCC burns too hot with school girl jealousy. Arrrghhh. Just thinking about it makes us go crazy. Craaaazeeee. Aarrgghhhhhh.

Beth said...

Goofy - it is! It is sooooo goooooood! I only know Felicity Kendal through learning about Jennifer and Shashi, but then I saw her in a really horrible British mystery series based on gardening. Not her fault it was bad, but still.

PPCC - She is! Behold: http://bp2.blogger.com/_HknaF6x_N80/RsdZ0D_t0TI/AAAAAAAAAy4/zazEPyo5uSg/s1600-h/collage1+copy.jpg
(And I even point it out; if people would just memorize every word I say, we wouldn't have these problems. The Minister of Education of Shashi Pradesh is not going to be pleased about this.) "Pudge"? Where? I see it not. As for the jealousy, believe me, I know, but it's worth it. Plus really you wouldn't want him in this movie. He's lovely on the outside but pretty much a playa jealous jerkface.

Pessimisissimo said...

Beth, I haven't seen Shakespeare-Wallah, but I was curious about the "Spanish Armada" play that's referenced at the beginning.

One possibility is that it's Thomas Kyd's Spanish Tragedy. Kyd was a contemporary of Shakespeare; his play doesn't refer to the Armada, but does feature a Hamlet-like revenge plot and a play-within-the-play (just as the movie features a movie-within-the-movie). The Hamlet connection could be a reference to Shashi's indecision (though in Shashi's case, it's romantic indecision).

Another possibility is that the play is George Peele's Battle of Alcazar, which is about the defeat of a Portuguese army during an attempted invasion of Morocco (perhaps a reference to cross-cultural misunderstanding/conflict). The play apparently includes references to the Spanish Armada; Peele was also a contemporary of Shakespeare.

Just guessin'. I have no idea what the Louis XIV outfits are about, but they would seem to date from many decades after Shakespeare's time.

Beth said...

pessimisissimo - Oooh! Thanks for all those ideas! There were definitely a lot of boats in this play, whatever it was. The whole sequence is quite strange - they're in full costume but spend more time discussing the play and its blocking than they do reciting lines, but yet they're being watched by that bank of schoolboys. There is no reference to the audience, and we don't see those costumes again in the movie. I really don't know what to make of it all and hope with some more research I can find some good writing about it.

memsaabstory said...

I saw this and didn't like it. But I mostly think Merchant-Ivory is to be avoided, like watching grass growing or paint drying.

Have you read Felicity Kendal's autobiography (White Cargo) yet? You would like it!

:-)

Pessimisissimo said...

A lot of boats? Now I'm really at a loss. Of course, it's possible that the scene is entirely an invention of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.

However, there's a page on the Merchant-Ivory website devoted to Shakespeare-Wallah, and on it they mention that the plays in the film are drawn from the Buckingham Players' repertoire. Since Geoffrey Kendal and Laura Lidell were apparently the actual heads of a troupe of travelling players in India, perhaps the scene is from some existing play. I'll keep hunting...

Beth said...

Yeah, boats. You can see the back of the cardboard boats in the second picture.

I have Felicity Kendal's book, White Cargo, but haven't read it yet (thanks for the prod, Memsaab!). There is a lot of good information in the cast/crew interviews on the DVD; usually I don't bother with those, but I found them fascinating here. This isn't too the point, but in his interview Shashi admits that this movie was his first on-screen kiss and he felt funny kissing his sister-in-law. Felicity said it was no big whoop.

Pessimisissimo said...

Using the English Prose Drama Database of Indiana University, I found the only play with extensive references to the Spanish Armada is Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The Critic, dating from 1781 (which would explain the 18th-century outfits).

It involves the production of a play about the Spanish Armada, and has a scene (Act II scene i) in which the author of the play talks about the love subplot he's introduced (a cross-cultural romance between the daughter of a British commander and the son of a Spanish Admiral, which would seem to have parallels in the film's plot).

There's also a scene (Act III scene i) in which the English and Spanish fleets do battle on stage.

I think this sounds like the best bet!

Blue said...

Beth said:

"I only know Felicity Kendal through learning about Jennifer and Shashi."

Here's another connection. Felicity Kendal is the long-term "associate" (as Wikipedia puts it) of Tom Stoppard, much in the way that SRK is an "associate" of K-Jo.

Tom Stoppard, of course, did Shakespeare in Love, as well as Indian Ink.

Loved the review, btw. I wanna see this film!