Monday, April 14, 2008

the life of my favorite Shakespeare-wallah: Felicity Kendal's autobiography, White Cargo

Felicity Kendal, the star of the wallop-packing Shakespeare-Wallah, is known only to me through that wonderful film and the dreadful 2000s British detective series Rosemary & Thyme, in which she plays a botanist who teams up with a former police officer and solves plant- or garden-related crimes.* When Memsaab Story recommended her autobiography to me, I thought carefully and decided that a childhood spent traipsing around India doing Shakespeare and my curiosity about how she could have made such an amazing film at such a young age outweighed any reservations I may have had stemming from my general shudder associated with the tv show. (Plus the book came out a few years before the show started, so I could rest assured I'd not have to learn anything further about it.)

It is a great read. Her childhood in and around India, traveling with her family's theater troupe (their story is the basis for much of Shakespeare-Wallah), is absolutely fascinating. Kendal balances the story of her family with observations of daily life in various parts of the country, and she is particularly adept at descriptions of places and things, creating a solid set for the story. I wish she had more often told us about the lives of the audience members or collaborators, but I realize that as a child and teenager she may not have known their contexts well enough at the time to talk about them now - and, after all, the point of the book is her own life, not the life of post-Raj India, not "India in the 1950s as seen from the point of view of a girl born in England to English parents but otherwise Indian." But you can tell that it was a very interesting time to be in India, to be working with England's arguably most influential writer in a place with such complex feelings towards the UK.

I don't know diddly about British theater, but by the time her narrative sees her off to London to try her hand at the British stage at about age 19, I was too interested in what would happen to be deterred by names I didn't recognize. Apparently she worked on this book largely during her father (Geoffrey Kendal)'s declining health and death, and she includes so many letters from and conversations with him throughout the book that by the time she says goodbye, I almost cried. I think it is relatively safe to say that Geoffrey Kendal was a tough person to live with and be raised by, but his commitment to his work is admirable, and his love of the cultures he lived in is moving. Felicity's mother Laura is also fascinating, a small but strong woman equally committed to her art but not necessarily fond of the way her husband wants to practice it. She reminds me a bit of my own mother, a woman who had tons of professional experience but made some family-based decisions that also meant she didn't always get to make what she wanted out of it.

As I type this, I realized that to describe the Kendals as trying to serve the people of India by making Shakespeare available to people outside the major cities would create an offensive sense of noblesse oblige that I am not sure they had. I don't know exactly why the Kendals made performing Shakespeare around South and Southeast Asia their lives' work - the parents were stage actors in England when they were sent to India as part of the Entertainments National Service Association (the entertainment branch of the British military during WWII), and I gather Geoffrey in particular utterly fell in love and decided to stay. And whether or not you think that was a good plan, theirs is a very interesting story.

Admittedly little of this has much to do with Indian movies other than as a very meaningful companion piece to Shakespeare-Wallah. The Kapoorologists among you know that Felicity is the younger sister of Jennifer, wife of Shashi, and I'll 'fess up that I was hoping this book would give me a little bit of their history. And it does.** Hearing about their romance from the point of view of the tag-along baby sister is quite funny, and their story is delightfully filmi. They fall in love while both K families were running traveling stage shows, and Shashi eventually joins the Kendal troupe when it was short of male cast members. When the lovebirds start talking of marriage, neither family approves completely, and they run off to Bombay, her leaving the family business and an outraged and grieving father to set up with her new husband, the rising film star. What I didn't get a sense of - quite reasonably, given that the book is Felicity's story - is why Jennifer did not act more. Like Felicity, she grew up as an actress in the Kendal touring company, and if her work in Junoon is anything to go by, her staying off camera as an adult was a real waste.

Shashi fans will also like the passages that tell us a little bit about him as a young artist learning his craft. Later there's a very favorable assessment by Geoffrey Kendal of his son-in-law's abilities. After seeing the final print of Shakespeare-Wallah (in which he also starred), he writes in a letter to Felicity: "You are damn good, but Shashi is wasted. The only shot worth seeing is the shot of him by himself, when everyone else has gone to bed, a real winner. He should go into films in English with foreign directors who know how to exploit him."*** I'd like to argue that Indian directors knew how to use Shashi just fine - a world without Namak Halaal? Nahiiin! - although maybe not to the ends Geoffrey would have preferred.

Anyway. That's all secondary to Felicity's story. I think I would have enjoyed White Cargo very much even if I weren't so besotted with Shakespeare-Wallah, but I'm sure knowing one helps you understand the other - and the wonderful movie made me feel very positive about the book before I even started it. And it may be her story, but she is generous in her inclusion of all the people and experiences that are important to her and that shaped her character and career. Kendal has spent her whole life as a communicator, and it shows. She's very good at making you see her life as she sees it, giving you enough detail to pull you in but not so much to swamp the momentum. Even if you're just intrigued by the idea of growing up in a traveling theater group, it'd make a fun read. The historical and cultural setting is icing on the cake for someone with interests like mine. What an interesting way to learn to be an actor. What an interesting way to learn to be a person.

* Momentary detour, in which I vent about this show. It should have been so much better for the following reasons: 1) the stereotyped English love of gardens makes rich cultural and artistic fodder, 2) as a whole the Brits tend to create more relevant and juicy roles for actors who have had the misfortune to pass the age of 40 than any other culture I can think of, and 3) many, many fine mystery shows originate from that fair island. But somehow Rosemary & Thyme is one of the most disappointing tv shows I have ever seen - in theory, it could be quite winking and fun, but it just isn't. The characters are named Rosemary Boxer and Laura Thyme, for goodness's sake, and I've been told that there is an episode in which they pursue a criminal in a riding lawn mower.

** It also has photos! There are several of Jennifer and Shashi in their early twenties, him looking dapper but breakably thin and her tanned, smiling, and confident. I didn't feel it was right to scan them in, but there are versions online already. Go here to see a photo of Felicity with Jennifer's family in the 70s, posted by a fan of the Kendal women.

*** Footnote fun: the letter is dated July 30, 1965, and appears on page 207 of the 1998 Michael Joseph edition of White Cargo.

16 comments:

Memsaab said...

I'm so glad you liked it. I thought it was a great read even though Shammi could have been mentioned more ;-)

Anarchivist said...

I know Felicity Kendal from an old British sitcom that our PBS station played for YEARS: "Good Neighbors" ("The Good Life" in the UK). It was about a couple who "drop out" and try to live self-sufficiently as farmers without leaving their suburban neighborhood. Who knew she'd turn out to have such a major Bollywood connection?

Now I have more things to Interlibrary Loan....

Beth said...

Memsaab - Absolutely! There was shockingly little Shammi.

Anarchivist - It sounds like that was quite the career point for her - the thing that really put her firmly in the minds of the public. I'd really like to see it - though I recently watched a few episodes of To The Manor Born with Penelope Keith and was irritated beyond belief by it. Not so much her, specifically, but bleh. Felicity is awesome. Do let me know what you think when you read it!

PS: are you really an archivist? I have an MLS and work in a museum but want to build an army of Bolly-loving librarians. I think I have two enlisted already....

Chris said...

Since you're on a Felicity Kendal kick, you may be interested to know that she's going to be on Doctor Who this season.

a ppcc representative said...

Argh! Shashi and Jennifer's real life has always held a perverse fascination for me - fueled by schoolgirl jealousy, it seems to me almost impossibly romantic. I just can't fathom the awesomeness of being in India, in the 1970s, wife of Shashi Kapoor. I become positively Om (as in Shanti Om) like about it, completely dazzled and incredibly envious. So I try to stay away from any Merchant-Ivory Shashi/Jennifer fare, while at the same time devouring gossip about them. I remember reading somewhere (Shammi's site?) where Shashi described that he and Jennifer used to go to the bazaar and share an apple. Sigh!!

In other news, I'm loving your Nahiiiiins. I keep thinking of Kirron Kher doing it.

And truly, a world without Suhaag, without Kaala Patthar, without Do Aur Do Paanch? Nahiiiiin!

Beth said...

chris - I know! Somehow that fact managed to enter my universe. Oh wait, "somehow"=rabid Doctor Who fan Katrin told me. I finally saw an episode of the tenth doctor (I'm relying on PBS) this weekend. Woot!

ppcc - I have to say, reading this book made me far less jealous. I'm not sure whether she loved her life, but I'm pretty sure I wouldn't. You are exactly right re: Kirron Kher - she's the one I channel.

I started a 1966 Shashi movie last night and paused when he first comes on screen to use your yardsticks. Clearly we are far from masala, but we appear to be close to Shammi-style arm-flinging and face-pulling. Again I say woot!

celluloidrant said...

Beth,

Nice post!

In case you haven't seen it already, try and get your hands on Aparna Sen's 36, Chowringhee Lane, generally considered to be Jennifer Kendal's most memorable film performance.

In fact, Aparna Sen dedicated her next movie Paroma to Jennifer -- my guess is that it got released soon after she succumbed to cancer in 1984, and this was Sen's tribute to the star of her directorial debut.

~r

Beth said...

r - I just pulled up imdb and you're quite right about Paroma. I'd love to see 36 Chowringhee Lane - I've heard very positive comments from most people who have sen it. I was so blown away by Jennifer Kendal in Junoon. I'm decidedly pro-Kendal :)

D'd said...

Hey Beth,

I have been a pretty regular reader of ur blog ever since I stumbled across it from another friends blog, and just wanted to say I really enjoy the way you write. Haha the child like enthusiasm is so funny and cute. I might not ever find so much to enjoy in films (country of origin no bar) but will definitely continue to love reading abt em, if you continue writing abt them :)

Shweta Mehrotra Gahlawat said...

I love those pix- specially the one with Shashi, Jen and their kids- they all look so perfectly beautiful!
I wept buckets through 36 Chowringhee Lane- jen is so realistic an actor that i almost wished she wasnt- so that i'd cry less :) I honestly wish she had made more movies.

*~mad munky~* said...

Oh I really have to track this down...:o)

Gagan said...

Great article Beth. Didn;t realize that shakespeare wallah was so wrapped up in the Kendalls'family story nor did I know of the Jenn shashi link. I knew of Felicity as a gen celeb in the UK. I took it she was really big once just from audience reactions to her. These are great stories to hear, you know of just the cultural exchange in every sense that''s been going on forever but which everyone just assumes is a new thing, ie u know the twain shall never meet. Good to be reminded that they have always met and shall continue to meet, no matter what the public policy of the time might otherwise dictate

Beth said...

mm - Do! And then tell me what you think :)

Gagan - The overlap is pretty amazing, even if just in feel (but I think quite a bit in events and details as well). You make a very good point about cultural exchange - let us hope there will always been room, energy, and eagerness for it!

Crazy on Bollywood said...

Nice article beth and describing words r also very appropriate.

Alan said...

Good Neighbors was a favorite of mine many years ago during it's PBS run. I liked To The Manor Born as well.

Si said...

Hey--just bought a copy of 36 Chowringhee Lane, I'll send it home with Catherine in March for you to watch.