Note: A version of this review previously appeared in the Calendar section on March 2, 1998.
For more than 50 years, producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory, most often in collaboration with writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, made films renowned for their civility and sophistication. Many were adaptations of literary classics and have been celebrated for the quality of their acting and impeccable sense of time and place.
The trio hit its stride in only its second feature, "Shakespeare Wallah" (1965), which remains one of its finest accomplishments. Shashi Kapoor, a handsome matinee idol of the Indian cinema as well as a splendid actor, had married actress Jennifer Kendal, whose parents Geoffrey Kendal and Laura Liddell had toured India for years with their Shakespeare troupe. Ivory and Jhabvala wrote a script in which the Kendals, including their other actress-daughter Felicity, would pretty much play themselves. (Jennifer Kapoor served at this film's costume designer.)
"Shakespeare Wallah" exerts a tremendous emotional pull as the troupe finds it harder and harder to survive in a post-colonial India because so much of its audience has returned to the UK. The slight plot concerns Kapoor, cast as a rich playboy, pursuing Felicity's Lizzie. With a lovely, evocative score composed by Satyajit Ray, "Shakespeare Wallah" is a tribute to the gallantry, talent and courage of the Kendals. Its gentle humor, however, has a Chekhovian cast.
Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes
Playing: Ahrya Fine Arts, Beverly Hills