Directed by James Ivory, produced by Ismael Merchant, and written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Shakespeare Wallah follows a family of white English actors who travel post-colonial India, performing Shakespeare’s plays to dwindling audiences.
While the movie focuses on the white protagonists, the movie explores a multi-cultural India grappling with its past and future. How do the former colonizers fit into a post-colonial society? How can theater compete with film? How do women navigate modern society? Who’s past is the “real” past?
These actors aren’t just theater actors, but Shakespearean, specifically. Shakespeare is lauded as a universal author, as belonging to the world, is taught in English and translation in hundreds of classrooms. Haider and Goliyon ki Rasleela Ram-Leela, among others, show that Bollywood directors, actors, and audiences are still interested in Shakespeare’s stories. In Colonial India, of course Shakespeare was taught to Indian students. HIs plays are as old as England’s relationship with India.
Early in the film, an older aristocratic Indian man hosts the theater troop. He mentions seeing Shakespeare plays in London; he speaks English and likely attended school in England. At dinner, he quotes from Measure for Measure, and concludes with, “We go to see Shakespeare not only for his poetry but for his wisdom.”
So. How does an Elizabethan Englishman’s poetry and wisdom fit into (then) contemporary Indian society?
The acting troupe primarily consists of Mr. and Mrs. Buckingham, and their 17 or 18 year old daughter, Lizzie. Lizzie was born in India and has never been to England. A Bollywood actor named Saju (Shashi Kapoor) tells her, “You don’t look an actress. With Indian actresses, you can always tell. But you, you look like a nice English girl.”
What does it mean to be an actress, to look like an actress? To be female? To be an actor, in different periods and cultures, has meant being disreputable. After all, when Shakespeare wrote his plays, Lizzie and her mother would not have been allowed to act in them. Likewise, Bollywood actors have been admired and maligned in turn. How, then, can you just tell an Indian woman is a Bollywood actress? Is it simply a factor of race, some kind of white skin = purity = nice girl? Or if acting is still stigmatized, perhaps an actress must look like an Other of some kind, like a stereotypical prostitute, instead of just a person.
Sanju’s opinions, though, are suspect. He is interested in Lizzie, but he is also interested in a Bollywood actress, Manjula (Madhur Jaffrey). Perhaps his comments are less social commentary than mere flattery. Indeed, Sanju tells Lizzie about a movie he wants to make, and then he makes a move on her.
Manjula is furious when she finds out, and she deliberately insults Lizzie, even interrupting one of her plays.
As the acting troupe struggles to find audiences, Mr. and Mrs. Buckingham discuss sending Lizzie to England. She doesn’t want to go; India is her home. But Sanju pressures her to give up acting, which she loves. “Acting is my whole life. Without it, I’d be just nothing. I couldn’t ever give it up.” And so, Lizzie leaves for England.
The old world of Shakespearean stage plays slips to the new world of Bollywood movies.
Despite raising a number of questions in its audience, the movie is ultimately small in scope: what is life like for these particular people? But an intimate story is able to paint in details that we can recognize, or not, in our own lives, and allow us to ask these questions.
But let us look at the most important question: Is the film feminist?
Broadly, it is in that it explores the lives of several women: Mrs. Buckingham, Lizzie, Manjula, Manjula’s maid. The women are complex, interesting, flawed. They have understandable goals and motives. They represent various socio-economic classes. Unfortunately, the maid, who is also deaf, is often treated poorly.
Shakespeare Wallah isn’t a movie about women, and it doesn’t end in a “rah rah Girl Power!” message. But even better, it portrays women as people, trying to understand and find their place in both the world and in a specific time and place.