This captivating b/w film from 1965 bears all the hallmarks of a Merchant/Ivory Production, with an insightful script by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and music composed by Satyajit Ray. The story of a touring theatre troupe in the early days of post-colonial India is inspired by the diary of real-life English actor Geoffrey Kendal and his family.

In fact, the Kendals are the main stars of this movie, playing themselves albeit using different character names. The time the story is set is not precisely specified though it is assumed it takes place towards the latter half of the 1950’s. In real life, the Kendals delivered mostly Shakespeare performances under the name of their repertory company ‘Shakespeareana’ (hence Shakespeare Wallah) in India, performing for royalty in palaces as well as for the poor in rural areas. A lot of their audiences were schoolchildren, which is how the film begins when actor/manager Tony Buckingham (Geoffrey Kendal), his wife Carla (Laura Lidell) – principal actress/seamstress, their young daughter Lizzie (Felicity Kendal) and three Indian performers called Guptaji (Pinchoo Kapoor), Sharmaji (Praajag Raaj) and Aslam (Partap Sharma) perform an 18th Century farce in front of the youngsters. Also part of the troupe is Englishman Bobby (Jim Tytler), a defeated ‘old-stager’. The troupe calls themselves ‘The Buckingham Players’. Via dusty country roads in their ramshackle vehicles they then are greeted by a very wealthy Maharaja who dines the troupe the actors while entertaining them with small talk, before the Buckingham Players perform ‘Anthony and Cleopatra’.

During private conversations in their makeshift dressing rooms we get an inkling as to why Tony Buckingham and Carla turned their back on Ole Blighty as we can detect bitterness over never having it ‘quite made’ in native repertoire theatres. Nonetheless the Buckingham’s seem to have made it in India where their shows are very much appreciated though during the course of the film Tony and Carla must face up to the truth that their glory days are over because India is changing. In the wake of the new Indian independence locals seem less interested in all things British, instead, a new craze called ‘Bollywood movies’ gradually seems to take over… A new-found love for sport seems to replace love for old-fashioned theatre. During one of their many journey along isolated country roads their vehicle breaks down which leads to a chance-encounter between daughter Lizzie and local playboy Sanju (Shashi Kapoor). Despite cultural differences a gentle romance develops between the two people though little does Lizzie know that Sanju also romances spoilt Bollywood film star Manjula (Madhur Jaffrey) – a diva in the truest sense of the word who throws strops on the film set and constantly mistreats her long-suffering ‘maid-servant’ Didi (Praveen Paul). Suffice to say that Manjula is carried off the film set by means of an Indian version of a sedan chair. When she orders Didi to secretly spy on Sanju she soon discovers that he has a strong romance going with Lizzie – an actress at the complete opposite end of the pole from Manjula in more ways than just one.

When Manjula cunningly invites Lizzie for tea she uses every moment to humiliate her – the situation is made worse with the sudden arrival of Sanju who, up to now, has had no idea that Manjula knows about his liaison with Lizzie… who angrily storms out of the room. Nonetheless Sanju and Lizzie make good the following day and he invites Manjula to come along and see Lizzie perform in a grand theatre. The fool! He should have known that Manjula will use this opportunity to sabotage the performance, which she cleverly does by bringing some press people along who flash-photograph her during the Buckingham’s performance of ‘Othello’ and thus steering the attention towards her – with fans asking for her autograph. Enraged, Tony Buckingham calls for order before he proceeds with the play. During the famous scene in which Othello murders Desdemona with the words “Down strumpet, down” Manjula pretends she cannot handle such on-stage violence and walks out of the theatre before the final act is over, though still finding time signing autographs. Now it is Sanju who feels completely humiliated and after the show he begs the Buckinghams for forgiveness, in particular Tony and wife Carla (who make is clear that she is anything but happy about the dalliance between her daughter and the Indian playboy). Of course, Lizzie forgives him too and after Sanju has made his angers towards Manjula clear he proposed marriage to Lizzie. However, being the devoted actress that she is (and touring with her parents the only life she knows) Lizzie expresses reservations and asks Sanju to travel with her and her family for a few performances so he may understand her life – and above all, the need for this artistic life! Within no time Sanju shows his true colours and the hypocritical playboy, who thinks nothing of two-timing, cannot take it when, during a performance of ‘Romeo & Juliet’, male admirers in the audience start to wolf-whistle at Lizzie. His honour damaged, Sanju climbs over the balcony into the theatre box below and starts a fight with the wolf-whistler – thus bringing the performance to a premature end. Realising that a life with Sanju holds no future for her and that her future as part of The Buckingham Players also displays a big question mark considering the ever dwindling audience numbers, her parents finally convince her to board a steamer and head for England to cut out a more prosperous future as an actress (and Felicity Kendal did just that).

A wonderfully acted romantic drama that strikes all the right nuances, SHAKESPEARE WALLAH is an exotic trip down memory lane depicting a world that no longer exists. Incidentally, actor Shashi Kapoor (who plays playboy Sanju) fell in love with Felicity’s older sister Jennifer (she appears in the film uncredited as Mrs. Bowen) and married her, while producer Ismael Merchant has a little cameo (also uncredited) as a theatre owner. For her portrayal as Manjula, actress Madhur Jaffrey (way before her additional career as a food- and travel writer) won the ‘Silver Bear’ at the 15th Berlin International Film Festival.