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Half-Century After Release, New Restoration Brings 'Shakespeare Wallah' to Life

Actress Madhur Jaffrey discusses the new restoration "Shakespeare Wallah" and what it was like to work with Ismail Merchant and James Ivory.
A still taken from 1965's "Shakespeare Wallah."
A still taken from 1965's "Shakespeare Wallah."Courtesy of the Cohen Film Collection

In 1965, the Merchant Ivory Productions company released their second film, "Shakespeare Wallah," which followed the Buckinghams, a fictional family troupe of Shakespearean actors who traveled through a newly-independent India to perform.

Starring Shashi Kapoor, Felicity Kendal, and Madhur Jaffrey, the screenplay was based on the true story of Kendal’s parents, Geoffrey and Laura. The film was a success, screening at the Berlin International Film Festival and winning Jaffrey the festival's prize for best actress, foreshadowing the production company's future success, which has resulted in multiple Academy Awards and nearly four dozen films.

The poster of 1965's "Shakespeare Wallah"Courtesy of the Cohen Film Collection

Now, more than 50 years after its release, "Shakespeare Wallah" will be introduced to a new generation of viewers as a new restoration is scheduled to screen in New York and Los Angeles starting Nov. 10.

“We all knew the Kendals,” Jaffrey, who played the mysterious Bollywood star Manjula in the film, told NBC News. “They performed in schools and we all went to the plays. We all knew Shakespeare.”

For producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory, and Jaffrey — who was starring in her first major film role — the production was a very close-knit affair among friends who knew each other from the New York City arts scene of the late 1950s.

“We used to sit on the floor of Jim’s apartment and talk,” Jaffrey recalled. While both Merchant and Ivory knew they wanted to cast her as Manjula, others — including screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala — were hesitant.

“Ruth and I knew each other from India, she used me in some of her plays,” Jaffrey said. “She knew me as a studious girl with glasses, she didn’t see me [as a Bollywood star]. Jim had to convince her it would be just fine.”

“Ruth and I knew each other from India, she used me in some of her plays. She knew me as a studious girl with glasses, she didn’t see me [as a Bollywood star]. Jim had to convince her it would be just fine.”

Still wearing her glasses, Jaffrey ran into similar puzzlement when she arrived in the Indian city of Shimla to begin shooting. “I arrived and the crew looked at me and said ‘She doesn’t look like a movie star,” Jaffrey said. “I had never done a big film before.”

Some of the questioning looks were understandable, as the character Manjula was a Bollywood vixen caught in a love triangle, Jaffrey noted.

“I was as far as you could possibly be from Manjula,” she said. “It’s not a sympathetic role, but I made it so that I could see it from her point of view.”

“Shakespeare Wallah” would go on to thrust both Merchant Ivory Productions and Jaffrey into the spotlight, a journey that included the actress’ first trip to the Berlin Film Festival. She credits Merchant’s drive and vision for much of the film’s early success.

“Ismail was so good at pushing the boundaries,” Jaffrey said of the Indian-born Merchant, who died in 2005. “We all had to go to the Berlin Film Festival, and that was great fun.”

Madhur Jaffrey as the Bollywood star Manjula in "Shakespeare Wallah."Courtesy of the Cohen Film Collection

Jaffrey said she was looking forward to seeing restored version of “Shakespeare Wallah,” and having audiences experience the early days of Merchant and Ivory’s careers.

“‘Shakespeare Wallah’ was the last black and white film they did. Jim is such a good visual storyteller and it was such a wonderful pictoral story,” she recalled. “I think now Merchant Ivory films are viewed in a certain way, with certain visuals and certain images of upper class people striving about. But this one is not quite true to that.”

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