Lucia Lane (Jennifer Kendal), an English novelist, comes to Bombay to research the Bollywood film scene for a book she is planning to write. She is introduced by a producer (none other than Ismail Merchant) to the dashing movie star Vikram (Shashi Kapoor) and the screenwriter Hari (Zia Mohyeddin). Vikram, who is married to the beautiful but barren young Mala (Aparna Sen), falls in love with Lucia and they begin an affair, evoking a fierce rivalry between Vikram and Hari, and a painful envy on the part of Vikram's wife. Lucia, seeking escape and enlightenment, flees to a guru (Pincho Kapoor) but cannot bring herself to abandon her worldly desires for a subservient life in the ashram. She returns to Vikram and the various love triangles collapse, bringing the characters to desperation and the entanglement to a startling resolution.
Shot entirely on location in and around the city of its title, Bombay Talkie is one of Merchant Ivory's most distinctive films, at once a psychological drama and a parodic hommage to the Indian film scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The eclectic dramatis personae include Uptal Dutt as Bose, a corrupt producer, Nadira as Anjana Devi, Vikram's confidante, and a full complement of women who enact a musical number on a giant typewriter (one of Ivory's favorite film sets to date), as the dancers' movements type out Fate ("It's very symbolic," Lucia compliments). Subatra Mitra, the master cameraman of Satyajit Ray, provides the photography, and it is to great effect that his unassuming lens is set upon the director's shrewdly observed scenes. At one moment in the film, an elderly Indian fan of Lucia's novel Consenting Adults arrives at her hotel to ask her for an autograph: as Lucia flees and the absurd exchange is played out, the camera pulls back and patiently watches the two descend the grand staircase of the Taj Mahal Hotel. It is one of the film's many moments in which the comedy of a situation is made more acute by the lyricism of the visuals.
Jennifer Kendal is magnificent as Lucia: her offhand candor and genuine sweetness make her all the more believable as a homewrecker who doesn't seem to grasp the consequences of her actions. She moves effortlessly from quiet despair, a middle-aged woman alone in a foreign hotel, to fish-out-of-water scenes at an ashram which put one in mind of Maria von Trapp in the convent, dreaming of the hills and the Captain. Shashi Kapoor brings to Vikram that star quality which attracts the legions of adoring women who seem always to surround him; and Aparna Sen paints a quietly affecting Mala. Like the goddess Devi, whose image appears on screen, Sen's Mala is part long-suffering wife, part Fury.
From the opening credits sequence (probably the most original of any Merchant Ivory film) to the films within the film (the musical, the Indian western), Bombay Talkie claims a unique place in Ivory's work for its elements of meta-film -- a film about film, in which the viewer is at once involved in what is on-screen and aware of the medium. Yet there are also those familiar elements of uprooted persons and cultural difference that characterize both the earliest and the most recent films of Merchant Ivory. Lucia, late in Bombay Talkie, tries on one of Mala's saris and Vikram explains to the uninformed Englishwoman that it is his wife's wedding sari. Just then, Mala enters to see her husband's lover dressed in her own wedding clothes: as in many of Merchant and Ivory's films, cultural misunderstanding leads to human drama of the most visceral and affecting kind.
Tony Buckingham (Geoffrey Kendal) and his wife Carla (Laura Lidell) are the actor-managers of a troupe of traveling Shakespearean actors in post-colonial India; they must grapple with a diminishing demand for their craft as the English theatre on the subcontinent is supplanted by the emerging genre of Indian film. Lizzie Buckingham (Felicity Kendal), the couple's daughter, falls in love with Sanju (Shashi Kapoor), a wealthy young Indian playboy who is also involved in a romance with the glamorous Bombay film star Manjula (Madhur Jaffrey). The Buckinghams, for whom acting is a profession, a lifestyle, and virtually a religion, must weigh their devotion to their craft against their concern over their daughter's future in a country which, it seems, no longer has a place for her.
Like its title, Shakespeare Wallah is a film of unexpected juxtapositions and cultural conflict; it is a look at changing values in art, and an examination of the question of what it means to be indigenous to a place. The nomadic lifestyle of the poor players -- artfully shown through many scenes of their fretful peregrinations around India -- provides the visual enactment of the problem of the Buckinghams' rootlessness, as here we find the first Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala exploration of that subject, the great dilemma for Merchant Ivory characters from Lizzie Buckingham to Ruth Wilcox inHowards End. "Everything is different when you belong to a place. When it's yours," Carla Buckingham quietly and regretfully tells her daughter, the young Englishwoman who was born in India and has never stepped foot on the soil of her "home" country.
Kendal and Lidell (whose experiences as head of a travelling company of players in India were the inspiration for the screenplay) provide a true and affecting center for the film, both onstage as Malvolio or Gertrude, and offstage as artists who have watched their audiences, their fortunes, and their prestige diminish by degrees. The young Felicity Kendal turns in a performance that would send her to stardom in England, while Shashi Kapoor displays a subtlety that suggests a maturation from his earlier work in The Householder.Madhur Jaffrey's inspired Manjula is to date one of the most memorable women in the Merchant Ivory filmography: her performance earned her the Best Actress prize at the 1965 Berlin Film Festival, where Shakespeare Wallah premiered. The musical score is provided by none less than Satyajit Ray, the Indian master-director and composer.
Ivory and Jhabvala's clever use of the Shakespearean scenes in the Buckingham Players' repertoire consistently illuminate and enrich the procceedings: a Maharaja in his darkened dining hall recites lines from the deposition scene in Richard II. Later on, Manjula condescends to visit the theatre and makes a rude, grand entrance while Tony, as Othello, soliloquizes before his murder of Desdemona. There is a deep irony in the juxtaposition of competing passion plays, on-stage and off (and Manjula's entrance in the middle of the scene is even more outrageous when we recall that Othello does not murder Desdemona until Act V of the play: Manjula has not only interrupted the proceedings. She has shown up only for the last ten minutes).
If the Shaksepearean texts cast light on the film, so the film also casts unexpected light on the Shakespearean texts it includes. Ivory and Merchant have captured on film perhaps the last moments in the last place in the world where itinerant players -- like those tragedians of Hamlet -- might arrive from the open road to play before a royal court. When the rain raineth in Feste's song at the end of Twelfth Night, the words acquire a new elegiac tone: the song becomes a summing up, not only for the play but for its players.
Stay up to date on new releases and re-releases of your favorites