Which Side Are You On? Shakespeare Wallah and Shifting Perspectives

I don't need to devote any time to marketing here. I don't have to tell you that Shakespeare Wallah (1965) is a good film, or an important film. Dig a bit and you'll find all manner of folks telling you why this particular Merchant-Ivory film remains a strong piece of post-colonial commentary, as well as loads of discourse on the the decline of British culture and presence in India and the impenetrability of intercultural barriers;  themes that the film undoubtedly handles with grace and charm.

What I will say is that I'm glad, glad, GLAD I didn't see this film too early.

And by that, I mean I saw it a good six months after I had watched my first real Bollywood film.

Of course, if I had stumbled across it a year ago, I would have enjoyed Shakespeare Wallah as a cross-cultural love story set in post-colonial India. It would have been a nice experience. I probably would have cried more. I would have looked up Shashi Kapoor and Felicity Kendal on IMDB afterwards and thought about watching some other (Western-ish) films they had done. And then I would have shelved it in the spicy, doomed romance closet in my brain, and moved on.

But I came to this film through Bollywood, rather than Hollywood. For me, it wasn't a brief trip to the East, but rather a stop on what I hope will be a longer journey. And because of this, I came to the film looking for subtext rather than maintext. I was looking for exploration of certain concepts, for a piece of history, for Bollywood backstory (or sidestory, depending on how you look at it).

On one level, Shakespeare Wallah is a tantalizing fictionalized history; playing with the bios of both the Kendals and Shashi Kapoor. In that respect, it's fascinating, as it gives a rare glimpse into a legendary filmi-world gone by. It's also fascinating to me that while the film portrayed the relationship between Shashi and Felicity's characters as ultimately fated to part ways . . . in "real life"  Shashi and Felicity's older sister, Jennifer, actually did marry, remaining together till Jennifer's death over 25 years later.

On another plane, the film doesn't shy away from satirizing the conventions and stars of 60's Bollywood, and paints a rather scathing portrait of the on and off lover of Shashi's character, a Bollywood diva who commands a crowd and a media storm wherever she goes. To me this also seems an eerily prescient metaphor of Shashi's career in world cinema. Though he was to be a powerful presence in future Western/M-I films and always bore the marks of his training in a Western theatrical tradition, he never strayed too far from his home industry . . . and ultimately never completely committed to either world. While this speaks to Shashi's deep well of dramatic skill, it also makes me wonder how difficult it was to work and live and love on both sides of a culture barrier. It's pure speculation, but my guess is that it was both an enriching and enraging life to live. Treasures can be found on both sides, but what happens if you are forced to choose one way of doing life or art over another? Is one way of doing things better than the other?

Recently, I've found myself in the annoying situation of having to defend some excellent Bollywood films to people I respect. In one situation, not only did I have to sell the merits of the film I had shared with them (Kaala Patthar! How can anyone not see the value in this film!?), but I had to stand up for Bollywood as an entire industry. The accusation? "Oh, 'typical' Bollywood film. Singing and dancing. *Sigh*" And to this person, "singing and dancing," no matter what story they might be linked to, equaled: NOT SERIOUS,  FORGETTABLE, and FRIVOLOUS ENTERTAINMENT. To me, their position equaled: Lacking in Perspective .

Don't get me wrong, there's no accounting for taste, and I can understand it when a whole genre just fails to appeal to one personally.

For example, I don't really like horror, and I have a stunted appreciation for a lot of continental European cinema, especially French New Wave. But, usually, even when I don't personally find something enjoyable, I still see the value, nevertheless. I  intensely hate every Pedro Almadovar movie I have ever seen, yet because I have watched his films with people who were so visibly moved by them, I can't deny that he is putting out something worthwhile into the world.

So when I heard the words "typical Bollywood film," (especially applied to such a classic) my hackles instantly shot up and my teeth clenched and steam started rising within and I wondered momentarily if we could ever be friends again. Though, I don't like to hear any entire artistic industry completely written off, this was my beloved Bollywood, so I wasn't going to go down without a fight. Taking a deep breath, I tried to explain to these respected folks (who have actually been to South Asia multiple times, have seen "other" Bollywood films--therefore their attitude of dismissal can't be attributed to ignorance), that as I see it, most people who write off Indian films make two mistakes:

1. Missing the forest for the trees . . .

All genres and types of cinema build with certain cultural materials or cinematic conventions. In Hong Kong cinema, you have a certain type of stylized action/violence that people count on to be present in every film and look forward to seeing. These conventions are not weakness, rather they serve to tell the story. And just because these conventions are in every film does not mean that film is un-original or popular trash. It's all about what each particular film does with that convention. What does the fighting mean? How is it different? And what does the dancing and singing here in this Bollywood film mean? What is it saying to us?

2.  Ignoring the historical context. . . 

The singing and dancing in Bollywood films is an expression and a descendant (albeit sometimes a very weak and hybridized one) of classical Indian dance, literature, poetry, and song. It is a historically loaded and supported way of telling stories. Bollywood has not only preserved some of this classical art, but has done something new with it. That product may be good or bad, rich or empty, depending on the specific film, but it is an authentically Indian and South Asian medium of art at its core.

I don't think I succeeded in winning them over. But I did realize anew during that discussion how important Indian cinema had become to me, and furthermore, that I am not willing to:
(A) Part with it.
(B) Apologize for it.

However, I also can't expect other people to get it, get me, or even vaguely understand the appeal. Admittedly, I am in the beginning stages of straddling the cross-cultural divide, but the ongoing exposure to the other side has already put me at odds with people I respect, and even the ways of thinking I took for granted in the past.

A year ago, I would have watched Shakespeare Wallah and I would have empathized primarily with the British protagonist, played to perfection by Felicity Kendal. As a fairly-traveled person (for my age at least), I would have thought, yes. I get it. I understand how it feels to wade through a culture enthusiastically and love it and yet not be akin to it or understand it at all.

But when I watched it last month, for whatever reason, be it filmi-fog, or Bollywood-brain, or my love for Shashi, or my passion for the "typical" Indian song and dance routine... I felt myself more on the side of Shashi's Indian playboy. It wasn't that I agreed with his choices or even respected him all that much. But in the last year I have gained a perspective that, while does not make me a cultural insider AT ALL (I want to be very clear about this), certainly precludes me from the total outsider camp as well. I got it in a way I wouldn't have got it a year ago. He wasn't just a swarthy Eastern enigma to me, he was a real person caught between two loves and two cultures and two artistic traditions.

Watching this film, I realized that it will only get harder to straddle the line between East and West as my obsessions with the East (if you will allow this sweeping generalization) spur me forward. And once my Hindi /Urdu language studies courses at the state university start to sink in, I'm sure I will even be more obsessed (even if I have less time to be), and inclined towards wide-eyed surprise at those who don't share my interests and passions. If I think it's difficult to tolerate people who write off Indian popular culture now, I can't imagine what it will be like in a year from now!

Shakespeare Wallah can certainly be taken as a commentary on doomed intercultural relations. But for me, I think I will see it as a challenge. A challenge to engage with both cultural traditions (art and otherwise) with grace and hopefulness and enjoyment first, and discussion and disagreement last.


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