Wednesday, January 23, 2008


I've been sick the past few days, which has allowed me to catch up on sleep - and movies.

Make that Merchant-Ivory movies. Written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.

And starring the incredible Shashi Kapoor

First up was Shakespeare Wallah, about a touring British Shakespeare company playing to dwindling audiences in post-Raj India. The score was by none other than the great Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray.

Kapoor plays the playboy who falls for the daughter of the couple who run the touring company. She's played by Felicity Kendal - the younger sister of Kapoor's real-life wife, Jennifer.

Of course the playboy could not commit.

Next up was the first-ever Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala production, The Householder.

In this one, Shashi Kapoor stars as an unhappy college lecturer in a new, unhappy marriage.

It was so depressing at first that I nearly shut it off. His character reminded me of the worst aspects of my (formerly negative) self.

But I stuck with it, and it paid off.

One hilarious scene had the straightlaced Kapoor visiting the home of some Bohemian American expats who love all things Indian. They kept hammering away at him: "What type of yoga do you do? Hatha? Bhakti? What type of yoga?" and he was, like, "What do you mean?" There's a similar sequence with a crazy western saddhu wannabe in Heat and Dust.

What is clear about these movies (and the M-I film Heat and Dust, in which Shashi plays a down-on-his-luck nawab who gets the firangi girl) is how much the filmmakers love India.

It's an interesting collaboration: James Ivory is an American Protestant, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is a Eastern-European Jew, and Ismail Merchant is (was) an Indian Muslim. The Householder was the first feature for all of them. Merchant got the money together and did all of the lawyering, accounting, etc. Jhabvala wrote her first screenplay (in a mere two weeks) and her husband, an Indian architect, helped fund the film.

Ivory had only made documentaries before. They were using the crew usually employed by Satyajit Ray, and when they disembarked from the train with all of their gear Ivory was flummoxed - and had to pretend he knew what to do.

The films are stunningly beautiful, by the way.

Apparently Ray bailed them out again later, when they brought him their first edit.

He re-edited it, and Ivory kept what he did - adding just a single sequence.

My next M-I-J film will be Bombay Talkie - starring Shashi and Jennifer Kapoor as a mysogynist Bollywood film star and a rootless, needy writer. Hmmmmmm........

All of these films, by the way, are available on Netflix.


Apparently Shashi Kapoor swore off acting in 1992 and spends much of his time working with cancer patients).

Apparently he finally found his yoga: Karma Yoga.


  1. Oh how I love Shashi! (In fact, a Google news alert for his name is how I found your post.) Of these, I've only seen Shakespeare-Wallah, and I'm eager to see the others. That jab about the American Indophile is funny - and I say that as...well, an American almost-Indophile.

    I also love the name of your blog :)

    Beth Loves Bollywood

  2. if you haven't yet, satya, go visit beth's blog. it's the very best bollyblog i've ever read. i am humbled.