The image of Shimla on film has evolved alongside film-making itself. The town’s journey across swatches of celluloid began as early as the first decade of the twentieth century, when films, chiefly propagandist in nature, began to be shot in India under the Raj. In 1912, the Edison Company, founded by the entrepreneur and inventor Thomas Edison, released a short documentary on the hill town for Edison’s Kinetoscope—the first in a line of home-projection devices where one could view films through a small peep-hole. In a company catalogue, the film is described as depicting “a Hindoo dwarf,” the railroad, Christ Church on Sunday, and other sights.
Though many more such films likely exist, many are lost, or in archives that have not been digitised or released online. Despite the blind alleys of online research, there are occasional finds, such as a 14-minute film shot by Sir Conrad Corfield, officer and private secretary to several viceroys, that includes footage from in and around Shimla in the 1930s. Though the film takes in other parts of India too, with typical scenes of native royalty and peasantry, elephants, acrobats and wrestlers, for the Shimla segments there are title cards introducing sites such as “The Mall” and the already iconic “Viceregal Lodge” with its liveried staff. Even before Independence, the idea of Shimla was inextricable from the place’s associations with the Raj.
With the departure of the British, the town’s potential as a symbol of a crumbling empire went unexploited, and it remained relatively absent from the screen for several years. In 1965, Merchant Ivory Productions—a collaborative setup between the American director James Ivory, the Indian producer Ismail Merchant, and the German-born writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala—rolled into town for the making of its second film, Shakespeare Wallah. The film cemented Merchant Ivory’s reputation not only as an international production house, but almost as a synonym for Raj-related films. Shakespeare Wallahfollowed the Buckinghams, a fictionalised version of the Kendals, a British family of actors who toured India with their “Shakespeareana Company” after 1947. Shot in black-and-white due to budget restrictions, the film included Shakespeare sketches performed in Shimla’s clubby Gaiety Theatre.
Shashi Kapoor, who had toured with the Kendals, played the male lead opposite Felicity Kendal. The two “flirt and make love amid the clutter of the little company putting on its plays in the scenic area of Simla, which holds such memories of the British colonial past,” a New York Times review summarised. InShakespeare Wallah, the decline of the town became a metaphor for the decline of the empire itself, seen through a nostalgic lens: “In the beautiful scenes around Simla,” the Times noted, “there are touching, ironic intimations of an empire’s inevitable demise, revealed in the déclassé rest-houses from which the old civil servants have long gone, and where only a handful of persistent old India hands remain.”
While in real life Kapoor went on to marry Kendal’s elder sister Jennifer, in Shakespeare Wallah the end of the gentle love affair between his character and that of Kendal, and symbolically of their two cultures, is signalled by the arrival of Madhur Jaffrey’s character—a glamourous Bollywood heroine. But Bollywood, like other Indian film industries, was quick to embrace Shimla as a playground for fun and romance.