YOU’VE been at it for quite some time, haven’t you?” said Queen Elizabeth II to the great Shakespearean actor Sir Ian McKellen, while knighting him. “Not as long as you have, Your Majesty,” he replied. Through last week, Sir Ian, who regaled us with this anecdote, has been all sparkling wit, classic British understatement, and a lesson in wearing greatness lightly, as a dandelion in the breeze. Indeed, it has been a rich Shakespearean week in Mumbai with Sir Ian, wonderful actor and writer, best known for his Shakespearean roles in theatre and film, and also as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings series, and Magneto in the X-Men films.
Sir Ian McKellen with Sonam Kapoor at the opening ceremony of the 7th Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival at Liberty Cinema on Wednesday. Pic/Shadab Khan
The British Film Institute (BFI) has curated 18 British Shakespeare films to celebrate Shakespeare’s 400th death anniversary with a global tour, with Sir Ian launching the tour in Mumbai. The BFI, British Council, Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival and National Centre for Performing Arts collaborated to invite Sir Ian for a series of events, including a Q&A with Aamir Khan, which launched the MAMI Film Club, a screening of Richard III with a Q&A, the Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival, and a reception given by Kumar Iyer, British Deputy High Commissioner, Mumbai, to celebrate the Queen’s 90th birthday.
Sir Ian got a thunderous ovation at his Q&A with Aamir Khan — you could feel the audience’s love to him on your skin that night. Take a bow, Mumbai, for showing such love for a distinguished, 77-year-old Shakespearean actor — apart from Bollywood stars. “I keep waiting for the phone to ring,” said the ultra-modest Sir Ian, despite being among the most popular British stars, with a roster of over 100 films and innumerable plays. As he is gay, he tended to “avoid romantic roles” and so ended up playing villains and wizards, he said. After he came out, though, his relationships and acting got a lot better, he pointed out, “as I no longer had to fake things.” Thanks to Sir Ian, the Indian media, otherwise obsessed with her red carpet flounciness quotient, accidentally discovered that Sonam Kapoor had an intelligent question about women in Shakespeare, and was familiar with Portia — brava!
Richard III, directed by Richard Loncraine, which Sir Ian co-wrote and acted in, was a remarkable choice of film to flag off the India tour. It is about a murderous, fascist dictator in a fictionalised, 1930s England, “as England might have been,” as Sir Ian put it. Sir Ian as Richard III directly addresses the viewer, making him complicit in his murders. Richard III’s ambition to the throne sees him commit a series of murders, including his brothers Henry VI and Clarence, Prince Edward, Edward’s wife Anne and his two young nephews. Yet, finally lonely, he commits suicide. The screening had chilling resonances not only of Hitler, but of current events in this country, and the climactic suicide is but cold comfort.
Later, after work meetings with Robin Baker, Head Curator, British Film Institute National Archive, it was a pleasure to chat with him at the Kala Ghoda Café. Funny how the conversation meandered around birds. He told me how peacocks, belonging to a posh Indian neighbour, peered in at his mum’s windows in England. He recalled how the BBC once sent a cellist into the garden “to accompany the nightingales.” And, over masala chai, he made me a charming orgami crane, delighted that his childhood memory would still allow him such pleasures. At least for such small pleasures — and much else — thank God for the British!
Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.