"YOU SHALL NOT PASS"
Thursday, the 26th of May will be a day forever branded on the memory of B.D. Somani International School. After three weeks of preparation and anticipation, Gandalf, or Sir Ian McKellen as he is rightly known, was finally here. Even those well known for “falling sick” at the oddest of times knew better than to miss this day.
Some students and teachers didn’t have to wait as long. They had the opportunity of seeing Sir Ian McKellen twice this week. Jealous? At the NCPA Godrej Dance Theatre, they were able to view a screening of Sir Ian’s 1995 rendition on film of Shakespeare’s Richard III. It’s not every day that you watch a movie with the main actor sitting in the audience, watching it with you. Richard III is about a hunchbacked ruler of England who climbed his way to the top by betraying and murdering most of his family and companions. Being able to see a modern Nazi take on an old Shakespearean character was special, but seeing Sir Ian McKellen made it all the more special. Being able to delve into the mind of a very seasoned actor, and know his thoughts on film and theatre, was an irreplaceable experience.
The excitement truly began the minute we stepped inside our fancy new auditorium, which some compared to the elegant style of the Taj hotels. Some even secretly hoped for a shift in venue for the Senior Film Appreciation club considering the brilliant acoustics in the hall and theatrical feel of the auditorium (a very subtle hint to the teachers in charge). And a silent salute to the old 5th floor auditorium. You have treated us well and will forever remain in our hearts.
After arriving at our school, Sir Ian McKellen was escorted around the premises by two students (wearing lovely saris) and visited the primary grades. But, finally, it was our turn. After hustling and bustling, with the Student Council ensuring that every audience member had a place to sit and a bag (no, I want a pink one!) and a pen that our school was kind enough to provide, it was only silence in the auditorium when Sir Ian McKellen made his grand entrance down the stairs. He was finally here!
However, our barely controlled anticipation to hear Sir Ian speak was further prolonged. Mr Gardner began by introducing our honoured guest and was followed by the Head of the British Council in India, Alan Gemmell, OBE. The purpose of Sir Ian’s visit to India and to our school was in order to promote Shakespeare on film in India. “As the world celebrates Shakespeare’s 400th death anniversary, the BFI, the British Council and Ian McKellen unveiled BFI Present Shakespeare on Film in India.” The visit to our school also had a secondary purpose as the British Council Head revealed. It was to promote education in England and encourage those who hadn’t thought of applying to the UK to apply, and if you want to apply to the US, “I’m sorry, you are all wrong!”
The wait continued. Mr Gardner proceeded to introduce “The real Sir,” as he put it, to the audience by reading out a very long list of his achievements. He proceeded to say, “It makes me tired just reading it out!” The silence hummed throughout the audience while we waited for the moment when, at last, Sir Ian McKellen approached the stage. He began his speech with an anecdote, recounting what had occurred that very morning. Apparently, a lady at the Taj hotel excitedly asked him in the lift, “Oh, can I take a picture?” Sir Ian replied, “Why yes, of course.” However, his mood was sure to have dimmed when she added, “I’ve always wanted to meet Dumbledore!” (For those who are unaware, Sir Ian McKellen did NOT play the role of Dumbledore, as I myself had previously thought). As the audience erupted into thunderous applause and laughter, all silence and nervousness disappeared. “I often get mistaken for Michael Gambon,” Sir Ian continued, “and it turns out he too gets mistaken for me.” On Sir Ian’s asking him what he does in such cases, Gambon said, “Oh, I just sign your name. I suppose one wizard is like another.”
Sir Ian then noticed the middle school students uncomfortably sitting on the floor, squirming around while looking excitedly at him. Only a man sensitive to plights of all kinds could have made them get up and stretch, while he stretched along with them on stage. We caught a glimpse of his brilliant acting when he became diminutive in the enormous armchair saying, “If you don’t study or revise for your examinations…’’ and then drew himself up to fill the room, booming out, “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!” bringing about another bout of laughter. (I do hope I don’t remember this in the middle of writing my own exams.) Sir Ian’s humour and wit was evident from the very beginning.
Beyond his visit to Mumbai for the Shakespeare on Film program, Sir Ian McKellen already had a very strong Indian connection. When he was a young child, he grew up with his parents’ respect for Mahatma Gandhi. His family had even celebrated the day India gained independence from the British. The first place he visited when he came this time to India was Gandhi’s house. And also, the very first director he worked with was Indian. Not only that, just recently Sir Ian made a trip to Rajasthan with his old friend and his friend’s Indian partner. So, when asked where he wanted to go for the Shakespeare on Film program, his first choice was to visit India again.
Sir Ian’s family also had a huge interest in theatre. Not just Shakespearean plays but many other modern plays as well. The first play that Sir Ian remembered seeing was Peter Pan, “The boy who never grew up.” However fantastical all the flying around was, he wasn’t happy. “I was disappointed because I could see the wires.” Growing up, Sir Ian said that he felt like the only person in the world who was gay. He said, “When we hit pubescence, all my friends were becoming interested in girls, but I, I was getting interested in boys.” He had no one he could talk to. He didn’t tell his family; he didn’t even tell his best friend who himself was just discovering that he was gay. This is where theatre became an important part of his life. By acting out a character he felt that he was able to escape into that role. “I could hide.” Theatre became a way for him to express himself. I’m sure you all remember our school’s production of Twelfth Night. Another lovely coincidence – Twelfth Night was the first play Sir Ian ever acted in, where he played the role of Malvolio.
As a forthright, categorical speaker for LGBT rights, Sir Ian visits many schools out of personal interest to ensure that no one is being ill-treated due to their sexuality, as that is now illegal in Britain. He shared the story of how he was speaking in a school and was speaking of how people are afraid to be openly gay as they fear disapproval. In that very audience, a man raised his hand and openly declared for the first time that he was gay, and in a heart-warming moment, the entire audience applauded the man. Therefore, we can see how Sir Ian’s work has helped many people be more open and free about themselves, and that, that is what is simply amazing.
“How did Shakespeare, a small boy growing up in Stratford upon Avon, a small merchant town, know what it was like to be a black man married to a white woman? How did he know? Well, he just used his imagination.” Sir Ian then proceeded to have the audience close its eyes and just imagine. “Imagine you’re at a riverside; you get on a boat; the boat is rocking.” He then proceeded to say that Shakespeare had an incredible understanding of human nature. And maybe that’s why we still study Shakespeare in school (though Sir Ian thinks we shouldn’t) because that appeal to human nature, our ability to think, act, and adapt is what “makes us different from dogs.”
Now was the question and answer session. Out of a crowd of eager students, one student asked him, “Who was your favourite character and why?” After a few seconds, Sir Ian replied, “My favourite character would have to be Gandalf. Although he isn’t human – he’s 7000 years old – he’s the most humane.” Well, he certainly is our favourite character too, Sir Ian! Another question that came up was, “What was the most bizarre thing you have ever done to prepare for an act?” asked by one of our own students, Anshula Kapse (there were students from other schools in the audience). After a few moments, he replied saying he was to put on the disguise of one of his characters (a mentally challenged man) and go out on the streets. Sir Ian, in the role of ‘Walter’, proceeded toward the ladies’ underwear department with his nurse chasing after him. I presume, most B.D. Somani students are aware of the reasons behind Anshula’s question, after her role in Twelfth Night (I believe it was something along the lines of cutting her hair…) She herself stated, “Meeting Sir Ian McKellen has got to be among the best experiences I’ve had in my life, but what tops it all was performing for him. He certainly awed me with his inspiring talk about his life, making it an unforgettable experience for all of us.”
After the question and answer session was over, the students of B.D. Somani enacted a scene from Twelfth Night for the entire auditorium (must have been stressful acting out Shakespeare in front of a very famous member of the Royal Shakespeare Company). But their hard work was rewarded with a large round of applause from the audience for their stellar performance, and a special treat afterwards.
Just before leaving, Sir Ian recited the excerpt ‘All the world’s a stage…’ What a treat it was to listen to those well remembered words given new life and meaning in perfect elocution. We finally came to the end of the visit where it was time to say goodbye to Sir Ian McKellen, and who better to do that than our very own Mathscot and “Shakespeare Brother” (he played Malvolio as well in his first ever performance on stage), Krish Vaswani. Following a humorous speech from the heart where Krish welcomed Sir Ian to “his” country, Krish received a hug from the man himself, leaving many members of the audience envious, and Krish beyond happy, and a little star struck. Sir Ian received a gift of gratitude, a book about Mumbai, and jokingly commented, “Now, once I go home, I can see all the places that I didn’t get to see.” (Because of his hectic schedule thanks to the British Council.)
The entire audience was aware that Sir Ian’s birthday had been just the day before, and Mr Gardner decided to celebrate in the best way possible, with the traditional Happy Birthday song and a delicious chocolate cake. Sir Ian’s humour was once again at its best when he said, “Ooh, can I stick my finger in it?” as he proceeded to lick the cake from his finger, for all the world like a schoolboy, while the audience sang to him on his 77th birthday and laughed along. We finally said goodbye and the day was over with all students scampering back to their classes, with food for thought and a mellow aftermath that lasted through the day.
A few days, weeks, months, or even years from now, when we look back upon the day Gandalf, Magneto, or just Sir Ian McKellen visited our school, we shouldn’t think of it just as bragging rights. He had a very important message, or at least this was the message that struck me the most. “We all act,” Sir Ian said, “every time we are with a different person, we act differently.’’ That stood out to me because I could relate to it. But, I only truly understood what it meant the next day in English class where we were having a discussion on Anna Karenina. We were talking about a painting and a student mentioned “the real Anna.” That is when Mr Gardner interjected and said, “There are many real Pallons, there are many real Mr Pauls, there are many real Aditis, and there are even many real Gardners. They’re all real.” I then realized that what Sir Ian was saying was not that we all act differently in different cases; he was saying that it was not an act, it was a part of who we are and we should embrace it.
Finally, we would like to say a few thank yous. Thank you to Sir Ian McKellen for visiting our school, thank you to the BFI and the British Council for choosing our school, thank you to Mr Gardner for making this visit possible, thank you to Ms Priyanka and the Student Council and Mr Darshan for doing everything that was needed to ensure a smoothly run program, and most importantly, a huge thank you to all the kids who sat on the floor for two and a half hours; it must have hurt. However, the memories behind the ache are, hopefully, what will endure.
-Aditi Katragadda & Anvita Diwan
Heuristic Shakespeare app that was mentioned:
Stratford upon Avon
Royal Shakespeare Company