Merchant/Ivory Productions has long been America's quintessential purveyor of classy, "literary" films. At its best, the team of director James Ivory and Ismail Merchant has given us A Room With a View (1986) and The Remains of the Day (1993); at its worst, Slaves of New York (1989) and Jefferson in Paris (1995). No one has done more to put the works of Henry James and E.M. Forster in the multiplexes. That said, their best films have often seemed better produced than directed: Give any PBS miniseries hack Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, and a solid screenplay from a good book, and he might do no worse than Ivory. And when a Merchant/Ivory film doesn't have good source material or the right cast, like the two stiffs mentioned above -- hoo boy! -- it's likely to be insufferably plodding and stuffy.
During the past decade, Merchant has stepped out of his producer's role and begun to direct. If Cotton Mary, his third feature, is any indication, he may be the more talented member of the team. This look at the psychological and cultural complications of a postcolonial society is wrenching and effective without resorting to easy political finger-pointing. Cotton Mary is set in Cochin, on India's Malabar Coast, in 1954, seven years after India achieved independence. Lily MacIntosh (Greta Scacchi), a holdover from colonial days, still lives in the huge house in which she grew up. Her husband, John (James Wilby), a correspondent for the BBC news, is always away chasing after a story (or a skirt), leaving the pregnant Lily and their 7-year-old daughter, Theresa (Laura Lumley), in the capable hands of Abraham (Prayag Raaj), the Indian servant who has worked for Lily's family since she was a child.
Lily not only gives birth to an underdeveloped, premature baby girl, but her breasts won't produce milk. Given the baby's delicate state, the desperate mother allows one of the hospital's nurses to take charge of the infant's care. This nurse is Cotton Mary (Madhur Jaffrey), a strange woman who takes every opportunity to remind people that she is half-British and not to be lumped in with the darker Indian populace. Without ever fully explaining to Lily where she's going, Mary takes the baby every day to be breast-fed by her crippled sister, who lives in the deteriorating Alms House.
Directed by Ismail Merchant; co-directed by Madhur Jaffrey
Screenplay by Alexandra Viets
Starring Madhur Jaffrey, Greta Scacchi, Sakina Jaffrey, James Wilby, and Prayag Raaj
At first, Mary seems almost holy, a selfless woman devoted to saving the baby. "She is God's child...a special child," Mary keeps telling Lily. "She's with me now, Madam, don't worry." It seems incredible that Lily entrusts her baby to this odd person, but we soon find out that Lily has more problems than she can handle. Her marriage is unraveling; she suspects John's infidelities. Unable to cope, she leaves Theresa in Abraham's care and spends her days distractedly tending her flowers. Convinced that she can't take care of the infant herself, she agrees to let Mary move in permanently, at which point we begin to see what Lily doesn't -- that Mary isn't merely odd. She's nearly insane with contradictions: in love with the English, who regard her as an inferior; scornful of full-blooded Indians, who loathe her snobbery; unable even to identify with other Anglo-Indians, whom she also holds in contempt. Her superior attitude extends even to her sisters, whose claim on Englishness is equal to her own. So determined is she to take her rightful place among "her people" that she has become habitually devious and scheming.
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She immediately begins to undermine Abraham's position in the household -- partly because he is "one of those people" and partly so she can take his place. Lily is so out of it that she gladly, passively accepts Mary's apparent devotion to the family; after what appears to be weeks, she still hasn't bothered to find out how or where Mary is feeding the baby. Both Theresa and John, on those rare occasions that the latter is around, see Mary far more clearly. The extent to which the nurse dotes on John only irritates him, as does her arrogant attitude toward other Indians -- an attitude he reserves for himself.
Cotton Mary can be difficult to watch. Its most hateful characters are victims whose lives and personalities have been warped by the indirect actions of some of its most likable characters. Mary is a monster, but she is also an inevitable result of centuries of British dominance. Lily is a sympathetic character, but, pampered on the fruits of that dominance, she can afford to be. "Anglo-Indians have the worst characteristics of the Indians and the worst of the English," sniffs one of Lily's upper-class friends.
The cast is uniformly impressive, but Jaffrey dominates the film throughout. (She is also credited as co-director.) She's a monster in the vein of Maggie Smith in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie -- in her own mind, her actions are perfectly justifiable, even benevolent. She will not only save the baby, but she will also purge this fine English house of the influence of that dirty Indian servant.
Merchant presumably made the film with English and Indian audiences in mind. For American viewers, its biggest flaw is that it assumes too much knowledge of its historical and cultural setting. (The published script has a brief essay on the status of Anglo-Indians over the years that gives much-needed context.) And although some of the issues and situations are loosely analogous to the U.S.'s racial history -- Roots had a few characters with conflicts similar to those in Cotton Mary -- the comparison is only slightly useful. Too many of the specifics are altogether different. Still, while this may cost Cotton Mary some of its power, it's unlikely that anyone will walk away unmoved.