PRINT February 2000


Ismail Merchant’s Cotton Mary

Ismail Merchant, James Ivory, and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala forged a producer-director-writer team that began exploring the clash of cultures about two decades before it became fashionable. With India as the arena and the Raj as context, the piquancy of their unique Indian-American-European perspective on this oh-so-very-British—and, to a lesser extent, Indian—subject, starting with the delectable Shakespeare Wallah (1965), was often lost on all three continents.

Cotton Mary, Merchant’s fourth directorial venture (which opens in New York on February 11), a film about the gradual destruction of an Anglo-Indian nurse obsessed with an English couple’s baby in India in the ’50s, continues in the same vein, albeit without Ivory and Jhabvala. Yet another Indian-American collaboration (this time with screenwriter Alexandra Viets), Cotton Mary treads the very murky waters of skin color, self-hatred, fetishization, and, ultimately, the unhealthy symbiosis wrought by that colonialism, without the whiff of nostalgia that British efforts invariably convey.

Madhur Jaffrey (Cotton Mary) has not been in a role of a complexity worthy of her since she was seen opposite Deborah Kerr in The Assam Garden in 1985. The film’s other roles, however—the English wife played by Greta Scacchi, James Wilby’s BBC-correspondent husband, and, hilariously, Sakina Jaffrey as Mary’s sexpot niece, Rosie—are drawn in rather broad strokes. The tragic narrative is leavened with trenchant anecdotes and observations of kitchen politics, the tyranny of servants, and English ladies left behind by the Raj. But it occasionally begs the viewers’ indulgence in its contrivances, while offering insights into the relatively unknown and rapidly disappearing world of the Anglo-Indians in India.

It might be tempting with an ostensibly realistic drama like Cotton Mary to simply try and squeeze out as much social and historical information as possible, but that would be to miss out on the film’s subtler shadings: Mary’s failings and ultimate tragedy may be based on the moral depravity of British-Indian relations of the Raj, and the singular situation of the Anglo-Indian, but they are ultimately her own as well. When she moves into the English household and takes over the couple’s lives, the Lord’s Prayer’s supplication for the forgiveness of our trespasses—as well as the trespasses against us—takes on an unexpectedly historical and imperialist meaning.

L. Somi Roy is executive director of International Film Seminars, New York, and a curator specializing in Asian and Asian-American film and video.