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. I mean, give any PBS miniseries hack Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins and a solid screenplay from a good book, and he might well do no worse than Ivory has. 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 last decade Ismail Merchant has finally 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 she grew up in. 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 seven-year-old daughter, Theresa (Laura Lumley), in the capable hands of Abraham (Prayag Raj), 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 refuse to yield any 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. Without ever quite 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.
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 trusts her baby to this odd person, but we soon find out that Lily has more problems than she can handle. 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, Lily agrees to let Mary move in permanently, at which point we quickly begin to see what she doesn't: that Mary is nearly insane with contradictions. Mary's in love with the English, who regard her as inferior; scornful of full-blooded Indians, who loathe her snobbery; and unable to identify even with other Anglo-Indians, whom she also holds in contempt. 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 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. It presents a situation in which the most hateful characters are victims whose personalities have been warped by the indirect actions of some of the 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.
While the cast is uniformly impressive, 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. Not only will she 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. And while some of the issues and situations are loosely analogous to racial situations in the United States -- 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, the film has plenty to spare. It's unlikely that anyone will walk away unmoved.