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, 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 post-colonial 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 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 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 and not to be lumped in with the darker Indian populace. 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. 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 quickly begin to see what she doesn't -- that Mary isn't merely odd. She's already nearly insane with contradictions: in love with the English, who regard her as an inferior; scornful of full-blooded Indians, who loathe her snobbery; and unable even to identify with other Anglo-Indians, whom she also holds in contempt. And 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.
Cotton Mary can be difficult to watch at times. It presents a situation in which the most hateful characters are victims whose lives and 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. "Anglo-Indians have the worst characteristics of the Indians and the worst of the English," sniffs one of Lily's upper-class friends.
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: She will not only save the baby, 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.) 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.