Engrossing Quest for Identity in Merchant's 'Cotton Mary'


"Cotton Mary," which takes us to the Malabar Coast in South India in 1954, is the third feature in the last seven years to be directed by Ismail Merchant, the producing half of the distinguished filmmaking team he formed with director James Ivory nearly 40 years ago. Not only is it Merchant's best directorial effort to date but also is among the finest films the Merchant Ivory company has ever made.

It is a splendid and subtle evocation of India in the post-colonial era, when the British influence lingered treacherously in some quarters, and it offers the formidable, internationally renowned Madhur Jaffrey, who also received co-director credit, the role of a lifetime and the most complex part Greta Scacchi has ever played on the screen. Engrossing from the first frame and written with admirable skill and insight by Alexandra Viets, "Cotton Mary" is a milestone for Merchant Ivory and a pleasure for the company's admirers.

For about 500 years, Anglo Indians, those individuals born of mixed British and Indian parentage, have had an equivocal status in Indian society, often enjoying greater privileges in colonial society than full-blooded natives but nothing like equality with the full-blooded Brits. Whatever standing the Anglo Indians had was severely undermined with the coming of independence, for their clinging to British ways invited widespread hostility and rejection.

No one could possibly have a stronger identity with the British--or a stronger denial of her partial Indian heritage--than the woman with the curious name of Cotton Mary (Jaffrey). When Scacchi's Lily MacIntosh arrives at the hospital where Mary works as a nurse, the middle-aged Mary seizes the opportunity to consolidate her sense of British identity.

Lily has just gone through the ordeal of the premature birth of her second daughter, and Mary devotes all of her attention to caring for Lily and her baby, for whom she finds a wet nurse when Lily is unable to nurse her baby herself. So swiftly does Mary ingratiate herself with Lily that, of course, Lily wants her to stay on with her at a fine old cliffside estate that Lily has inherited from her parents.

Lily's husband, John (James Wilby), is an often-absent, self-absorbed correspondent for the BBC who, on the rare occasions when he is home, has a bad habit of not listening to his wife.

John makes Lily feel chronically ineffectual, and since she does not enjoy the company of the snobby, racist and gossipy British wives, preferring to spend hours working in her garden, she is vulnerable to Mary's implacable determination to take over the household. So needy is Mary of seeming British in her own eyes, to make real her fantasy that she is the true lady of the house, that she maliciously starts undermining Lily's longtime servant Abraham (Prayag Raaj), who has been with Lily's family since her childhood and is like a loving grandfather to Lily's 7-year-old daughter, Theresa (Laura Lumley).

While Mary is every bit as calculating as "Rebecca's" infamous Mrs. Danvers, we see her as a pathetic, even potentially tragic figure rather than a villainess.

Yet Mary has a natural intelligence and a force of personality that make her a much stronger woman than Lily, who suffers from her husband's neglect and her sense of not fitting in to society any more than Mary. Scacchi has long played well-bred wantons but rises to the challenge of creating a woman who needs to get in touch with herself as much as her servant does.

A sense of time and place, with evocative, precisely detailed settings and costumes, is a Merchant Ivory hallmark, but the beauty of the Malabar Coast and the elegant interiors of this film throw into relief rather than blunt Merchant's bitter sense of injustice at the plight of Anglo Indians, caught so cruelly between two of the most class-conscious peoples on Earth, the British and the Indians. It's a sense of injustice that extends to the generally inferior status of women everywhere in the '50s.

Merchant never loses sight of the mitigating opportunities for humor and sensuality in telling the story of two women whose lives become more interlocked than they could ever imagine. Ironically, Jaffrey had one of her best screen roles as an Indian princess living in London and reminiscing about lost splendor with her late father's tutor (James Mason) in Ivory's exquisite 1975 "The Autobiography of a Princess." What a contrast to her Mary, who so unwittingly betrays her lowly origins in her earthier moments, for the father she insists was an officer of the regiment was apparently only a lackey who polished the officers' boots.

It is ironic too to realize that in the very year that this film takes place, audiences around the world were seeing a well-cast Merle Oberon as Empress Josephine to Marlon Brando's Napoleon in a now-largely forgotten film, "Desiree." To see "Cotton Mary" is to understand why Oberon strove her entire life to hide the fact that she was born in Bombay--not Tasmania, as she claimed--to a British father and a Ceylonese mother.

* MPAA rating: R, for a scene of sexuality. Times guidelines: adult themes and situations; some sex and nudity.

'Cotton Mary'

Madhur Jaffrey: Cotton Mary

Greta Scacchi: Lily MacIntosh

James Wilby: John MacIntosh

Sakina Jaffrey: Rosie

An Artistic License Films release of a Merchant Ivory Films presentation. Director Ismail Merchant. Producers Nayeem Hafizka, Richard Hawley. Executive producer Paul Bradley. Screenplay Alexandra Viets. Cinematographer Pierre Lhomme. Co-director Madhur Jaffrey. Editor John David Allen. Music Richard Robbins. Costumes Sheena Napier. Production designer Alison Riva. Art director Charmian Adams. Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes.

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