Film Review #123: Cotton Mary
Director: Ismail Merchant
Cast: Madhur Jaffrey, Greta Scacchi, James Wilby
When his film Cotton Mary caused a furor in England’s Indian community upon its premiere there in 1999, Ismail Merchant mildly remarked that “all societies have their eccentrics.” In this way the Bombay native turned aside protests that the title character was so extreme as to slander the whole of post-colonial India and avoided engaging in arguments about political correctness.
There’s no denying that Mary, a scheming half-Anglo whirlwind of ambition (operatically played by Madhur Jaffrey, who also co-directed) – she begins as a hospital aide and imagines one day presiding over her own manor house in distant England – seems menacing right from the start rather than merely restless, and she later works herself into moments that splash over the border of psychotic. Characters both Indian and English alike regard her with alarm. But Cotton Mary, one of a handful of films that Merchant directed, is not such a departure from his other work. Usually he handled the producing end of the famous Merchant-Ivory team’s films. A fair number of these – Shakespeare Wallah (1965), Bombay Talkie (1970) and Heat and Dust (1983), for example – explored the enduring toxic effects of colonial displacement that in some ways crescendoed after India’s independence in 1947. We can rightfully see Cotton Mary as one allegory for that debilitating legacy.
This film is set in 1954 along the southwest coast of India’s Kerala state. Cotton Mary (nick-named because of her bumptious preference for expensive English cotton over home-spun) works as an aide in a small hospital. We meet her strolling to the small Anglican chapel on its shaded, already-shabby grounds with her niece Rosie (Jaffrey’s daughter Sakina, whose befriending of screenwriter Alexandra Viets was the conduit for this script landing in Merchant’s hands). Brittley judgmental, nosey and intrusive, Mary keeps up a constant stream of advice to the smoldering-eyed young woman, who is more interested in the rector’s flirtatious son than the sermon and interested not at all in exerting herself on the behalf of the English sick. Mary wears a locket with a faded scrap of photo of the mixed couple that bore her and upon this scrap she builds her dreams, even though the departing English soldier father has left this discarded branch of the family tree in a tenement-like Anglican poorhouse.
Out of her aunt’s sight for barely a moment, Rosie snags a job “doing translation” for John MacIntosh (James Wilby), a correspondent covering developments in India’s emerging and troubled young democracy for England’s BBC news service. Often on assignment, John is away when his wife Lily (Greta Scacchi) enters labor early with their second daughter, almost loses the baby and cannot feed her, nor – truth be told – does he much care when he does come home to the exceedingly comfortable home his wife’s plantation owner father has provided them, complete with life-long servants such as head butler Abraham (Prayag Raj, whose genteel correctness echoes Anthony Hopkins in The Remains of the Day). As an aside, Merchant’s portrait of John as one of the jarringly modern generation replacing the older colonialists is at least as unsparing as that of his Mary. An opportunist at every turn, John visits a remote farm strike and reassures the angry workers – “My father was a union man too. I will tell your story!” – as earnestly as he lies to Lily about his affections. After helping himself to Rosie’s bare breasts in one scene, he’s furious to learn an Indian has been suckling his own infant.
Into all this discontent strides Cotton Mary, making herself indispensable to Lily. Each day she secretly takes the tiny girl across the river to her wheelchair-bound sister Blossom, who works as a wet-nurse and lives with the female relatives in the alms house. Soon Mary moves in with the MacIntoshes, raiding the storeroom, bragging to her poor relations, systematically undermining Abraham until Lily fires the old man. What Mary mostly takes is English soap, and what she mostly insinuates about the loyal old retainer is that he’s “unclean” – Mary sickens Lily by claiming he prepares food with his “toilet hand” – so her attack resonates with visceral loathing well underneath more conscious generous sentiments.
Like George Orwell’s absorbing early novel Burmese Days (1934), also about late British rule, Cotton Mary lays bare the elaborate, vicious local competition first provoked and then ignored by colonial powers regarding local folk. Burmese Days is built upon the plot engineered by a local magistrate, U Po Kyin, to discredit the decent Dr. Veraswami within the small English community, simply because he believes the Indian to be somehow “in his way.” Veraswami’s friend, the timber seller Flory, quickly recognizes this attack for what it is, but could stop it only at great cost to his own standing among other ex-pats. “It is so important not to entangle oneself in ‘native’ quarrels. With Indians there must be no loyalty, no real friendship. Affection, even love – yes,” Flory reflects. “Even intimacy is allowable, at the right moments. But alliance, partisanship, never! Even to know the rights and wrongs of a ‘native’ quarrel is a loss of prestige.” Despite the film’s focus on Lily regaining her capacity to evict Cotton Mary, her real turning point begins as she and her older daughter Theresa agree to seek out Abraham and together search for him. In so doing, they discover a side of India neither has imagined. In an Italian film, we would know that Lily's daughter Theresa - no less than the little girl of comparable age whom Mary instructs in prayers and work habits in the final scene - stands for the future of her nation. It's a convention equally applicable here.
Meanwhile, Mary grows more extreme each day. She steals Lily’s clothing, strides unnervingly through city with the baby carriage, dressed as “the madam” herself, visits a hair salon for a Western bob. This transformation starts early at Lily’s hospital bedside when Mary kicks her own nurse’s shoes into a corner and steps into a pair Lily had discarded under the bed. Bursting repeatedly through this fantasy impersonation is Mary’s sudden, feverish rage – against her countrymen and the English in about equal measure – which leaves those in her wake aghast. If Merchant calls her “eccentric,” it’s only to coax us to watch.
This review appeared in the 9/13/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent films that didn’t open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.