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Ismail Merchant, who was born in India, has placed a number of his films there.
Frequently working with his partner James Ivory, their filmography includes Bombay
Talkie, The Courtesans of Bombay, Shakespeare Wallah, and Heat
and Dust. The subjects of colonial societies, caste systems, and expatriates are
repeatly of interest to them, in the Indian context and elsewhere.
Cotton Mary takes place in the early 1950s, not long after
India won its independence from nearly a century (1858-1947) of rule by the British crown.
Lily Macintosh (Greta Scacchi) gives birth to a daughter while her journalist-husband
(James Wilby) is away on assignment. When Lily is unable to breast feed her sickly infant,
a nurse at the hospital, Cotton Mary (Madhur Jaffrey) takes the child to her sister, a
wheelchair-bound wet nurse living in an alms house.
Before long Mary has insinuated herself into the Macintosh household,
and, through lies and manipulative ploys, manages to displace the old family retainer, and
put herself in charge.
In a series of incidents laden with carefully depicted detail, Merchant
portrays the mores of domestic life in the aftermath of a colonial society, the hierarchy
of domestics, the ingrained attitudes of racism and classism in all the participants.
Cotton Mary is herself an Anglo-Indian, of mixed blood. She considers herself to be
superior to full-blooded Indians and she (unrealistically) aspires to acceptance amongst
the whites - though in one scene she bitterly acknowledges herself as black.
While Merchant tells his tale in terms of these specific individuals on
a very personal level, he surely intends the whole to be a metaphor for the fallout of
colonial domination, both for the rulers and for the ruled. Lily is passive, indecisive,
easily led, seemingly unable to assume initiative in running her family. Her marriage is
dysfunctional, her husband not only insensitive and unresponsive, but unfaithful with a
beautiful Indian girl who was a nursing colleague of Cotton Mary's. The British, once in
charge, don't control things any more. Lily can't feed her child, can't hold her husband.
And he is only too happy to use the locals for his pleasure or professional purpose.
But Cotton Mary is at the center of things and represents the stressed
combination of two very different cultures and the confusion of uprooted positions of
master and mastered. She takes to wearing Lily's clothes and even going to a beauty parlor
where Indian girls manicure vapid English ladies. For all her pretentions, when left alone
in the kitchen, she puts aside the fork and eats dinner with her fingers. That her schemes
are doomed to failure comes as no surprise. This is a tale of melancholy endings, of an
era coming to a whimpering close, the tattered finale of the historical error of colonial
Had Merchant been able to take this material and express it in terms of
sympathetic characters, Cotton Mary would have been a memorable film. But he
gives us not one person with whom to identify, not one for whom we can care. Aside from
her schematic place in the metaphor, there is no explanation or motivation established for
why beautiful and priviliged Lily is so ineffective, so irresolute. Her husband, John, is
the stock neglectful husband; since little or nothing is told of their history, the
current disarray of their marriage evokes little sympathy.
Cotton Mary herself, on screen almost constantly for the length of
the film, is an obsequious, scheming, condescending, ambitious, callous, insincere,
officious snob and thief. Two hours in her company is too much to ask.
- Arthur Lazere