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'Cotton Mary'

Something about 'Mary': Ismail Merchant drama probes English-Indian relations

Friday, July 21, 2000

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Lily Macintosh (Greta Scacchi) often seems like an observer in her own life. She cedes so much responsibility to others that she drifts through, letting a longtime servant and then a newly hired nanny take care of things -- and people.

'Cotton Mary'

Rating: R for a scene of sexuality, bare breasts.

Starring: Madhur Jaffrey, Greta Scacchi

Director: Ismail Merchant

Critic's Call: 3 stars


In "Cotton Mary," an Ismail Merchant film opening today at the Harris, Lily is an Englishwoman living in South India in 1954 with her husband, John, a BBC correspondent who is absent for long periods, and their 7-year-old daughter, Theresa. Shortly after the film opens, Lily goes into labor and gives birth to a girl. Despite the best efforts of Lily and the hospital staff, she is unable to breast-feed the underweight child.

A solicitous nurse named Cotton Mary (Madhur Jaffrey) spirits the infant to her disabled sister, a wet nurse living in what is essentially a poorhouse. When Lily, who has no idea how her child is getting nourishment, asks what the baby ate, Mary replies, "Look here, madam. We have our ways."

A grateful Lily asks Mary to move in with the family. She's not only escaping her hospital job and crowded living conditions, but she's going to an English estate.

Mary is an Anglo-Indian, part English and part Indian. She takes great pride in telling anyone who will listen that her father was a British officer and how she looks like him. In reality, she little resembles the photo of the Englishman in her locket.

Once Mary settles into the Macintosh household, she makes herself even more indispensable. She connives to replace Abraham, "madam's right-hand man," even as she filches treats from the larder. Mary keeps promising her sister a visit from Lily and she also introduces her beautiful Anglo-Indian niece Rosie (Sakina Jaffrey) to the Macintoshes.

Mary's manipulations and her struggle to become more Anglo than Indian lead to dramatic and drastic consequences. By the end of "Cotton Mary," the English and Indian households become cauldrons for questions about identity and loyalty and truth and responsibility.

"Cotton Mary" may be directed by Merchant, but it doesn't come from the same team (director James Ivory, producer Merchant, screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala) that collaborated on "Howards End" or "A Room With a View." This was written by Alexandra Viets, the daughter of a foreign service officer who spent eight years of her early life in India, and it is her first feature-length screenplay.

She assumes that moviegoers bring some level of knowledge about India and Anglo-Indians to the theater. Viets wrote a brief backgrounder that's included with the press materials, and a much condensed on-screen summary would have been helpful. Events -- a religious festival known as Diwali or Divali, and a shooting that attracts John's attention -- are not put into a larger context.

That's not to take anything away from Madhur Jaffrey's performance in the title role. She portrays a woman who can be gentle and yet scheming, striving and always jockeying for a place in society. You feel for her when Lily's English guests make insulting comments about Anglo-Indians, and you feel for Abraham when Mary plots against him. And since this is 1954, you feel for Lily when she's patronized by men, although you wait and wait for her to show some gumption.

The lingering effects of colonialism, the new world of independence and the no-man's-land of Indians who talk of going home to England make for a broad canvas. And populating that canvas are the faces of "Cotton Mary": detached, duplicitous, deeply loyal, entrenched in the past and bordering on madness.

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