Even though the most successful films made by the Merchant Ivory team (Room With a View, Howard’s End) are costume epics about English repression and hypocrisy, a large part of their prolific output has dealt with the British in India. Cotton Mary, directed by Ismail Merchant, epitomizes these films, where the allure of exotic India is contrasted sharply with the rigidity of British mores.
Anglo-Indian nurse Cotton Mary (Madhur Jaffrey) embodies the legacy of colonial rule. In a social structure where everything English is exalted and the beauty of India is celebrated, while Indians themselves are seen as infantile and "dirty," she exists in a self-loathing limbo. Her sense of alienation is exacerbated by Indian independence, where native culture is heralded and British customs (which represent the ideal of civilization for Mary) are scorned.
So when Lily MacIntosh (Greta Scacchi), one of the few Brits left in the coastal town of Kerala in 1954, arrives at the hospital where she works, Mary sees a rare opportunity to elevate herself. After a difficult delivery, Lily is unable to breastfeed her newborn daughter, and Mary takes charge, delivering the frail child to a wet nurse, her wheelchair-using sister, Blossom (Neena Gupta).
Soon Mary has ingratiated herself into the MacIntosh household, where Lily’s feckless BBC reporter/husband (James Wilby) is frequently absent. Usurping the authority of their longtime housekeeper and eventually Lily herself, Mary is ruthless in her quest to transform their world into her vision of it.
There are hints of an interesting psychological thriller in Alexandra Viets’ screenplay, but the overwrought performance of Jaffrey (credited as co-director) as an obviously crazy Mary takes away any suspense or credibility. No one in their right mind would trust her with their child, and that’s part of Merchant’s point, to show how Lily is drifting through life willfully unaware. But it’s apparent from the get-go that Mary is driven by demons which her tenuous status certainly exacerbates, but ultimately didn’t cause.
Which makes Cotton Mary less about the destructive forces of colonialism than a tale of one woman’s inscrutable madness.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].