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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 rule.
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.