Column | How filmmaker Ismail Merchant tried to depict Anglo-Indians in 1950s Kerala

Ismail Merchant, A poster of the movie Cotton Mary. Image courtesy: Wikipedia, IMDb

From stately mansions that can comfortably accommodate four generations of a family to more modest single-storey homes that bear influences of international cultures, each old house in Fort Kochi has a story to tell. The fort is one of India’s great cultural melting pots and a traveller on leisurely stroll can easily spot pieces of different parts of the world when observing the architecture in the area. At one time the fort had a thriving community of people of mixed Indian and West Asian or European heritage - essentially Malayalis with part Indian and part Middle Eastern or Portuguese, Dutch or English ancestry.

Among these communities, it’s those with a Portuguese or English heritage that stood out over time. Malayalis with part Portuguese ancestry (and surnames) have for generations been a part of Kerala’s mainstream, so there is little mystery that surrounds them, but few of us really know much about those with English ancestry or ‘Anglo-Indians’ in the strictest sense of the term, since a large number of people from the community migrated to Britain and Australia.

A scene from the movie Cotton Mary. Photo: IMDb

The community was believed to have numbered around 300,000 in India at time of independence and Kochi, then called Cochin, was an important centre of Anglo-Indian culture. In 1999, the great Bombay-born filmmaker Ismail Merchant, best known for the films he made with James Ivory, directed a film about the Anglo-Indian community in 1950s Kerala titled Cotton Mary. The film is about a nurse who insinuates herself into an English household by taking care of a new born English child. Writer and actress Madhur Jaffrey played the ambitious and manipulative protagonist in the film.

“The idea and ambition of Cotton Mary is to become a memsahib, to change her identity,” Merchant said in an interview before the film’s release. “So it’s like a complete twist and turn, and that character is so rich and so complex and so interesting that it’s a director’s dream.”

Adapted to Kerala

In the film, one can clearly see the excellence that is a hallmark of any project undertaken by Merchant, and it is easy to believe that this is a Kerala story, but the writer Alexandra Anastasia Viets did not exactly have the state in mind when she wrote the script, which was her master’s thesis at Columbia University’s School of the Arts.

“My father was an American diplomat posted to India, Viets wrote in a 2000 article for the Wall Street Journal. “Growing up with servants amidst the bougainvillea-lined houses of the diplomatic enclave, my childhood was infused with the sense of being half one thing and half another. Home was an elusive notion, one I chased after, looking for it in books, in the familiarity of the paintings that filled our house, in the soft brown suitcase my mother stored underneath her bed.”

A professor at the prestigious university told Viets that the script would never be made into a film claiming the subject was “inaccessible.” The script would however go on to win a New York Foundation for the Arts award in 1993, enabling Viets to organise a troupe which did four readings. Jaffrey happened to be present at one of the readings and liked what she saw and heard.

“Madhur Jaffrey brought this subject to me…It is written by Alexandra Viets, a very good writer. This is her first screenplay,” Merchant said in the pre-release interview. They went through several drafts over a period of six years. “Madhur suggested I should go to Kerala… I’d been to Kerala before and I wanted to revisit it and see whether we could find the location and what the place was like… After seeing it, I felt this was the right place for the film, for the story.” Changes were made in the script to give the film a Kerala flavour. Merchant said that Kerala was “the most wonderful experience” for him.

There were several challenges in making the film, as Viets would describe in her writings. One of the biggest challenges was to find a new born European baby in Kerala at that time.

A scene from the movie Cotton Mary. Photo: IMDb

Anger among the Anglo-Indian community

Jaffrey was brilliant in the way she played the Anglo-Indian nurse, who so desperately wanted to cling on to her Englishness, but the film received an unexpected reception in India. This writer watched the film with great interest at Mumbai’s iconic Art Deco cinema hall Regal in 1999 and remembers the generally positive response from the cosmopolitan audience, but the country’s Anglo-Indian community did not appreciate the way it was depicted in the film.

The film was quickly withdrawn from cinema halls in Kerala.

“The film is a terrible caricature of our community and shows as if our girls are easily available and the men are lazy drunkards, Beatrix D'Souza, who was the Samata Party’s nominated Anglo-Indian MP for Tamil Nadu, told the Guardian in an interview around the time of the film’s release. “Cotton Mary is portrayed as a petty thief and her niece Rosie as a tart, flirting even inside a church. There have been earlier stereotype films showing us in a poor light but this one is really too much.” She even wanted the Censor Board to take another look at the film.

In response to the criticism, Merchant said the film talked about how the Anglo-Indian community “at a specific point in history - 1954 - had been brainwashed into believing, like many other Indians, that British was best.” He insisted that the film was not an attempt to demonise the community.

Unlike many Merchant-Ivory classics, Cotton Mary is hard to find online. While working on this article, the only version of the film that this writer could trace was a poorly dubbed print on a Russian social networking site. A little over two decades after watching the film for the first time, it’s easy to understand why members of the Anglo-Indian community were offended by it. For too long Hindi and even Malayalam films have depicted this community in a poor light. This is not to say that Merchant, Jaffrey or Viets deliberately meant to be offensive.

The film was brilliantly made and shows us “Anglo-Indian Kerala” of the 1950s in an elegant manner and deserves a place in the pantheon of Merchant’s classics. We, however, need Anglo-Indian filmmakers and writers to tell us their story from their point of view. One such attempt was Bhowani Junction, a novel that written by Anglo-Indian novelist and army officer John Masters. The movie adaptation, which was filmed in Lahore, Pakistan, in the mid-1950s, had a changed ending to make it more appealing for Western audiences! New films that show us a less stereotypical and more accurate depiction of the community would be a welcome addition to global cinema. Maybe someone from Kerala can take the lead.

(Ajay Kamalakaran is the author of ‘A Week in the Life of Svitlana’ and ‘Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island’)

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