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In addition to being the producer of the films directed by James Ivory and often written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Ismail Merchant was an accomplished cook. One is reminded of this during the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala Autobiography of a Princess (1975), where he makes the most of a meager handful of ingredients. It is in several respects the most minimalist of their collaborations, and not just in its 58-minute running time. Physically, it is simple, unfolding entirely in the London flat of Madhur Jaffrey's expatriate Indian princess as she receives longtime English family connection James Mason, and tries to divert him from his longtime project of a book about an English colonial official who made it his life's work to record and preserve the songs and stories of Indian villages.
She would have him write a biography of her late father instead, whose life of wealth and privilege came to an abrupt end just before Indira Gandhi's government could depose him with the rest of India's princes. He lost his throne after Fleet Street scandal sheets reported his tryst with an Englishwoman of questionable character in a room at the Savoy Hotel. In contrast to that sordid episode, Jaffrey's is an elegant seduction, conducted with the utmost delicacy over tea, interspersed with old film footage of her father and other high-born Indians like him. After carefully arranging the folds in her lime-sherbet-colored sari and crooning verbal aria after verbal aria about the good old days, she isn't above guilt-tripping Cyril Sahib, as the Englishman was known in India, by telling him he hurt her father deeply when he left after years of soft employment as tutor, and then private secretary to the turbaned, mustachioed potentate in his scarlet tunic, whose full-length portrait in oils dominates his daughter's foyer.
Made for TV, Autobiography of a Princess partly consists of footage Merchant assembled earlier for an unrealized documentary in which he interviewed real deposed Indian nobles. One feels that, good chef de cuisine that he was, Merchant hated waste and simply worked this project around his prior footage and made the resulting film's theme fit it. What makes it work dramatically is the exquisitely polite yet unmistakable clash of wills between the princess, living in reduced circumstances with no servants, and the retired teacher, who is cool to the idea of preserving and perpetuating the life and memory of a man Mason makes clear in a wonderful series of hesitations and facial gestures might well be best consigned to the past, and oblivion. John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson were approached to play the role before Mason, but it's hard to imagine it done with greater degrees of subtlety as Mason, never raising voice above mildness, makes us feel the presence of the unspoken intangibles stiffening the back of the old man.
Part of his resistance might also be a sort of belated self-assertion. When pressed by the princess about why he left the opulent bosom of their palace when he was treated so well there, Cyril Sahib tries to explain that his will, drive and ambition to turn himself into a writer were corroded by the kindness and subsequent inertia in which he found himself immersed, that he had become, in fact, an unwitting victim of luxury. All this emerges to a visual counterpoint of film clips of playboy princes, lots of pomp and lavish ceremonies and entertainments, and lost souls talking to the camera as if not yet fully having assimilated the fact that the lives their families had enjoyed for generations had come to a sudden halt, leaving them on the wrong side of history.Nothing breaks the decorum as the ever so polite clash of wills unfolds to a counterpoint of teacups tinkling against saucers, yet Jaffrey is at her best when she allows flashes of imperial high-handedness and impatience to escape from behind her composure. Mason's Cyril Sahib, meanwhile, makes ever clearer, by almost imperceptible degrees, that he doesn't share her view of her family's vanished lifestyle as the good old days, especially when she waxes nostalgic over the cruel hunts known as pig-sticking, or her blithe dismissal of the lives of servants and retainers when they would be hurt or injured or simply grow too old to serve further.
She recalls, too, her father's penchant for practical jokes and other pastimes, such as hunts during which servants - to say nothing of tigers and elephants -- were injured. She justifies his casual disregard for human life by making the point that he always paid off those whom he injured. Footage of goats and a bull being beheaded for a ceremony honoring Kali, the goddess of destruction, precede footage of a retired court singer, an old woman consigned to a hovel behind the kitchen, singing and looking pleased, her perspective perhaps explained by the princess quoting her father as observing that most old unemployed singers die of pox in the bazaar.The princess perhaps is not the best person to make the case against the extinction of the Indian and then the British Raj. It's a little much when she rapturously invokes the old Indian custom of suttee with the memory of a relative who, from sheer love, insisted on being burned with her husband on his funeral pyre. And yet Jaffrey's princess - whose father insisted on giving her a Western education - is a modern woman, and a realist. And she sounds very British when she says one learns to manage. As she sees him off and gives him food to carry away for his train trip home, you feel there'll be further talk about the project she's determined to make happen. Jaffrey quite remarkably conveys a woman of strong character whose slide down the social ladder is not about to undo her or her conviction that what's left of royal India should be preserved, even though the old tutor, from his present vantage point, sees the one-time Indian royals as children in a playground, blind to the widespread suffering and misery outside their luxurious existences.
Autobiography of a Princess seems a bridge work. For Jhabvala (then billed simply as R. Jhabvala - her full first name wasn't used until later), it's a transitional passage between her major films set in India - Shakespeare-Wallah (1965) and Heat and Dust (1983). For Merchant and Ivory, still at that point trying to create a niche for themselves in Hollywood, it came between The Wild Party (1975) and Roseland (1977). Not until The Europeans (1979), did they begin the series of literary adaptations of Henry James and E.M. Forester for which they became best known. Autobiography of a Princess, with its dutifully appended closing-credit thanks to the deposed potentates of Jodhpur, Jaipur and Bikaner (all in what is now the largest state in India, Rajasthan) is an altogether lesser, slighter effort. Still, Jaffrey and Mason are superb, and one needn't be a Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala completist to find it worth a look.
Producer: Ismail Merchant
Director: James Ivory
Screenplay: R. Prawer Jhabvala
Cinematography: Walter Lassally
Music: Vic Flick
Film Editing: Humphrey Dixon
Cast: James Mason (Cyril Sahib), Madhur Jaffrey (The Princess), Keith Varnier (Delivery Man), Diane Fletcher (Blackmailer), Timothy Bateson (Blackmailer), Johnny Stuart (Blackmailer), Nazrul Rahman (Papa).
by Jay Carr