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Filmmaker James Ivory was born and educated on the west coast of the United States (where he made his initial short non-fiction films) and began his filmmaking career in earnest in India, where he made his first four feature films with the collaborators who would remain with him throughout his career: producer Ismail Merchant and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Yet his filmmaking reputation today rests predominantly on his British films, and his first British production was a modest documentary made for BBC Television.
Adventures of a Brown Man in Search of Civilization (1972) is a 55-minute portrait of the celebrated Bengali scholar Nirad Chaudhuri. Author, intellectual, scholar and expert in numerous fields of study, Chaudhuri was a journalist and magazine writer, writing in both English and Bengali, when Britain ruled India, and became a controversial voice when he published his autobiography, The Autobiography of a Brown Man, in 1951. (The title of Ivory's documentary was taken from Chaudhuri's book.) He was an outspoken critic of both the British rule of the colonial era and of Indian rule since and remained controversial even as he gained respect and acceptance in India and abroad.
The BBC commissioned Merchant Ivory Productions to produce Adventures of a Brown Man in Search of Civilization in 1972, while Chaudhuri was researching a book on Sanskrit scholar Max Mller in Oxford and London. It was a fitting match of subject and filmmakers: a production partnership founded in India with an American director (Ivory), an Indian producer (Merchant) and a Polish-German writer (Jhabvala), all with cosmopolitan educations and experiences. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala knew the celebrated Indian scholar from her life in Delhi, where she was a frequent guest at his dinner parties, but Ivory, who had briefly met Chaudhuri in India, was barely acquainted with him when he embarked on the documentary. "I didn't know what I was getting into," Ivory joked to interviewer Robert Emmet Long in the book James Ivory in Conversation.
Chaudhuri, who was a sprightly 76 years old at the time the film was made, speaks for himself throughout the film. Ivory shoots Chaudhuri in conversation with students at Oxford, holding court at a London dinner party (wearing an 18th-Centry velvet frock coat, which simply made him stand out all the more), at a fitting for a fine British suit in Saville Row tailor shop and walking through Oxford. In each scene, the camera simply watches as he holds forth on a variety of topics, all of which he expounds upon with great authority and confidence. At a mere five feet, Chaudhuri is a diminutive figure, yet even walking down an Oxford street or strolling through a graveyard with some companion towering over him, he commands the attention of the viewer by virtue of his energy, his animated body language and an almost non-stop stream of observations and pontifications.
Ivory receives screenplay credit but his writing contribution is limited to the narration, which is spoken by Barry Foster. "I couldn't tell him what to say or prompt him; we just set the camera going and he'd perform, spinning all sorts of fantastical ideas." Oscar®-winning cinematographer Walter Lassally (Zorba the Greek, 1964) was Ivory's director of photography for the film. It was their first collaboration and the beginning of a creative partnership that lasted more than two decades.
According to Ivory, Adventures of a Brown Man in Search of Civilization premiered on the BBC on April Fool's Day, 1973, which he says made Chaudhuri cackle with laughter. "I can't think of a more delightful old man that we've ever put on the screen," Ivory remarked to Long. "But he is exhausting, too. You have to listen very carefully to get what he's saying." Ivory's only complaint about the production, in fact, is how difficult it is to understand Chaudhuri at times. It wasn't a matter of sound recording, he explained, but of Chaudhuri's accent, energy and rapid delivery. "It's a pity that in his hurry to speak on so many topics we sometimes miss what he's saying." He needn't have rushed. Chaudhuri lived to the ripe old age of 101 and continued to publish, teach and speak almost up to his death in 1999.
Producer: Ismail Merchant
Director: James Ivory
Screenplay: James Ivory
Cinematography: Walter Lassally
Film Editing: Kent McKinney
Cast: Nirad C. Chaudhuri (Himself), Barry Foster (Narrator).
by Sean Axmaker