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For Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, those kings of the art house with their beautifully burnished films of E.M. Forster and Henry James novels, it all began with The Householder (1963). That first feature film of Merchant Ivory Productions, modest in scope and intimate in scale, launched their string of English-language films made in India and aimed at the international market (it was simultaneously filmed in Hindi). It was to be eclipsed by more assured products of Indian origin, such as Shakespeare -Wallah (1965) and Heat and Dust (1983). But its gentleness casts a spell even as the timidity of its protagonist exasperates you.
In short, Merchant, who usually produced, and Ivory, who usually directed, soon were to surpass themselves, but that first film, and the story behind the making of it, put in place an approach that mostly stayed the same over the ensuing decades, even as their budgets grew and their projects became more ambitious, especially when they later focused on English and American sources. This is probably the place to mention the third member of what was often a triumvirate - Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, upon whose 1960 novel the film is based. When Merchant, whose charm and powers of persuasion were legendary, asked her to write the screenplay as well, she replied that she had never written one. That was alright, Merchant assured her, he had never produced a feature film and Ivory had never directed one.
In all, Jhabvala wrote the screenplays of 23 of Merchant-Ivory's 43 features, including the adaptations of Forster's A Room with a View (1985), Maurice (1987) and Howards End (1992) and James's The Europeans (1979), The Bostonians (1984) and The Golden Bowl (2000). She wrote the screenplay for The Householder in 10 days without going back and consulting her novel. In doing so, she became the third member of an enduring artistic triangle. "It is a strange marriage we have," Merchant famously said. "I am an Indian Muslim, Ruth is a German Jew and Jim is a Protestant American."
Yet it's precisely because Ivory and Jhabvala were observant, empathetic outsiders that much about India's differences and specificity registered with them. Unlike the fatuous Western hippies depicted in The Householder, who come to India for a spiritual fix and can't get past the nonsense in their heads, they were able to stay open and let the richness and nuance of India come to them. While it may be concluded that Ivory and Jhabvala provided the refinement and nuance that quicken film after film, there can be no doubt of Merchant's resourcefulness in making the films happen, starting with this one. When he learned that the Indian earnings of American film studios had to stay in India, he financed their fledgling effort by selling the film to Columbia for $100,000 of its blocked Indian assets.
Far from arcane or mystical, The Householder is one of the most practical and grounded of films, even if it takes Shashi Kapoor's poor teacher, Prem, the entire film to connect with its life lessons. Struggling to make his new marriage and his lowly job work in a Delhi whose postwar boom passes him by, he's buffeted by domestic and vocational problems in what amounts to a comedy of non-communication. Everybody has a lot to say, but nobody really talks to one another. They're too busy attitudinizing or power-tripping if they aren't on the receiving end, as Kapoor's hapless Prem usually is. He spends much of the film being steamrolled by bullies and wondering what he's doing wrong. In fact, Kapoor, an actor since childhood, from a theatrical family that included brothers Shammi Kapoor and Bollywood pioneer Raj Kapoor and a father whose traveling acting troupe (as well as that of Kapoor's English wife) provided the real-life basis for Shakespeare-Wallah, has to work to overcome his dark good looks and dignified bearing and convince us he's ineffectual.
His troubles begin with the gulf that exists between him and his new wife from an arranged marriage. "How can you like her when you don't even know her?" he asks himself. Leela Naidu's Indu, for her part, isn't too thrilled with him either. She's gorgeous (Naidu, whose mother was Irish and whose father was Indian, had recently won a Miss India contest), but a bit lazy and spoiled and bored. She lies around a lot, eats too many sweets (including at a tea party given by the principal of the private college Prem teaches at, which mortifies Prem), can't cook, and isn't at all devoted to housework - a problem partly solved by the fact that their poverty means that their small apartment in Delhi is sparsely furnished. When she tells him she's pregnant, his response is worry, not joy.
She's a bit too much of a modern woman for the eager-to-please Prem, whose conflicting loyalties threaten to pull him apart. (Not surprisingly, Naidu later became an icon of women's lib in India.) Things disintegrate when Prem's overbearing martyr of a mother arrives, intent on reconnecting the umbilical cord, commenting in great detail on her daughter-in-law's perceived shortcomings, and sighing a lot. She's a wonderful old dragon, and the veteran Durga Khote feasts on the histrionics that drive her daughter-in-law out of the house and back home. Prem's misery is compounded by the fact that he can't catch a break at work, either, between the bossy principal and his even bossier wife, who turn every request for a raise into an abstract philosophical discussion, abetted by a sycophantic old gasbag of a senior staff member. Prem fares no better when he asks his drunken card-playing landlord for a break on the rent, only to meekly endure the latter's whining about the high price of imported Scotch.
After feeling nothing but consternation when she was around, Prem finds he misses his wife. His accelerating, if muted, desperation is relieved only by the comic episodes involving a handful of caricatured hippie expatriates who rave on about spirituality and enlightenment, but exhibit little of either as they garden to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." The non-meeting of minds peaks during a non-conversation between Ernest Castaldo's drug-fueled hippie going on about cosmic energy while Prem fruitlessly tries to voice the idea that what postwar India needs is industrialization. The only one who makes any sense is a swami (Pahari Sanyal) who reminds Prem that a householder's calling is nobler than that of a hermit, an ascetic and a student because he supports them all. The question is whether Prem can bring himself to take charge of his life, get his wife back and deflect the suffocating ministrations of his mother.
Although some of the roles are caricatures, the film is advanced with a light hand, both in the writing, the directing and the photography. Ivory said Jean Renoir's The River (1951), influenced him greatly, and he brings to this film the receptivity and respect for India's otherness that the great humanist Renoir did. He also cites his admiration for and gratitude to that greatest of Indian filmmakers, Satyajit Ray, whom he found generously receptive and helpful. More than once, Ray steered his director of photography, Subrata Mitra, to the Merchant-Ivory camp, and Mitra's eye for place and tiny authenticities of detail contribute potently to the impact of The Householder. One shot, of two pigeons trapped in the tiny room, photographed against its barred windows, says it all, and then, in case you miss the point, it's followed with another shot of one pigeon looking bereft when the other has flown off.
Producer: Ismail Merchant
Director: James Ivory
Screenplay: R. Prawer Jhabvala
Cinematography: Subrata Mitra
Music: Ustad Ali Akbar Khan
Film Editing: Raja Ram Khetle
Cast: Shashi Kapoor (Prem Sagar), Leela Naidu (Indu), Durga Khote (The Mother), Achala Sachdev (Mrs. Saigal), Harin Chattopadayaya (Mr. Chadda), Pahari Sanyal (The Swami), Romesh Thapar (Mr. Khanna), Walter Woolf King (Professor (as Walter King)), Patsy Dance (Kitty), Indu Lele (Mrs. Khanna).
by Jay Carr
The Films of Merchant Ivory, by Robert Emmet Long, Abrams, 1997
James Ivory in Conversation, by Robert Emmet Long, University of California Press, 2005