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The Householder

The Householder(1963)

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The first Merchant Ivory production, The Householder (1963), is an endearing oddity: a low budget independent English-language film made in India by an American director (James Ivory), an Indian-born producer (Ismail Merchant), and a German-born writer (Ruth Prawer Jhabvala). A dryly humorous, finely detailed study of innocents negotiating a world of rigid social hierarchies, it anticipates the basic thrust of future Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala collaborations - though without the plush costume trappings of so many of their later films.

The story concerns a young Delhi couple, Prem (Shashi Kapoor) and Indu (Leela Naidu), who take a trip to the outskirts of town to attend a wedding ceremony. Hoping to comfort the anxious groom, Prem relates his own difficulties adjusting to an arranged marriage and to his new responsibilities as husband and breadwinner. The bulk of the film is told in flashback, during which we see the couple's relationship develop over time. Based on the way he treats his wife at first, Prem has clearly been spoiled by his mother's attentions. He is also ill-prepared for his new job as a teacher: not only does he have trouble maintaining control over the classroom, but when it comes to matters like asking for a raise he is completely at the mercy of the pompous headmaster. Left alone at home and bored, Indu is inclined to spend the day reflecting wistfully on her idyllic childhood in the country. Gradually the two grow to like each other, but matters are complicated when Indu becomes pregnant and Prem telegrams his mother (Durga Khote) to stay with them. Prem also befriends Ernest, an American with an idealized enthusiasm for Hindu spirituality. He begins to visit a guru himself, toying with the idea of giving everything up and devoting his life to religious contemplation.

Ivory, who was deeply impressed with Satyajit Ray's masterpiece Pather Panchali (1955), had befriended Ray and convinced his cinematographer Subrata Mitra to work on the film. (Ray himself recut the episodic story into its present flashback structure.) Mitra invests the realistically detailed, even drab settings with a poetic quality; the scenes inside the couple's house, especially those staged around the partitioning curtain and the mirror in the main room, are visually memorable. This is no doubt due at least as much to Mitra's expert eye as to Ivory's direction. Another highlight of the film is the hilarious tea party at the headmaster's house, in which social embarrassment is the rule of the day.

The Householder is not without flaws; at times the dialogue is overly literary, especially during some of the exchanges between Prem and Ernest. There are also occasional moments of awkwardness in the acting that betray the hand of a first-time director, but the performances are for the most part affecting. The three leads are particularly good: the handsome Shashi Kapoor is the youngest brother of famed actor-director Raj Kapoor and subsquently became a popular actor in his own right in Indian cinema, working with directors such as Yash Chopra and Shyam Benegal. He is completely believable as the inexperienced husband and teacher. The French-Indian actress Leela Naidu is a legendary beauty in India, a former Miss India who also worked for a time as a model. It's a shame that she has appeared in so few films, because her expressive eyes make her a natural for the screen. As the film progresses we develop a great deal of sympathy for her, even though she has much less dialogue than Kapoor. Durga Khote, a seasoned actress who appeared in major Indian productions such as the period spectacle Mughal-E-Azam (1960), is priceless as the manipulative mother.

The print is in fairly good condition for an Indian film of the era. The elements appear to be better preserved, for instance, than Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy. The high-definition transfer brings out the most in the film's black and white cinematography; one wishes that most DVDs of older mainstream Indian cinema (say, Raj Kapoor or Guru Dutt films) looked anywhere near this good. The rather distorted mono sound is another matter - it's occasionally difficult to make out some of the dialogue unless you're very used to hearing Indian English. However, this probably has nothing to do with how the film was mastered for DVD and everything to do with the budget and technical constraints under which the film was originally made.

While the DVD lacks an audio commentary track, its other special features are very much worthwhile. Conversation with the Filmmakers is an entertaining interview with Ismail Merchant, James Ivory, and the actor Saeed Jaffrey, who first introduced the producer-director team to each other; watching it, one really gets a feel for the complicated chemistry behind independent filmmaking's longest running collaboration. The Sword and the Flute (1959), an early documentary by James Ivory about Indian miniature painting, deftly interweaves historical anecdote, Hindu religious themes, and Indian classical music with visual details from miniatures; it still works well today as an introduction to India's culture and history through its art. The Creation of Woman (1960), Ismail Merchant's first production, is an Academy Award®-nominated dance film drawing upon Hindu mythology. Made on a shoestring budget, the film features some remarkable dancing, especially by Bhaskar Roy Chaudhuri as the divinity. The Janus Films logo at the beginning of the short reminds us of how much film distribution has changed in the last forty years. Today I can hardly imagine someone like Ismail Merchant, a young producer with more enthusiasm than money, convincing an L.A. theater owner to book a film like this at the drop of a hat, much less finding regular distribution for it. My one criticism of the DVD in terms of extras is that it should have included at least a brief excerpt of the alternate Hindi-language version of The Householder, which was shot simultaneously.

The Householder will appeal mainly to a select audience, but it comes recommended nonetheless. It is a testament to the film's rough-hewn charm that when I decided to revisit a few scenes before writing this review, I found myself watching the entire film again from the beginning.

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by James Steffen