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The intelligent 1978 Merchant Ivory production Hullabaloo Over Georgie and Bonnie's Pictures (1978) deals with the clash of cultures and different attitudes towards the possession of art that play out over the pursuit of a valuable picture collection in the palace of a young maharajah. The story begins when determined American art collector Clark Haven (Larry Pine) travels to India with hopes of convincing the Maharajah of Tasveer (Victor Banerjee) to sell him a set of rare miniature Indian paintings. Unfortunately for him, someone else is also hot on the trail of the paintings: the persistent curator of a London museum, Lady Gee (Dame Peggy Ashcroft). While Clark wants the paintings for his own gain, Lady Gee is desperate to preserve the works for future generations. In the meantime, the maharajah pursues a romance with Lady Gee's lovely traveling companion Lynn (Jane Booker), while Clark cozies up to the maharajah's restless sister (Aparna Sen) who would like to sell the art collection and escape to a more fulfilling life.
Hullabaloo was a project commissioned by The South Bank Show a new arts program for London Weekend Television through its host, broadcaster Melvyn Bragg. The Merchant Ivory team was given free reign with the subject matter provided that the story be relevant to the arts. "We tossed various ideas around," said producer Ismail Merchant in his 2002 memoir My Passage from India, "and finally settled on the subject of collecting Indian miniature paintings, something that [director James Ivory] had been doing for twenty years since his interest had been aroused while he was making The Sword and the Flute (1959). Jim's interest in the subject had aroused mine. I knew little about Indian miniature painting until we made The Householder (1963), when Jim would spend all his free time visiting dealers, and I tagged along. We would go into tiny shops where shady dealers--or perhaps they just looked shady--sat behind shuttered windows. They would bring out musty-smelling bundles, cloth bags tied with string that they would carefully unwrap to reveal miniature treasures. Gradually I got hooked and began collecting in a modest way. Jim has a scholarly knowledge of these paintings. I don't: I go by instinct--if something speaks to me, I buy it."
Writer and frequent Merchant Ivory collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala built on this initial premise and fleshed out the details of the story involving the young maharajah, his sister and the convergence of guests at the palace all looking to get their hands on the coveted art collection.
Merchant and Ivory approached distinguished British actress Peggy Ashcroft about playing the memorable role of Lady Gee and were thrilled when she accepted. The 70-year-old Ashcroft was known primarily for her work on the stage, and it was rare for her to accept a film or television role.
The cast and crew traveled on location to India where they shot on a limited budget in the city of Jodhpur. While there, the production team was able to utilize many visually stunning local sites in the filming including the Umaid Bhawan Palace, which served as the royal home of Georgie and Bonnie. It was also where the cast and crew lived for the duration of the shoot hosted by the current maharaja of Jodhpur, Gaj Singh II, known as "Bapji" to his friends. "Bapji was enormously hospitable and helpful to us--and behaved with the utmost courtesy when we almost burned his palace down during filming," recalled Ismail Merchant in his memoir. For a scene in which a small fire was called for, said Merchant, "we prepared bundles of rags soaked in kerosene, enough bundles for several takes if necessary. This was an interior scene, so we took the precaution of having a few fire extinguishers at hand, not so much because we expected to set the palace alight, but because we needed to put out the fire after shooting the scene."
"Unfortunately," Merchant continued, "on the first take the flames spread from one kerosene-soaked bundle to the next, and before we even had a chance to react, the fire took hold. The flames leaped out of the window, and the exterior shot looks as though the whole palace was on fire. Everyone in the unit was shocked: We had come to shoot a film at this historic site and were about to leave it a pile of ashes. Some fast-thinking assistants on the crew grabbed the extinguishers and eventually managed to put the fire out, but not before the room suffered quite a lot of damage. [James Ivory] felt we had behaved badly, and he saw no difference between us and the characters in the film who were intent on raiding the palace of its treasures no matter what the cost. Bapji, on the other hand, regarded this as nothing more than an unfortunate accident and, generously, dismissed the incident."
Hullabaloo Over Georgie and Bonnie's Pictures was a challenging but positive experience for all involved. James Ivory and Peggy Ashcroft in particular were able to take away lessons that served them well throughout the rest of their careers. "I learned something from Peggy Ashcroft," said Ivory as quoted in the 1988 Michael Billington book Peggy Ashcroft, "and that is to go with first instincts. She brought so much to the role and thought it out so thoroughly that if I asked her to do something another way it was never quite as good." Ashcroft, for her part, was also grateful to James Ivory. "I'd never played a leading role in a film before and he taught me how to use the soft pedal," she said, "how to bring the performance down for the camera. That was very useful to me."
Hullabaloo aired in two parts over the course of two weeks on Britain's The South Bank Show in July 1978. It was subsequently released in London theaters as a feature film where it was warmly received by audiences and critics.
Producer: Ismail Merchant
Director: James Ivory
Screenplay: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (story)
Cinematography: Walter Lassally
Music: Vic Flick
Film Editing: Melvyn Bragg, Humphrey Dixon
Cast: Peggy Ashcroft (Lady Gee), Larry Pine (Clark Haven), Saeed Jaffrey (Sri Narain), Victor Banerjee (Georgie), Aparna Sen (Bonnie), Jane Booker (Lynn), Shamsuddin (Deaf Mute), Jenny Beavan (Governess), Aladdin Langa (Servant).
by Andrea Passafiume