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Based on a novel by the English crime fiction author H. R. F. Keating, The Perfect Murder (1988) is an offbeat and unexpected effort for the prolific Merchant Ivory team. Although it was executive produced by Ismail Merchant, his regular collaborators director James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala were not involved in this project. Instead, the film was entrusted to Zafar Hai, a documentary filmmaker who had not directed a feature film before, and he also adapted the screenplay from Keating's 1964 novel. The title is a bit deceptive because, while The Perfect Murder is a crime thriller of sorts, there is no murder, very little violence, and the tone of the film is light, often comical and satiric and occasionally more revealing about the exotic, bustling street life of Bombay (the city changed its name officially to Mumbai in 1995) than the various plot threads involving jewel thieves and a diamond-smuggling ring.
The movie opens with an attack on a Mr. Perfect (hence the title), the personal assistant of the wealthy developer (and black market profiteer) Lala Heera Lal (Amjad Khan), who suffers a head injury and spends the rest of the movie recovering. Inspector Ghote (Naseeruddin Shah) is called in to investigate the incident and determine the crime, motive and assailant but finds that only Lala's family and servants had access to the homeowner's impenetrable, burglar proof mansion, which makes all of them suspects. Adding to Ghote's frustrations are two other cases he can't seem to crack: one involving diamond smugglers and one involving a missing ring given to the Minister of Justice by a Bollywood film star. Further distractions from his work are his nagging wife who demands a color TV and a visiting criminologist from Sweden (Stellan Skarsgard) who Ghote is assigned to escort around the city.
Merchant had wanted to make a film version of The Perfect Murder ever since he read the novel and he was able to buy the rights for a mere $500,000. Eventually the film was produced by Merchant's brother-in-law Wahid Chowhan and a few of the longtime Merchant Ivory crew members were hired for the key positions of cinematographer (Walter Lassally) and composer (Richard Robbins). Unlike many of the other Merchant Ivory films, however, the cast of The Perfect Murder was predominantly made up of Indian actors, some well known internationally such as Madhur Jaffrey (in a scene stealing performance as Lal's wife), and some who are more famous in India such as Archana Puran Singh as the beautiful Bollywood star, Miss Twinkle. The film is also notable for an early appearance by Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard, who was already an established star in his own country but would soon achieve much wider exposure in films like The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), The Hunt for Red October (1990) and Insomnia (1997). Skarsgard makes the most of his role in The Perfect Murder, alternating between gentle charm and an awkward clumsiness which seems appropriate for this naive visitor from another culture.
According to Robert Emmett Long in The Films of Merchant Ivory, "In the late 1980s, Merchant became interested in organizing an independent film unit in Bombay that would provide an opportunity for local film people to make modestly budgeted films for distribution in the West." The Perfect Murder was the first in a projected series of films and the first of the Inspector Ghote novel-to-film adaptations in English. Unfortunately, the movie was not a success which put an end to Merchant's original plan. In fact, The Perfect Murder is easily one of the most obscure and little known of the Merchant Ivory productions and had very limited distribution in the U.S. during its theatrical run.
American critics weren't particularly receptive either with Janet Maslin of The New York Times writing, "Flaming pastels, singsong delivery, facetiously broad acting and jangling musical numbers are among the things that have long made Indian popular cinema an acquired taste for Western audiences. But The Perfect Murder...is a bustling and touristy, if somewhat overeager, attempt to bridge the gulf....The direction by Zafar Hai, who wrote the screenplay with Mr. Keating, is consistently genial, if mild. And it's clear from the ''Vertigo'' and ''Spellbound'' posters on view in one scene that Mr. Hai's heart is in the right place. But The Perfect Murder is as plagued by overacting as Bombay is by overcrowding, and the film's cultural roots are more than a little confused." Mark Sanderson of the British-based TimeOut noted, "A mixture of cack-handed slapstick and schmaltz, it seems primarily a tribute to Carry On Up the Khyber . An Indian throwaway."
While The Perfect Murder may be a minor effort in the Merchant Ivory filmography, it is still worth seeking out as an example of the filmmaking team's more adventurous gambles and, if nothing else, is always intoxicatingly beautiful on a visual level. The opening credits are stunning and there are key sequences, such as a chase through a Bollywood poster factory and into the teeming streets of Bombay, that reveal Hai's skill at capturing the spirit and vitality of this legendary city.
Producer: Wahid Chowhan
Director: Zafar Hai
Screenplay: H.R.F. Keating (screenplay and novel); Zafar Hai (screenplay)
Cinematography: Walter Lassally
Art Direction: Ram Yedekar
Music: Richard Robbins
Film Editing: Charles Rees
Cast: Naseeruddin Shah (Inspector Ghote), Stellan Skarsgrd (Axel Svensson), Amjad Khan (Lala Heera Lal), Madhur Jaffrey (Mrs. Lal), Annu Kapoor (Tiny Man), Archana Puran Singh (Miss Twinkle), Dalip Tahil (Dilip Lal), Dinshaw Daji (Mr. Perfect), Johnny Walker (Jain), Mohan Agashe (A.C.P. Samant).
by Jeff Stafford
The Films of Merchant Ivory by Robert Emmet Long